As an independent operating company of Smithfield Foods, Farmland Foods Inc., operates 11 pork-processing plants in nine states, including three that manufacture bacon. Employing about 2,000 workers, its Crete, Neb., facility is Farmland’s largest operation. There, a wide variety of fresh and processed products are produced, including fresh bacon, pork, ham and sausage, as well as pre-cooked sausage and oven-perfect fresh pork and case-ready products. But during a visit in early September, the focus was on bacon.

Trading in his suit and tie for a smock, hairnet and helmet, Todd Gerken, Farmland’s senior vice president of operations, is happy to get back to his roots by walking the production floor of one of the plants he spent years overseeing. Gerken is stopped many times during his walk-through by longtime employees who stop him to say hello, shake his hand and occasionally exchange a high-five.

Now based in the Kansas City, Mo.-based headquarters for Farmland Foods Inc., Gerken still knows the company’s Crete pork-processing plant like the back of his hand. Before working his way up the corporate ladder, Gerken worked at Crete first in 1982 as an hourly worker. In 2000 he returned, as assistant general manager and later as GM. He was there during the transition after Smithfield Foods acquired Farmland in 2003 and spearheaded efforts to renovate and modernize many of its operations, including the bacon production lines.

During his charge, the plant’s workforce grew substantially and when Gerken was transferred from Crete in 2005 to work as GM of the Denison, Iowa, facility – a little piece of him remained at the Nebraska operation. Nowadays, Gerken welcomes the occasional opportunity to jump in his car after an early morning jog in Kansas City and make the three-and-a-half hour drive to the rurally located plant, just southwest of Lincoln and not far from a Farmland-owned Cook’s ham processing plant.

Whole hog

According to Henry Morris, Smithfield’s senior vice president of operations and engineering, Smithfield as a whole produces 650 million lbs. of bacon per year throughout 78 bacon lines system wide, which constitutes one-third of all the bacon produced in the US for retail and foodservice outlets. Farmland is different than many bacon manufacturers in that it manufactures fresh, only uncooked, packaged bacon at the same facility where hogs are slaughtered. More than 1.4 million lbs. of bacon are produced each week at the plant; all hogs are killed and processed at the facility. This is a significant distinction of Farmland operations, says Gerken. “We have always had bacon in our slaughter plants,” he says, which not only ensures bacon is made with the freshest bellies possible, but also allows for immediate quality feedback to the cut floor.

The plant kills 10,300 head per day at this time of year and the number creeps up with the onset of fall as production begins ramping up to keep up with holiday demand, especially for ham. The target size of hogs at the facility is 275 lbs.

In 2001, an expansion at the plant included the installation of a Butina CO2 stunning system, which has had significant animal-welfare benefits in addition to enhancing the quality of the pork made at the plant. The system was a significant investment that paid off. “The CO2 process delivers better meat quality,” Gerken says, “that is the greatest benefit to the cut side.”

Carcasses are broken down into shoulders, hams, loins and the coveted bellies, which are destined for bacon production. Once the bellies are separated from the carcass, they are automatically sorted by weight and fat content. Next, approximately 22 workers focus on trimming, shaping, injecting and hanging the bellies ahead of chilling, pressing, smoking and slicing. Raw material for bacon moves quickly through the plant.

“Bellies are cut, cured, hung and in the smokehouse all on the same day,” according to Gerken. Yields and quantities are tracked and monitored and line workers keep an eye on a scoreboard that is regularly updated in the break area. “Product is quality-assurance checked at each step of the process,” Gerken says. “Immediate feedback to the departments and results can be viewed electronically upon completion of an audit.”

Bellying up

Bacon production is part of the single-shift cutting operation at the plant, which also includes a kill shift and two shifts dedicated to packaging. Products are produced and shipped to a customer mix that is 70 percent retail vs. 30 percent foodservice. The plant also processes a significant amount of pork for export to Japan in a dedicated processing area.

As part of the plant’s rigorous bacon production, 22,000 lbs. of bellies are delivered to the processing lines each hour. “Today’s bellies were slaughtered yesterday,” says Brian DeSchepper, general manager. Bacon is produced in shingled, 12-oz. and 16-oz., packages as well as tray packs and tux for retail. For foodservice customers, single slice and slabs are processed. Flavors include hickory, applewood, peppered and maple. Farmland does not manufacture pre-cooked bacon products, focusing instead on fresh production.

Bellies are injected as part of a 7.5 hour curing process, during which time they are chilled. Bellies are hung on trees, and up to 45 trees of 60 bellies each are then rolled into the smokehouses. The various flavor profiles are a function of various injection solution formulas as well as dwell time and temperature in the smokehouse.

A number of veteran workers proudly wearing stickers on their helmets that recognize them as a “Bacon Expert” hover over the bellies and closely monitor temperatures and dwell times during the curing, chilling and smoking process. R&D experts develop injection formulas to produce the target taste of the products and “the smokehouse uses natural wood smoke (not liquid smoke) to enhance the flavor with deep smoke smell and taste,” Gerken says. A mahogany-colored, rich smoky whole belly is achieved when all of the steps are taken properly.

After smoking, the racks of bellies are chilled again in a giant cooler where 700,000 to 800,000 lbs. of bellies are stored before they are pressed and readied for slicing.

A number of different brands of slicers are used at the plant, depending on the customer and the type and specifications of the product. “Some are better with big bellies while others are used for smaller bellies,” says Georgia Witt, supervisor of bacon and a 36-year employee of the Crete, Neb. facility.

By-products of the process include bacon ends, which are relegated for ingredients customers, for use in pizza or other products. As many as 16 to 20 combos of bacon ends are produced at the plant each day and Witt says she and her team endeavor to keep that number as low as possible.

Smaller bellies go to a line that produces Farmland’s “center cut” bacon. Another processing line is designated as the bulk line, for customers in the hotel-restaurant-institution segment.

Gerken points out that slicing technology now allows for automated grading. “We have slicers equipped with cameras that take a picture of every slice. We program the specification into the slicer and that is how the slicer grades the slices.”

To package the wide variety of retail bacon products, rollstock and 618 machines are utilized. Additionally, resealable packaging is used for the Farmland 24-oz. stack package and a perforated, twin pack that was implemented last year for the 16-oz. Hickory-smoked bacon (which can be separated into 2, 8-oz. packages).

No amount of automation, however, can replace certain parts of bacon production. Adding the human element to be the final judge before shipping is critical.

“The employee packing the bacon does the last quality check before it goes into the box for our customers,” Gerken says.