Shane Acosta, complex general manager at Cargill's Springdale Arkansas, turkey facility, has been with Cargill for 23 years.

A number of poultry processing plants make their home in Springdale, Arkansas; Cargill is one of the biggest. Ralston Purina built the facility in 1965 and Cargill acquired it in 1976, establishing the Wichita, Kansas-based company’s roots in Springdale, and its foray into the turkey business. Once a cook facility, the operation now does most everything except cook.

The Springdale facility incorporates many manual processes due to the diverse size and types of birds that go through the line, but automation is making its way into the turkey-processing operation. Cargill’s leadership team in Springdale knows this and is ready, with approved blueprints in hand and technology-rich equipment on hold, waiting for just the right combination of market conditions, demand and corporate approval to make the plans reality. Meanwhile, efficiencies, food safety, worker safety and engagement and product quality take center stage at the 360,000-sq.-ft., two-shift facility that employs 1,100 and produces approximately 300 million lbs. of finished products per year.

Full integration

With a hatchery in Gentry, Arkansas, breeder farms in Gentry and Ozark, Arkansas, and feed mills in Springdale, Arkansas, and Butterfield, Missouri, the turkey facility benefits from an integrated operation. From the feed mill in Springdale, Cargill’s live operation team checks on birds and builds relationships with its growers. Likewise, a live operation in Monett, Missouri, services the turkey farms from that area. “We handle the breeding stock, then we take the eggs, we hatch our own eggs and we take our poults and deliver them to all our growers, our independent family farmers,” says Shane Acosta, complex general manager for Cargill’s Springdale turkey facility.

Company-wide, Cargill works with over 700 growers and roughly 150 independent growers feed the Springdale facility with hens and big toms. Springdale processes its big toms during the day (first) shift. Big toms weigh in at 42 lbs. to 45 lbs. live and the second shift sees the commercial hens at 14.5 lbs. to 16 lbs. A third shift at the plant is for third-party sanitation.

“We process approximately 50,000 birds a day,” Acosta says. “We do 19,000 big toms per day and we’ll do right at 30,000 to 31,000 hens on a normal basis. The hens are strictly for our whole bird/bone in breast (BIB) operation.”

The Springdale plant utilizes big toms for further processing after deboning. Further processing includes Cargill’s assortment of retail case-ready products such as ground turkey, sausages, chops, patties, tray pack parts and more. Thigh and breast meat also get segregated into 2,000-lb. totes for cooking at sister facilities. “We also have outside customers we sell bulk meats to for further processing and cooking.

“I like to tell folks, as far as this location goes we pretty much do anything and everything turkey that you find in the retail package,” Acosta says. “The only thing we don’t do here is cook. Everything is case-ready, tray-packed and bulk parts.”

In the shift change between big toms and hens, equipment gets adjusted to compensate for the size differences in birds. The heights and widths of machines are adjusted, but no equipment changes are made, making the process as seamless as possible. “It’s a small window; it’s 10 to 15 minutes. Sometimes we’ll walk on, walk off and leave a small gap and we just need a five- or 10-minute window to make all the adjustments,” Acosta says.

True test-and-hold

In 2011, the Springdale turkey plant recalled over 36 million lbs. of ground turkey due to an outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg. Since then, the plant has extensively revamped its food safety practices, including adding a test-and-hold process for ground products. “To our knowledge, we are the only turkey company that does a true test-and-hold program for all our ground turkey products for Salmonella,” Acosta says.

Currently all ground turkey products are held until Salmonella testing results come back negative. Product that clears testing goes to packaging and is released. If for any reason the product doesn’t pass the test, it’s redirected to a cook-only product to ensure food safety.

San Antonio-based Food Safety Net Services acts as the third-party testing lab for the procedure. The company recently opened a facility in Springdale, and Cargill began using its services in May 2016.

The management of inventory and storage area for held product is critical to the process, says Jason Howard, food safety, quality and regulatory manager. One cooler at the facility is dedicated solely to test-and-hold.

“The test is eight hours, but by the time you pull your sample and all of that, you’re 12 to 16 hours depending on where you’re at in your testing cycle,” Howard says. “So we do five delivery/pick-ups a day, and then you have your corresponding releases about 10 hours after that pick up.”

With the plant putting out 300 million lbs. of finished goods annually, the test-and-hold process required a significant shift in logistics in the ground turkey program. “We actually hired on more technicians just for the sampling piece, and we’re on our third evolution of the lab process, just really kind of fine tuning that piece,” Howard says.

Sampling is done post blend and the average ground turkey produced per day is about 120,000 lbs. to 140,000 lbs. “So you always have basically a day-and-a-half on hold waiting on those results, it’s just kind of a constant roll,” Howard adds.