While meat and poultry companies frequently consider how they can grow and expand their businesses by either building new plants, adding on to existing ones or modernizing and updating their existing facilities by retrofitting them, operators also consider how their plants’ environmental impact as they strive to make production conditions more efficient and sanitary in and around their buildings. That’s according to executives at a number of engineering, design and build firms that are involved in new construction or renovation of meat- and poultry-processing companies.
Often they do this by factoring "green" practices into their expansion plans. And by doing so, they are able to save energy, improve lighting and ventilation and cut water use, which can cost companies a lot of extra money.
Darryl Wernimont, director of The Haskell Company, a design-build firm in Jacksonville, Fla. that does construction and renovation with plants in the meat and poultry industry, points to three major trends he is seeing in new construction, renovation and retrofitting in the industry – sustainable design and building construction; a continued emphasis on food safety and sanitation as it applies to the design and operation of plant facilities, and plant designs that address employee diversity and inclusion in plant operations.
"The number-one trend that is dominant right now and growing in the meat and poultry industry is ‘green,’ sustainable and LEED design and construction," says Wernimont. "LEED – the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – is a program established by the U.S. Green Building Council, and is the most widely accepted system in the United States for judging and recognizing sustainable building projects. Many of our clients, including meat and poultry plants, are LEED-certified," he says. "Seven years ago, only one in 50 clients would be knowledgeable or even interested in LEED. During this past year, 80 percent to 90 percent of the clients I spoke to felt sustainable initiatives needed to be a part of their new construction and existing building initiatives."
As for food safety, Wernimont points to initiatives like the American Meat Institute’s 10 Principles for Sanitary Design of Equipment and 11 Principles for Sanitary Design of Facilities. Last year, his company designed the first ready-to-eat food plant constructed in accordance with the AMI principles – the Land O’ Frost deli meat-processing facility in Madisonville, Ky. And in order to encourage and achieve employee diversity and inclusion, Wernimont says one goal of his design teams is to enable people of different abilities to demonstrate their capabilities by eliminating or reducing physical barriers across the facility. "This goal will garner even more attention in the future," he says.
While there were tens of millions invested by processors in 2007, plant construction and renovation activity in 2008 has been off slightly, due to the economic slowdown, according to David Dixon, senior vice president and food and beverage director for The Facility Group in Atlanta. But the meat- and poultry-processing segments have fared better than other industries.
Dixon notes that economic contraction is very recent. "It’s been in the last six months," Dixon says. And while there is concern about the economy during the upcoming year, he also notes that food companies, including meatand poultry-processing firms, and upstream parts of the supply chain, are more stable and resilient than other areas in the American economy.
"People have to eat, so the demand for food, including meat and poultry, remains pretty stable," Dixon says. "When the economy is booming, the growth isn’t as great as in some other sectors. But when the economy drops, food processing isn’t hurt as much." Dixon believes people will do without $4 cups of coffee, but not food.
Dixon believes that while new construction, company renovations and plant retrofitting is doing well in the industry, there may not be as much investment in bricks and mortar as there has been in the past. "Companies are being squeezed by higher costs, so there’s been a certain amount of tightening up," he says. "Transportation is one area that’s been cut back, as is energy use."
But Dixon, like others who design or renovate plants for the industry, also thinks that sustainability practices are becoming an increasing and permanent part of plant design. Virtually every new plant that is built, or old plant that is renovated, now has a sustainability component to it. "All the forms for corporation funding or capital requested talk about sustainability. Only a few forms I’ve seen show no interest in it," Dixon says.
He notes that two years ago, only highly-innovative companies were interested. Now, there is a much broader range. "Companies not only want to look good, but companies get into ‘green’ practices because it’s the right thing to do," he says. A lot of the interest is developing sustainable practices for new plants or renovations comes from medium-size and large companies, including the design and building of better environments in plants, waste-to-energy practices, making use of animal fats and bio-diesel fuels.
"Energy and water conservation is a very important part of this," he says. The number of LEED-certified companies and plants in industry is growing, although it’s still small, compared to other types of businesses. "With few exceptions, any greenfield undertaking is seeking LEEDsustainable certification," he notes.
Taking the LEED
One of the most important ways to bring sustainability to operations in meat and poultry plants when new construction, renovations and retrofitting is being designed is to provide only what is needed for plants to operate and not waste resources. Brian Kappele, vice president of The Stellar Group’s Food and Beverage division in Jacksonville, Fla., points out that while much of the industry is run on ammonia or steam, systems can be designed and installed that produce steam only when needed. That’s why meat and poultry plants, along with other industries, are striving to become LEED-certified.
"Waste to energy is the future, there’s no doubt about that," Kappele says. "You take the heat and the methane gas from garbage or compost and use it to run a facility." In the meat and poultry industry, sanitation of the plant is a high priority in sustainability efforts. He points to efforts to minimize the amount of water required to run a facility, and to minimize the amount of affluent. "Facilities are charged for water and affluent, when you minimize that, it saves the plant money in addition to improving the environment." He notes that the amount of energy needed is also reduced, as well as the amount of heat and controls needed to run a plant. For example, in an area like South Dakota, where it is dry, that is accomplished easier than in Florida, where it’s humid. In pork plants, this control process can pay off in three to five years.
The rising cost of energy has contributed to the need to build more sustainable systems to run meat and poultry plants. "When energy is cheap, plants tend to run systems wide-open. But when you cut back on energy use, it obviously cuts back on your costs," he says.
Kappele notes that this year and last year, more projects have focused on value-added products, with slaughter playing a smaller role. "Sustainability in packaging is extremely important; you want to get the product to the shelf in a better package." He also believes that in the present economy and into the future as long as the economy slumps, there will probably be more focus on renovation and retrofitting than large amounts of new construction.
An example: "Fluorescent lights give off half the number of foot candles as halogen lights. If plants just renovate without taking their lighting into account, for example, they might have to add extra electrical capacity. But if they burn less over time, then there is more payback to the plant." For a plant to think seriously about incorporating sustainable measures, the management wants a 25-percent payback, he says.
Developing new and better methods of keeping raw-processing operations separate from cooked operations is another longstanding and ongoing effort when it comes to facility design.
"Here’s an example," says Marcos Braz, food and beverage market leader for Jacobs Carter Burgess, an engineering, architecture and planning firm based in Fort Worth, Texas. "Wind interaction can be a major concern in a plant. So we try to avoid facing dock doors toward the wind, to prevent contamination in a plant. But when a plant faces the wind correctly, the amount of ventilation needed is less, saving the company money. So we design our plants with better air circulation. Water resources also are very important for plants these days, especially in areas where there have been a lack of water. We’ll design roofs to collect water, so it can be used in the plant fire tank. We’ve been involved in a project recently where we’re shifting the thermal load out of peak hours, and so keeping the plant operating more efficiently."
Gil Mayfield, who works in Jacobs’ food and beverage division, points out that water re-use in meat and poultry plants is also becoming an increasing trend. "Re-using gray water (any water that’s already been used) for landscaping, for example, is a major trend. It’s especially important to plants located in areas of the country where there have been major droughts, resulting in aquifers going down and wells being drained," Mayfield says. "When you drill wells to get water and you don’t get good water all the time, you end up using more energy to make more water available. Georgia has had a big drought, so saving water is a major sustainable action."
When planning new plant construction or renovations, the two Jacobs Carter Burgess executives believe "the best door is a wall," because of infiltration between rooms. "A lot more attention is being paid to doors, not only in retrofitted plants, but also in new construction," Braz notes. "Management can determine when plant peak operating hours take place, and then decide what kind of doors can be installed to prevent sanitation or contamination problems, whether air curtains, rollup or slide-up doors." Devices like air curtains can be part of cold storage or refrigerated rooms and can save energy by reducing the energy transfer between two spaces.
During this past month, employees have been moving into Butterball LLC’s newly-constructed corporate world headquarters in Garner, N.C., near Raleigh. The nation’s biggest turkey producer is planning the grand opening for its $12 million, 46,000 square-foot facility next month. The building houses 60 employees, with room for growth up to 85. The headquarters features a high-tech "customer experience center" with a stainless-steel kitchen designed to facilitate demonstrations and educate retailers about the company’s products.
The building’s historical accents, such as old Butterball logos dating back to the brand’s inception in 1954, offer a sense of the tradition of this brand. The new corporate site is a move from Mt. Olive, N.C., but the company – a $325 million acquisition of Butterball by Smithfield Food’s Carolina Turkeys – will maintain its strong presence in Mt. Olive. There it operates the largest turkey-processing plant in the world, a 650,000 square-foot facility employing more than 2,600 people.
One large project just completed two months ago, is an expansion of Indiana Packers Corp.’s pork processing facility in Delphi, Ind. Indiana Packers is increasing its production and has improved product safety in the plant. The entire facility now totals more than 500,000 square feet, and the new process areas include a quick-chill system, an expanded cooling system, and a new boiler room. The added production capabilities are in place to increase efficiency, streamline production time, and ultimately reduce costs. Sustainability priorities are part of the expansion, including safety measures to reduce pathogen growth by controlling product movement, air flow, and employee interaction between raw and processed areas. The new quick-chill system and separating kill-and-cut areas are steps to reduce potential product contamination. The plant serves as Indiana Packers’ primary processing facilities and corporate headquarters. The plant can slaughter 16,500 hogs in a two-shift operation every day. It is the latest in several expansion and renovation projects.
A new $40 million addition has just been added to West Liberty Foods’ new 1.6 million pounds-per-week co-packing facility that opened in Tremonton, Utah last September. The co-packing plant is more than 205,000 square feet in size, including 67,000 square feet for slicing, a 67,000 individually quick-frozen section, and a cold-storage facility owned and operated by Millard Refrigerated Services. The facility opened with 300 employees, but with the expansion, now totals 420 workers. The new addition, an IQF "add-on," increases space by 24,000 square feet. The brand-new plant expansion includes five slice lines and an individually quick-frozen (IQF) line. The plant that opened last fall cost $70 million, and is the first in the industry to manufacture 10-foot logs of luncheon meat for slicing. Products sliced in the plant include turkey, ham, roast beef, chicken and cheese, as well as doing IQF and fully-cooked, value-added products, including chopped/formed, patties, nuggets and meatballs, battered/breaded products, and char-grilled whole chicken breasts, chicken tenders and other poultry products.
Tyson Foods Inc. and Syntroleum Corp. teamed up in two months ago to form Dynamic Fuels LLC, with the idea of producing renewable synthetic fuels, by converting low-grade inedible fats and greases into renewable synthetic diesel fuel at a new plant to be built in Geismar, La. Replacing traditional petroleum fuel substantially reduces total greenhouse gas emissions. The project budget totals $138 million, and the plant should produce about 75 million gallons of renewable synthetic fuel every year. And unlike the ethanol and bio-diesel industries, which use food ingredients like corn and soybeans to produce fuel, this new facility will use various non-food grade animal fats produced or procured by Tyson Foods, such as beef tallow, pork lard, chicken fat and greases.
A relocation project announced in July is West-Conshohocken, Pa.-based Keystone Foods move from a 75,000 squarefoot location in Gadsden, Ala. to a new 184,000 square-foot location in the same city. The plant will double its operations, with 200 new jobs being added to the current 520-member workforce. Keystone is leasing part of the new property to Southern Cold Storage to build a storage and distribution facility that will serve the new plant. That will add another 40 jobs, according to Keystone plant manager Victor Turner. Gadsden Mayor Sherman Guyton says the projects together represent a $127 million investment in the city The Gadsden plant processes mostly chicken and a small amount of beef for the restaurant industry. Some of the company’s main customers include McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut.
Also in July, a 130,000 square-foot meat processing plant was built in Seminole, Okla. for the Mexican company Sigma Alimentos. Mexico’s largest refrigerated foods company built a plant in the U.S. to grow its customer base here. The Oklahoma plant will produce Mexican-style hams, cold cuts and hot dogs. To prevent cross-contamination in the plant, the facility features separate raw and ready-to-eat areas.