Forty-eight years have passed since Plantation Foods Inc. began slaughtering and processing poultry from its plant in Waco, Texas. The sheer size and the level of technology and expertise of the people working behind the walls of the original plant all have expanded exponentially since 1965. Through the decades, the facility has evolved into a 381,275-sq.-ft. poultry and meat complex now owned by Cargill Value Added Meats (CVAM). The plant offers a range of raw and pre-cooked value-added turkey, beef, pork and chicken products. This complex is one of nine facilities making up the CVAM retail business. CVAM is a business unit of Wichita, Kan.-based Cargill Meat Solutions.

“Turkey [raw and pre-cooked whole birds plus a range of further value-added turkey products] is this complex’s No. 1 protein,” says Wesley Carter, complex general manager and 15-plus-year company veteran “We harvest about 28,000 birds a day.”

Cargill’s Waco complex also processes a range of value-added beef, pork and chicken. “The bulk of the beef we’re doing here today is in the form of diced product we’ll distribute to industrial customers,” says Paul O’Leary, operations manager and 20-year Waco complex veteran. “The bulk of pork is in ham products. Chicken is primarily deli products.”

Products made annually at the Waco complex (in descending order of total lbs.) include turkey, approximately 50 million lbs. (66.1 percent of the total production mix); pork and chicken, more than 10 million lbs. each (15.4 percent and 13 percent, respectively); and beef, more than 4 million lbs. (5.7 percent). Retail products total more than 60 million lbs. (or 76.3 percent of the total product mix) per year while commercial products amount to almost 20 million lbs. (23.7 percent). Further processing is budgeted at 80 million lbs. per year; whole-bird processing is budgeted at 105 million lbs. per year.

The Waco complex is divided into whole-bird harvesting/processing, 38,550 sq. ft.; further-processed raw products, 71,800 sq. ft.; and further-processed cooked product, 37,200 sq. ft.

Invest for success

Cargill has invested heavily in this complex. In 2010, $2.7 million was earmarked to improve fire resistance by installing upgraded wall panels and expanding the sprinkler system. FY 2011 capital expenditure projects totaled more than $2.5 million and included acquiring injection equipment, packaging equipment, a bowl chopper, whole-muscle portioning equipment, brine waste reduction equipment plus an offal auger, among other things.

O’Leary, who manages three shifts (two processing, one cleaning/sanitation) per day, five days a week for further processing, says peak season for further-processed products is May through September.

In the further-processed/raw products area of the complex, new stainless-steel walls and ceilings were recently installed. “We did the installation while we were running, and we process 300,000 to 400,000 lbs. of raw products a day,” O’Leary says. “We didn’t miss a beat. In the last six years, we’ve invested heavily over here.”

Once raw materials enter this area, they are either injected or mixed. If the latter, the protein will likely go through a grinder and undergo brining.

“Products can go a lot of different ways here,” O’Leary says.

This processing area must undergo complete washdowns between processing different species. “I have to shut that line down to do a full wash-down before moving onto the next specie,” O’Leary says. “We do that every day. It takes about 45 minutes.”

Visual appeal is key for pre-cooked products. “We can color in ovens in stockinettes with smoke to transfer during the cook cycle,” O’Leary says. “We incorporate liquid-smoke applications and can apply different smokes from applewood to mesquite to hickory. We also have a coloring agent we can apply. We’re also using a high temperature to caramelize sugars to get that oven-roasted look on some products.”

The No. 1 poultry flavor in the US is fried, and the Waco complex sells a lot of fried product, O’Leary says.

Processing is very flexible. “We can move quickly and get the correct product to any customer on time,” he adds.

“Our order/fill rate is 99.9 percent,” Carter boasts.

In fabrication, a multi-purpose line exists and many pan products are made there. It also operates three stuffing lines.

Bulk-type products are primarily made at the complex – mostly 4-to 10-lb. products destined for the deli. Various industrial-type products, such as diced offerings, are also made. Value-added, private-label products are distributed to all major retailers. “We produce more private-label products than our own brands,” O’Leary says.

Company brands include Honeysuckle White, Shady Brook Farms, Harvest Provisions, Charter Reserve and Plantation.

Most Waco-made products are distributed domestically, but some go to customers in Mexico and Canada.

The premium tier in the deli is where private-label growth has been greatest in recent years, but there still is a need for value- and middle-tier, private-label products. Value-tier products usually include highly extended, binder-added products – typically using carrageenan or starch plus water.

Waco processes whole barbecue chicken based on a formula Cargill acquired after buying Willow Brook Foods four years ago. One proprietary beef product made at the complex involves injecting heated, homogenized tallow into primals.

“It eats like a Choice foodservice steak,” O’Leary says. “It looks marbled. We have been doing this for about seven months. It is growing very fast.”

Waco is also processing shredded beef for one major fast-food chain’s breakfast burrito that is in test market. “It’s going off the chart; we’re really excited about it,” O’Leary says.

Keeping the Waco complex humming along is no easy chore. Michael Wilde, engineering and maintenance manager and 25-year complex veteran, says, “We don’t look at engineering and maintenance functions as separate. They play a key role in what goes on here.”

The complex is very active regarding sustainability/environmental initiatives. For example, through turkey chiller-water retention and reuse, the complex saves approximately 65,000 gallons of water per day, twice a week, plus the energy to cool that water.

Vertically integrated

The complex operates a vertically integrated turkey business. It receives three deliveries of poults per week from Cargill’s Springdale, Ark., or California, Mo., operations. “We grow the live birds here,” Carter says. “We have a feed mill in Troy, Texas, that supplies feed to those birds and we work with 25 contract growers.”

Waco turkey-business managers are partners with their growers. Plant workers will spend time with the growers’ load-out crews during live-bird unloading or visit grower operations. Growers visit the Waco complex.

Birds for the whole-bird operation arrive in the complex yard between midnight and 10 a.m. Harvesting begins at 6 a.m. and runs until all birds are finished. “By the time we leave at the end of the day, processed birds are entering cold storage for holding. We stun electrically,” Carter says.

About 7 or 8 percent of the volume in further-processed turkey is in ready-to-cook; the balance is RTE products. “We offer a variety of cooked turkey including smoked and Cajun, which are very convenient,” O’Leary says. “It takes about 1.5 hours to cook pre-cooked turkey at home.”

“When you produce 5,000 head a day of fully cooked turkey, you get pretty good at it,” adds JR Dollins, continuous improvement manager, who is also a certified Six Sigma Black Belt and a 17-year Cargill veteran.

Cargill started processing turkeys in 1967. Initially a whole-bird processor, it began deboning turkeys in 1978 and ultimately began processing big toms instead of commercial-sized hens and toms. The company expanded turkey operations through its 1998 acquisition of Plantation Foods in Waco and the 2001 acquisition of Rocco Foods in Harrisonburg, Va. The general offices of Cargill Turkey Products moved to Wichita in 2003. In 2004, Emmpak Foods Inc., which was acquired in 2001 and based in Milwaukee, was combined with Cargill Turkey Products to form Cargill Value Added Meats.

In March 2008, CVAM acquired certain assets of Willow Brook Foods, which include that company’s operations in Springfield, Mo., plus the Albert Lea, Minn., cooked-meat operation named Schweigert Foods. Willow Brook Foods processed the same proteins the Waco complex does. Cargill also acquired Willow Brook’s brands.

People and technology

Although technology plays a key role at the Waco complex, “The ‘secret sauce’ to our daily success at Waco is our 677 associates,” Dollins insists.

“What makes us successful is our ability to control our process plus craftsmanship,” O’Leary adds. “We have very finite recipes we follow. We make no less than 60 different products a day. These people are good at it and take a lot of pride in what they do.”

Employee input is key to success in Waco. The complex has instituted a Valuing Imagination in People (VIP) program, which has yielded some impressive results.

“Good teamwork imagination will create the value for our customers, employees and Cargill,” Carter says of the VIP program.

Under this program, ideas on how to improve working conditions or save money in operations are submitted by facility workers and a committee reviews them. Anyone submitting an idea gets a $10 retailer gift card. From that point, ideas are recognized with a $100, $150 or $500 gift, depending on the value of the idea.

One employee submitted an idea on how to place product on cooking racks to prevent bright spots, or touchers, which are created when two pieces of product are touching on the rack. Other ideas have saved the Waco complex anywhere from $800 to $150,000 a year, O’Leary says.

The Waco complex has instituted a world-class onboard process for new hires. One highlight in effect for two years is a luncheon honoring new hires on the Friday of the week they join. “The senior staff introduces themselves and relays their expectations,” O’Leary says. “It levels the playing field and makes new hires one of us right out of the chute.”

Daniel Bennight, human resources manager since last September, has done a fantastic job, senior managers agree.

Worker and food safety

The Waco complex’s top-two goals are maintaining personal safety and food safety, which also includes maintaining quality, says Ralph Kutzer, quality assurance manager. “My background is in microbiology,” he says. “But all members of our food-safety team, which includes maintenance, production and other management personnel, have become microbiologists [through shared knowledge]. We’ve all become very good at world-class Listeria control. Prevention is better than reaction.”

Food-safety interventions include complete physical separation of raw and cooked areas; relentless food-safety orientation for new employees and continuous education for all employees; validating when cooked products are fully cooked; and instituting a post lethality intervention step for precooked products, among other things.

“For years we used a hot-water treatment pasteurizer for the product surface post-packaging to remove potential contamination that might have occurred during handling after cooking,” Kutzer says. “We recently replaced that system with lauric arginate [LAE], an antimicrobial compound.”

LAE’s log kill is from 2 to 3 logs; surface hot-water heat treatment is about 1 log, Kutzer says.

New processing and packaging equipment purchased for the Waco complex must be built to ensure thorough cleaning and sanitation. When equipment suppliers are building a piece of equipment to Waco specs, Kutzer and a colleague inspect it to ensure thorough cleaning and sanitation can be realized. Once, a new conveyor system delivered to the Waco yard was viewed by a complex sanitation supervisor and he noticed one part couldn’t be cleaned thoroughly enough to prevent Listeria contamination. As a result, the system was returned to the manufacturer with directions to redesign the area of concern, Kutzer said.

The Waco complex has earned a number of certifications, such as ISO 14001 Environmental Management System; OHSAS 18001 Health and Safety Management System; OSHA Voluntary Protection Program, Texas Commission of Environmental Quality Clean Texas Gold Level Designation; and the complex scored an “A” in a British Retail Consortium audit of the Global Food Safety Initiative.

Waco complex employee-safety accomplishments during FY2010 include an OSHA Voluntary Protection Programs Star Site award in 2011; improved the Total Case Incident Rate (the measure used to report workplace injuries across an industry or industry segment) by 93 percent since 1998; improved the OSHA Days Away/Restricted or Transfer rate by 84 percent since 1998; improved lost-time cases by 90 percent since 1998; implemented a Behavior Based Safety Process in 2006; and implemented a formal safety-contact process in 2006 to significantly help further reduce injuries and illnesses.

New products

The Waco complex is active in new product development. It houses a resident R&D person whose role involves product development plus process improvement. New product ideas can come from anyone. “We follow through with Wichita and have a process to measure the protocol to ensure everything looks right before starting a new product development process,” O’Leary says.

Many new product development projects at Waco were the result of process improvements. “Cargill promises its customers we’re going to drive costs out of our process. We have developed partnerships as opposed to transaction relationships,” O’Leary says.

Running the massive Waco complex will remain challenging. “My biggest challenge is being the leader this team deserves. We have a great team here,” Carter concludes.