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Take a Tour of the New Prestage Foods Pork Plant
Let's take a tour of the newest and most modern pork packing plant in America, Prestage Foods of Iowa, near Eagle Grove.
Grab a hard hat, white coat, and boots. Put your rings and other jewelry in your pocket. Wash your hands. Walk over a disinfectant pad. Let’s go. (If you are squeamish, skip over the kill floor photos.)
Our first guide is Jere Null, CEO (right). Null spent 22 years with Smithfield before joining Prestage in 2017 to oversee the new plant.
The plant opened in March and is killing about 5,400 hogs a day, which is on schedule, says Null. The bulk of the pigs harvested today, about 85%, are owned by Prestage Farms, but that percentage will drop to 60% when the plant is running at full speed.
Prestage Farms is based in Clinton, North Carolina, and owns 185,000 sows. It is the largest family-owned pork producer in the U.S. today.
“This is the most advanced pork facility in the entire world," says Null. "We built this plant with a producer mind-set. Producers always look at packers with a skeptical eye. It was clear that the capital we were investing in the live end of the pig business was not being rewarded proportionately to the packer end. You have to vertically integrate or you are not going to be around. Prestage did it once in turkeys, so we are doing it in pork.”
A small percent of the pork from the plant is being exported to Mexico and China, but that will increase, says Null. The goal is to export 30% of the product out of here.
There are about 600 workers at the plant now. It will take 920 to man the plant at full capacity.
The plant was designed so managers can get to the cut floor and the kill floor quickly and easily, says Null.
Much of the plant is automated. Robots pull ribs and loins, and cut bellies with a water jet. “We are using revolutionary equipment in the plant,” says Null. “We have tried to replace a lot of the laborious jobs with automation.”
The plant is kept as dry as possible, for less bacteria, says Null. “People used to believe you had to wet everything down, but now we know you want to keep plants dry.”
These carcasses are coming right out of the cooler. The pigs were killed yesterday. The floor is running today about 800 head an hour, but will ultimately go to about 1,300 head. A computer is taking an image of every ham that comes through.
“There are a lot of things on the cutting side of this business that matter, including the perfection of the splitting,” says Null. “I’ve never worked anywhere with better process control than this plant.”
The plant is not boning hams yet. That will be phase two. Today, most of the hams are going to Mexico or to other companies like Smithfield or Hormel to be processed.
About 45% of the meat is going to go to industrial customers. Hams, bellies, and trimmings are going to processors that make sausage, bacon, and ham. About 55% of the meat is going to retail and food service. The rest is sold fresh.
Export customers like Japan want a red meat and firm, not oily, fat.
Everything on the cut floor is computerized. Most of the equipment is locked out and will shut down if there is a safety violation. “As an industry, we had a bad safety record in the 1980s and 1990s,” says Null. “This equipment is literally locked down now so you can’t get caught in it.”
Let’s head back to the beginning of the process.
Our new guide is Eric Hogle, director of procurement. Hogle works with producers. He grew up in nearby Clarion, Iowa. After getting a degree in animal science, he worked for Hormel in Nebraska where he got experience in animal welfare, carcass evaluation, and the cut floor. “I have had a roundabout experience in everything in a plant,” says Hogle. He joined Prestage in January 2018 as employee #4 (Jere Null was the first employee), so he was able to weigh in on the barn design and other aspects of the plant.
The top managers at Prestage were all plucked from other packers such as Smithfield, Hormel, Tyson, and Seaboard-Triumph. “We took what worked well at all those companies and went one step further in automation,” says Hogle.
The barn is a herring-bone design, so there are no 90˚ corners throughout the entire facility. All traffic moves one way, with no cross traffic of pigs.
Misters keep pigs cool in the summer, and in-floor heat keeps them warm in the winter. Fresh air is pulled from the east side of the barn across to a filter on the west side. Those cool cells filter the air going out using water to capture the dust particles.
“The air we are exhausting has a low impact from an odor standpoint,” says Hogle. “Stand out there in between livestock and rendering on the other side of the building and you would think you were in the middle of the country, even though you have two of the most pungent odors from a livestock harvest standpoint.”
The barn holds 6,000 pigs. There are about 2,500 pigs in barn this morning and workers will continue unloading trucks until about 12:30 p.m. Pig deliveries start at 2:30 a.m., the coolest part of the day in the summer. “If we can get the pigs in our barn early where there are misters and air flow, that is a lot better from a handling standpoint,” says Hogle.
Every load of hogs to the plant is scheduled a minimum of a week in advance. The goal is to eliminate wait time for trucks of pigs. “Based on our design, we can bring in up to 1,700 pigs per hour without ever having a truck wait in line,” says Hogle.
In one pen, an employee in the quality control department is holding a cup on a long pole, waiting for a pig to urinate. The sample will be tested for ractopamine, a feed additive that is not allowed in pork going through this plant.
If a pig doesn’t fit the harvest requirements due to a belly bust, weight issue, or more, it is segregated and sent to another buyer. No pigs under 200 pounds or over 350 pounds are harvested at the plant. USDA inspectors monitor every pen for health status.
Pigs are harvested and hung on a trolley. Each trolley has a unique series of holes drilled in it. Prestage can match each carcass to a trolley as it goes across the hot scale and into a cooler. Later on, carcasses can be segregated according to the number on separate rails in the cooler.
Now it’s time to disassemble the carcass. Anything that goes into the trough goes into rendering. There is a vacuum system on a timer that sucks everything out of the trough and over to the rendering system. Unlike old packing plants, there is no need to have a basement under the facility.
Here is the first section of automation on the harvest floor, the automatic carcass openers. Each one of these openers is actually doing three different jobs. They are splitting the aitch bone, opening the soft belly cavity, and splitting the brisket, all in one big motion. A laser light scans the carcass, takes measurements and knows exactly where to cut. The robot can tell if there is a belly rupture or other problem, and it will bypass that carcass to be opened manually. “The beauty of this system is you reduce your contaminated carcasses easily in half,” says Hogle.
If you watch the robot and pay attention to the saw blade, you will see that between every single carcass it sanitizes the blade.
Automatic neck clippers do a job that used to be done by hand. Another laser light and set of cameras is measuring how long the carcass is and cutting at the right angle and height.
The viscera set is pulled down out of the carcass and drops into a pan for USDA inspection. If inspectors see anything unhealthy, they use purple ink in the pan to show none of it can be used for edible production. They palpate the visceral set and make sure no tumors are present or anything that would lead them to believe there may be some type of infection.
The head drops and hangs down by its jowl which exposes the lymph nodes in the head to the USDA head inspectors on the other side of the line. All parts of the carcass are 100% inspected.
A final cut removes the kidneys, which go to rendering. This is a high-risk area for fecal or ingested contamination. Any area of concern gets a purple mark. That is a signal to workers to trim that piece off prior to going to the final inspection by the USDA. It can be something as simple as one little fleck. Contamination rates are extremely low. We’ve watched 30 carcasses go by and haven’t seen a single mark.
If carcasses do have contamination from a broken bile sack, for example, they are railed off to the side, trimmed and then railed back on the line for final inspection.
The final USDA inspector looks at the front side of the carcass first and then spins it to look at the back side. Now it has the USDA mark of inspection and it can be used for food. It’s not until after the final USDA inspection that Prestage owns the carcass. Up until that point, the producer still owns the pig.
Vacuums remove the spinal cord, which goes to rendering. Lard is trimmed and sent to rendering to be made into choice white grease. Other rendered pieces are cooked down, ground up, and made into meat and bone meal.
The carcasses are weighed and bone dust is removed.
Now it’s going to get really cold. Watch your footing.
This is the snap chill corridor. There are three different stages to the snap chill area, each at a different temperature. The first one is the coldest at -25˚F. Carcasses are in this section for 20 minutes. The next section is -5˚F. They are in there for 30 minutes. The third section is 4˚F. They are there for another 30 minutes. From there they go to the coolers.
The outside is flash frozen, explains Hogle. When the carcass reaches the cooler the outside is as hard as a rock, but the internal temperature of the ham is 70˚.
“The premise behind the snap chill is to cool that carcass as fast as possible,” he says. “In the conversion of muscle to meat, the faster you can chill it down, the higher the pH. The higher the pH, the more water-holding capacity of the meat. We typically run about a 6.0 on pH. Plants that don’t have a snap chill will typically be about a 5.6, a huge difference.”
The four equilibrium bays in the cooler have a total capacity of 12,500 carcasses. The plant is not up to full capacity, so there is plenty of extra rail space. Here the carcasses come to an equilibrium point between internal and external temperatures.
These carcasses will chill in the cooler overnight and head to the cut floor in the morning.
You have finished the tour and are back in the lobby. For more information, go to http://www.prestagefarms.com/prestage-foods-processing-plants/
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