Butter Ball
The Montgomery plant added a Fomaco tumbler in line with a Fomaco double-headed injector, which resulted in a 3 to 5 percent improvement in yields. 

Bacon’s away!

Production of turkey bacon is ramping up at the Montgomery facility, and there’s been a lot of learning and passion around ensuring the success of Butterball turkey bacon, says Kemi Ogundipe, a research and development manager at Butterball.

“There was a whole team involved with making sure we had the right equipment — making sure that whatever our current supplier was doing for us, we could mimic that or try to see if there were improvements we could do to make sure we are coming up with the best process for the facility and making sure we’re putting out No. 1-quality product for our customers,” she says.

An area of the former Gusto plant was designed specifically for turkey bacon production. When Butterball moved in, the area was upgraded and included new dumpers, mixers and new hoppers for stuffing, Ogundipe notes.

Butterball turkey bacon is fully cooked. The bacon is pressed into slabs and sent to a smokehouse for flavoring with liquid smoke before it is processed and packed for retail and club stores. A decision was made to begin producing 6-oz. packages of regular turkey from the start. As production ramps up, low-sodium smoked turkey bacon will be added to the mix with larger package sizes of the low-sodium turkey bacon to follow.

“There were a lot of things we went in assuming from a lot of information that we got from our equipment suppliers,” Ogundipe recalls, “and then coming in and actually trying to run based off of their recommendations didn’t necessarily equal out to what we thought it may be, so there was a learning curve trying to adapt to the equipment that was provided to us and trying to understand: OK, the formulation we have may not necessarily work with this equipment. What ways can we look at this differently to see how we can process this and make it successful?”

Hands on ham

The biggest innovation in the last year for Butterball was the launch of a branded ham line. The company’s line of hams – Honey Ham, Black Forest Ham and Virginia Baked Ham – debuted in May at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago. Seaboard, JBS Pork and a few other suppliers produce the raw materials for the hams. Alissa Gardner, a research and development manager who supports innovation at Butterball, was involved in the development of the ham line. She says the R&D team had done a test market about a year ago, and came away with very interesting feedback that led the team to completely revamp the line and deploy a national launch.

“One of the biggest learnings that we’ve had was what we perceived that customers wanted versus what customers [said] they wanted,” Gardner explains. “That drove us to completely change our focus, especially on the appearance of the hams. We had a very premium product that tasted good, but we definitely turned our focus away from what we traditionally thought of as the color for the smoke flavor that consumers wanted.

“Consumers spoke to us and said, ‘Hey, we want it to look a certain way,’ and we made it look that certain way,” she adds.

To meet consumer demand for a certain “look” for the hams, the team worked closely with netting suppliers and ingredient suppliers to implement new technologies that previously were not in use at Butterball.

This led to Butterball becoming the first food company in the United States to bring to market netting that is baked. “Traditionally, without having smoke flavor it is very hard to get a nice dark color on a ham,” Gardner explains. “So there is netting that our supplier came to us with and said ‘we’re developing this; would you test it out?’

“It’s an all-natural coating that gives us a nice dark appearance without giving us smoke flavor,” she adds. “You get an all-natural coloring which hasn’t been available on the market until now in this application.”
Butterball estimates about 24 million lbs. of turkey bacon products will be made in-house this year. 

Expected output

The Montgomery facility has an annual processing capacity of 200 million to 220 million lbs. depending on product mix, Bliss says, and at some point Butterball wants to reach that capacity. A preliminary look at 2017 puts total production between 160 and 170 million lbs. to include roughly 40 million lbs. of turkey products brought in from other Butterball co-packers and processing locations and about 24 million lbs. of turkey bacon products to be brought in-house this year. Bliss estimates that Butterball will save $8 million to $10 million a year in manufacturing and distribution costs.

“Montgomery presented an opportunity for us to grow our value-added business, which is something that we’ve been working on daily,” Bliss says. “So, as a company, we’re less subject to changes in the commodity markets. One of our key initiatives for the Montgomery plant is to develop more branded products and less private label, less commodity-type products.”

First and foremost, Bliss says, Butterball wants more branded products manufactured at the Montgomery plant. For now, it’s turkey products, turkey bacon and boneless hams; pork bacon isn’t on the innovation team’s radar, Gardner says. But players in the bacon space shouldn’t rule out the possibility of a Butterball-branded bacon product coming to a grocery store or foodservice application in the future.

In the meantime, Butterball already has started to innovate in bone-in ham products. “Pork is a business we’re in now; we’re not planning any time soon on getting out of the pork bone-in business,” Bliss says.

“It’s an exciting time for us at Butterball as a company, but also here at the Montgomery plant,” he says. “We’re starting to see more and more branded products come in house.”