The Cargill Protein Group acquired the 120,000-square-foot facility known as the “Cargill Grind” hamburger patty plant in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2012. The former Texas American Foods facility originally opened in 1984 and was expanded in the early 90s. The frozen patty and fresh ground beef chub operation employs approximately 335 workers divided between two operational shifts. A contract sanitation company operates the overnight, third shift.

Cargill Protein recognized the high-volume Fort Worth plant as its Plant of the Year for fiscal 2019. In the past three years, Cargill Grind’s 10 ground beef lines, eight IQF (individually quick frozen) lines and two retail fresh lines, increased throughput by 28.6% with no capital investment while increasing yield savings by 0.32%. Year to date, that yield savings equates to more than 17 truckloads of raw material.

“Which is huge, because that’s all right to the bottom line,” said John Heslink, plant maintenance manager at Cargill Grind. “That is cost savings, and it’s a lot of cost savings. We continue to work on it, but it is doing fantastic.”

The past three years have also seen Cargill Grind maintain a first-pass quality rate of 99.2%. That means only 0.8% of all the volume the facility produced needed to be reworked because of a quality issue.

“Whether through boxing it, whether we lose product for whatever reason, 99.2% of all the product that we produce is ready to go to commercialization,” Heslink said.

But the greatest success to date might be the recognition the plant received from one of Cargill’s key foodservice customers. The customer asked Cargill to come in and deliver a “best-in-quality” presentation and share the plant’s best practices. Chad Magee, food safety, quality and regulatory (FSQR) manager, was scheduled to give the presentation this month and he said in early March that this was a chance he relished.

“It’s a huge opportunity for us to really get in front of the customer and show what we do, and how we do it,” Magee said.

Allen Boelter, complex manager of the Fort Worth Cargill Protein Group, added, “It’s quite an honor to be in front of the customer, all the suppliers, be the best in class and help their overall business raise the bar for the other suppliers.”

The Fort Worth-based executive staff of Cargill Grind agree the team as a whole provides the necessary attitudes and buy-in that make the plant so successful.

Team effort

The Cargill Protein operating group recognizes the ground beef facility in Fort Worth, as well as the management and hourly employees working on the floor, as a consistent and stable plant with continuous improvements in efficiency, throughput and production, among other key performance indicators, throughout the system.

“We have a unique problem here in that we don’t have a lot of turnover, either in our hourly ranks or management ranks,” Boelter said. “So, we regularly bring in college associates right out of school to train with us for a period of six months to a year, but there are no openings in this facility for them. We’re fortunate that we pulled the cook plant into the fold and can export some talent locally. The culture of the plant team, and really the geographic location, makes it a really attractive place for talent to come and stay, and that’s not a bad problem to have, especially in the meat industry.”

The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex offers many opportunities to job seekers. It’s a large and competitive job market that can make recruitng a challenge. But the grind plant steadily runs at 30% turnover, well below the industry standard. And it’s not just current or recent job seekers, Cargill Grind employees, many who’ve worked for the company over 30 years, some more than 35, “bought in” to what the facility does, and its effort to do more.

One employee with over 32 years of service started as a packer and has worked her way up to a machine operator. It’s an example of the opportunities and quality employment Cargill offers and speaks to one of the reasons it’s been able to maintain its low turnover.

“We’ve got hourly, managers and supervisors understanding their roles in the outcome and working together, rather than butting heads,” said Flavio Castaneda, production superintendent of value-added meats and foodservice. “When you can do that, then you’ve got something.”

The engagement of employees across all ranks in the mission of the facility directly correlates to the many successes, accolades, low turnover, high throughput and overall production efficiency.

“We have a lot of long-term employees committed to show up to work every day, to give 100%, they understand the expectations and the goal,” Castaneda said. “That’s the main reason why what we do here is such an efficient process. There’s a lot of teamwork between maintenance, food safety, quality and regulatory, and operations. It takes that to accomplish those goals.”

Another key to the plant’s employee retention is Cargill’s commitment to keep them safe.

Technicians in the test kitchen ensure customer satisfaction through rigorous quality testing.

Playing it safe

One of the facility’s most effective safety protocols relies on all employees working together, from the top of the executive team to the newest hourly employees hired. Behavior-based safety observations (BBO) take place when teams of management and hourly team members walk the floor to observe and notice, verbalize and address potentially dangerous work conditions and behaviors. BBOs also can be positive, as in noticing and reinforcing an instance of safe performance of a given task.

“The point isn’t to go out and catch somebody doing something wrong and say ‘I gotcha,’” Boelter said. “It is really to encourage all of our team members, with leadership helping to drive it, to be comfortable pointing out, ‘Hey, I noticed that you’re lifting this box today and you’re bending over at your waist. You really should use your legs.’ That kind of behavior and interaction from our hourly team members really is what drives the safety culture.”

Heslink added, “The other thing about this observation process is the opportunity to reinforce the positive behaviors and say, ‘Thank you, I saw you do this very well and that’s safe,’ and reinforce those positive behaviors helpfully, keep it at the forefront of their mind.”

BBOs contribute as much to efficiency and throughput as any other procedure or protocol that Cargill Grind uses to stay at the top of its game. The focus on behavior allows the team a deeper understanding of safety that transcends a knowledge of machinery or engineering and incorporates every team member with responsibility rather than just telling people how to be safe.

“We look at the things that people are thinking about and doing on a regular basis,” Heslink said. “Part of that is the leadership team going out on Wednesdays, grabbing one of our employees and doing some behavior-based observations to look for those at-risk behaviors, identifying those and keeping people safe.”

Safety doesn’t stop with BBOs. Due to the high volume of forklift traffic at the Fort Worth patty plant – from 2,000-lb and 3,000-lb-plus combos of lean and fat trim, to finished product boxed and palleted for commercial shipment, to dry goods coming in – high numbers of forklifts are continually buzzing around the production floor.

The first piece of forklift safety is a driver log-in/safety check. Once the forklift and driver are operational, there’s a built-in governor to limit speed. Should it hit something, the forklift automatically shuts down in place and will not start again until a supervisor clears it. This provides time for the supervisor to understand what happened before the machine begins to operate again.

When it comes to forklift operators and foot traffic coexisting throughout the facility, Cargill installed walkways marked by lanes, with two-line handrails in many parts of the plant, to protect pedestrians, as well as posted stop signs in the line of sight and bright red stop signs projected onto the floor from above. Projecting stop signs on the floor rather than painting or vinyl means they don’t need cleaning, never fade or sustain damage.

Plant operators came up with a novel way to enhance the safety of employees navigating the busy traffic throughout the plant. Forklifts are all fitted with lights projecting onto the ground. Red lights on both sides of the forklift indicate boundaries for foot traffic, while a unique blue light projects out 10 feet in front, letting pedestrians know a forklift is coming.

Smooth runnings

As one of the largest, if not the largest, suppliers of ground beef in the world, Cargill relies on seven of its ground beef plants in the United States, with roughly 50% of that going to Cargill’s foodservice customers, said Misty High, president of Cargill Foodservice.

“The majority, from a volume standpoint, is going to be quick-serve just because of the nature of how many hamburger patties are served in that environment,” High said. “But we do serve many other parts of the business from fast casual all the way to fine dining. So, we’re involved in all types of restaurants.”

The Fort Worth plant plays a major role in that production and starts with trim, both fat and lean, first from Cargill’s network of beef plants.

“However, we probably couldn’t procure enough for our own consumption,” Boelter said. “So, we do go outside of the Cargill primary plants to get trim.”

With the amount of ground beef coming out of Fort Worth, automation not only aids the production, but also plays a crucial role in food safety.

Two-stage dumpers used for trim to first grind keep pallets at 90-degree angles to keep foreign matter from getting into product. Some dumpers without this technology use a combo with the pallet and bottom of the combo wrapped in plastic to achieve the same result of keeping anything not fat or lean out of the grind. The first dump immediately goes through a Mettler Toledo metal detector before grinding begins.

For every combo of trim used, a sample is sent to “tailing.” Tailing is a grind plate design wherein every time a combo is dumped, heavy connective tissue and bone travel to the center of the grind plate. Equipped with an air supply line, once the raw material hits the grinder, the tailing process begins. The heavy material from the tailing plate moves up and into an inspection tray. Employees scour the inspection tray for non-meat items.

“Most of the time, what they find is cartilage, elastin and potentially bone,” Boelter said. “This is where you’ll find if somebody left a meat hook in there, or if you see somebody left a piece of palette in the combo; we’ll see it right there.

“When that happens, the operators shut everything down, notify operations and the FSQR team and we basically go into forensic mode. We shut everything down, we capture everything, identify the combo and we’re able to give that feedback and any potential loss to claim back to the supplier.”

Final grind before mixing and formulation goes through a Pieco grinder that grabs any remaining “hard” material and removes it. Ready ground beef then goes to formulation and is prepared in a batch for forming and freezing. Tomahawk Manufacturing’s formers make patties and send them through freezing and on to packaging.

One- to 10-lb chubs for retail go to programmable JLS robots. Size and pattern of retail chub packaging changes require the touch of a button and tooling can be changed over in about two minutes.

Boxed product ready for commercial shipment moves by conveyor to a “robot room” operated by one person where three large robots build and wrap pallets for storage and shipping, with a fourth planned for the next fiscal year. While cost savings are a piece of the robotics plan for Cargill, they also contribute in another way.

“They also eliminate some of the repetitive motions that can cause long-term injuries to employees,” Boelter said. “And any jobs replaced by robots do not mean those employees are let go, instead we move them to different positions, and they take on new tasks. Here, automation doesn’t replace employees.”

Cargill’s trim comes from its own harvest facilities as well as from outside suppliers.


Any business needs to satisfy customers to remain solvent and profitable, and because the margins in the ground beef business are so thin, it’s imperative Cargill Grind stays as competitive as possible and offers more to customers than mere satisfaction. In addition to high-quality products, it must offer high-quality service and partnership as well.

The Fort Worth grind plant’s facility houses a test kitchen set up with a variety of ovens matching those of every frozen patty customer it serves. Methods, cook times and every controllable variable are considered and replicated when testing product. The test kitchen also tests retail chubs for shelf life for customers. All tests and results are documented and FSQR generates monthly reports sent to all customers for further improvement.

Tests include time to complete cook, temperature throughout the cooking process, taste, texture, bun fit and appearance. Another machine in the kitchen measures force at which a patty will break apart.

“There’s a lot of science behind these patties,” Boelter said.

FSQR team members pull multiple samples daily for testing and development with the ability to communicate back to the line any necessary adjustments in real time. The team understands the environment quick-service restaurant cooks endure and the speed and focus it takes to operate in those environments.

“We want to make jobs for cooks as easy as possible,” Magee said. “They’re working so quickly and don’t have time to make adjustments in the store.”

In addition to the monthly reports, real time adjustments, extensive testing and the overall deep level of analysis and dedication to quality, the dedication to customer service at Cargill Grind is just as vigorous. FSQR team members routinely travel to QSR customers’ individual stores to work on anything and everything to ensure the highest possible levels of quality and satisfaction.

“Some customers have patties frozen for 10 days, some for 30,” Magee said. “It depends on how they handle and cook the patty, the formulation, etc. It all depends on what works best for each customer.”