When Jerry Rhubart, plant manager of consumer products operations at Tyson Foods’ Omaha, Neb., bacon complex, visits local supermarkets in his Tyson monogramed shirt to review bacon cases, shoppers sometimes approach him and ask why he is looking at bacon instead of chicken.

“I tell them, ‘Located in Omaha is one of the largest bacon facilities in the US.’ They always seem shocked that Tyson makes bacon and that it’s produced in Omaha. Tyson is a major player in the bacon business.”

Tyson’s 400,000-sq.-ft. Omaha bacon facility employs 850 people who produce a wide range of ready-to-cook (RTC) and ready-to-eat (RTE) bacon for retail, foodservice and industrial customers. Opening for business in 1988 when owned by Millard Refrigerated Services under the name of Millard Processing Services, this facility and business were acquired by Tyson Foods in 2002.

The Omaha facility’s RTC department (210,000 sq. ft.) and RTE department (70,000 sq. ft.) are separated by a 100,000-sq.-ft. refrigerated storage warehouse. Another 20,000 sq. ft. of space is used for dry storage and other needs. The RTC department includes 17 slicing lines, while the RTE operation houses nine slicing lines – the ninth line is dedicated to canned bacon bits.

Production capability of the Omaha bacon complex is 656,000 lbs. of bacon per day on a green-weight basis, or 187,616,000 lbs. annually, says Brian Chrisman, Bacon Complex Manager, Consumer Products, Tyson Foods, Springdale, Ark. Two production shifts plus a cleaning/sanitation shift operate five or six days per week, based on customer demand.

Approximately 330 SKUs of bacon products are produced there. Major brands include Tyson, Corn King, Thorn Apple Valley plus various private-label brands. Regarding the mix of products made at the Omaha plant, foodservice and industrial bacon represent 37 percent while retail products represent 63 percent. Top-selling bacon made there are 12-oz. and 16-oz. retail packages. Product is distributed nationally plus internationally to Canada and Japan.

Since being acquired by Tyson Foods, four additional raw retail slicing lines were added in 2004 and two slicing lines were added to the RTE department in 2005, says Chrisman, who is responsible for Tyson’s total bacon production, including its bacon facility in Vernon, Texas, that operates 18 slicing lines. Vernon-based Wright Brand Foods was purchased in 1999 by IBP inc., and IBP was acquired by Tyson Foods in 2001. Tyson’s Vernon plant produces a variety of bacon products under the Wright and private-label brands.

“Tyson Foods was primarily a chicken processor until its acquisition of IBP inc.,” relays Worth Sparkman, Tyson Foods manager, public relations. “This acquisition launched Tyson into the bacon business.”

Bacon-processing giant

Sixteen truckloads of raw-belly combos arrive each morning at the Omaha facility; about 95 percent of which are supplied by Tyson pork plants. Team members expert in working on highly automated equipment assist in a variety of processes, including flattening bellies, skinning, injecting, smoking (natural wood and liquid), slicing, cooking, packaging and boxing packaged products.

Nothing goes to waste. After RTE bacon is processed, less-desirable bacon pieces are transferred to the toppings line where it is chopped up for toppings. “We use 100 percent of our byproducts,” says Mike Narak, senior industrial engineer and a 23-year Omaha bacon complex veteran. His primary responsibilities include analyzing data and realizing plant operations improvements.

State-of-the-art-technology used at the facility includes eight large Ferrite Microwave Technologies microwave oven lines that cook ready-to-eat sliced bacon for foodservice and retail consumption, as well as pizza toppings that are sold to foodservice companies globally, Chrisman says.

Products are tracked throughout the Omaha complex by a computerized weigh-scale system, Rhubart adds. Weigh scales scan product codes on each trolley throughout the plant at various processing stages. This allows traceback to the vendor or supplier of the raw material – while allowing better control of weights and yield deviations moving forward.

Food-safety champion

Maintaining and enhancing food safety is a plant-wide priority. Launched in 1999, the Tyson Sentinel Site program is a continuous verification of the hazard analysis regarding the potential for post-processing contamination of RTE products with Listeria monocytogenes (Lm). It represents an ongoing assessment of the HACCP plan and addresses the conclusion that post-processing contamination of RTE products with Lm is not a hazard likely to occur. Tyson executives say this conclusion is justified by the data the company previously collected that demonstrates food-contact surfaces are not harboring Lm. These data continue to be collected and analyzed to assess the on-going potential for this hazard to occur.

Data are collected through the program on a weekly basis from food-contact surfaces, non-food contact surfaces plus indirect-food contact surfaces. Should a surface return a positive test result for Listeria spp., an investigation is launched and corrective actions are taken before the line can resume production. Once production restarts, this surface is subject to intensified monitoring for Listeria spp. to confirm a harborage doesn’t exist.

If any surface on the production line returns a positive test result for Listeria spp. concurrent with this intensified monitoring, the Omaha plant also immediately reassesses its HACCP plan and incorporates a critical control point to control Lm. If test results necessitate finished-product testing for Lm, a robust sampling plan is employed based upon International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Foods criteria for a severe hazard. This program also includes provisions for random sampling of finished products on a quarterly basis. Samples are collected to verify the program’s effectiveness.

Regarding worker safety, the Omaha complex participates in Tyson’s “I Got Your Back Program.” As a result of this program plus other measures, Tyson’s Omaha bacon facility ranks No. 6 among more than 90 Tyson food plants in worker safety. “The Omaha bacon complex recently celebrated 2 million man hours without any lost time [due to injuries],” Rhubart boasts.

In effect for two years, the program encourages plant employees to speak-up to help eliminate unsafe acts and conditions whenever witnessed. “Food safety and worker safety are everyone’s responsibility,” Chrisman says.

New product development

Tyson’s Discovery Center in Springdale, Ark., is a key player in new product innovation at the Omaha bacon complex, Chrisman says. The most recent innovations were the Tyson Fully Cooked Bacon (in a gas-flushed, modified-oxygen package), which converted to a resealable package (featuring a six-month shelf-life), and Tyson’s Applewood Smoked Bacon (which is fully cooked), Rhubart says.

“We are currently the only company offering this type of package to the retail market,” Narak adds.

Tyson’s bacon team plans for Omaha facility growth in its five-to-10-year strategy plan. “We are committed to growing our branded market share. Innovation will play an important role in that growth,” Chrisman says. “We have to figure out new and better ways of doing things to control our costs. R&D is heavily involved in innovation.”

Growth plans for the Omaha bacon complex may not involve the actual footprint, but perhaps valuing-up the facility’s product mix, Chrisman says. “We’re always looking for ways to automate, control costs and improve efficiency,” he adds. “Much of what Mike [Narak] does is research ways to reduce costs for better efficiencies or to further automate the process. Our objective is to be the low-cost producer.”

Tyson’s Omaha bacon complex recently began practicing LEAN manufacturing, a production practice that considers the use of resources for any goal other than the creation of value for the end customer to be wasteful, and thus a target for elimination. “We established teams to find opportunities,” Narak says.

Weekly Bacon Action meetings are also held where plant employees present ideas, concepts and new ways of doing things to the bacon team.

All Omaha bacon complex employees are very focused on producing quality products, Chrisman says. “This plant has also made great strides in improving product quality over the years. We’re as low as we’ve ever been regarding complaints per million lbs.,” he adds.

“Our team members are our single-biggest asset to our operations. Keeping up with their concerns, meeting them all and giving all of them a voice is a huge challenge,” Rhubart concludes.