KANSAS CITY, Mo. – During his 34-year career in the beef-processing industry, Chris Rupp has seen plenty of changes in the industry, including how plant operations evolve in their use of technology to increase efficiency and make the process safer for workers. Rupp, vice president of fresh beef operations at Tyson Foods Inc., and MEAT+POULTRY’s 2018 Operations Executive of the Year, oversees three of the company’s six beef plants today, but his career began working in the trenches. Starting out as a meat cutter on the fabrication floor at what was then IBP Inc.’s Finney County plant near Garden City, Kansas, Rupp learned the business from the ground up. He’s been a key part of multi-million-dollar expansion projects and worker safety initiatives at the company’s Dakota City, Nebraska plant, which spans 1.8 million sq. ft. and employs more than 4,000 workers. The initiatives and programs have become the gold standard for processing efficiency and safety not only for Tyson, but the entire meat-processing industry.

Maintaining productive relationships with the supplier community is part of ensuring Tyson’s partners are aware of the company’s needs as they arise and addressing those needs early is key to delivering timely solutions. Rupp says the development and implementation of programs designed to increase efficiency, enhance food safety and ensure workplace safety are priorities he emphasizes to all the suppliers he works with. 

 “I like to think I’m helping to transform our industry into a safer place to work,” he says, admitting it’s an industry-wide effort that he’s proud to be a part of. “My role is making sure that we stay focused on what we believe in and we continue to upgrade equipment and buy the latest technology out there that ensures the safest process.”

Each project, renovation and expansion bring its own set of challenges, as Rupp can attest after decades of involvement. Selecting contractors, equipment suppliers and technology experts is always important early in that process and he gets involved at all levels. “Am I close to it? Absolutely, as much as I can be and probably more than some of my engineers would want me to be,” he says.

Similar team approaches are used to make improvements throughout the operation, Rupp says. “If you don’t create a partnership with them, then they’re just a supplier,” which isn’t enough for most processors in today’s environment. “They’ve got to be able to help you through a lot of things,” he says, and when there is a true partnership they are quicker to react when issues come up. Relationships still play a big role. “They’ve got to have a good product and be able to back it up, but that relationship is everything.”

Robotics and automation are the rage in the meat processing industry, especially in further processing operations and, increasingly, in primary processing of pork and poultry. But for beef operations, technology designed to make processing more automated is lagging due largely to factors that are inherent to the species.

“This is a manual process,” Rupp says. “With our varying size of cattle, it’s been very tough to automate over the years,” he says. In the beef industry, cattle are sourced from thousands of producers, each growing them their own way, resulting in a variety of weights, heights and breeds. “You never know from one day to the next what you’re getting,” he says, although some controls have been effectively implemented to even out the peaks and valleys. “Right now, you can get a carcass ranging from 700 lbs. to 1,000 lbs.

“Having that flexibility in automation isn’t something we’ve been able to get to,” he says, but with advancements in visioning systems, “we’re starting to get to that point. And I think it’s imperative that we do that because some of these jobs are going to be very hard to get people in, in the future.”

Read more about Chris Rupp, the 2018 Operations Executive of the Year, and his career in the August issue of MEAT+POULTRY.