Because surprise is the HACCP inspector's calling card, it should come as no surprise at all that representatives from the American Institute of Baking (AIB) select a raw, unwelcoming morning in mid-December to come calling on The Blendex Company, a Louisville, Ky.-based processor of breadings, batters and dough.
"It might as well be today," shrugs Ron Pottinger, president of Blendex. "Today is no different than any other." Inspectors will spend their first day at Blendex reviewing the company's paperwork, making sure that all HACCP-related documents and records are up to date, Pottinger blandly relates, and their second performing a top-to-bottom survey of the company's plant. His offhandedness suggests he is an old hand at this. He isn't. Blendex only received HACCP certification the previous spring, the first custom blender in the nation to do so. This inspection is the company's first.
Weeks later, Pottinger reports that the plant received a superior rating, with only one small proviso. The perimeter of the 100,000-sq.-ft. facility that houses Blendex's offices, plant and shipping and receiving facilities is scored with grass, and inspectors have recommended that it be replaced with white gravel so that rodents can be spotted more easily. "They have a natural tendency to run along a building's edge," Pottinger says, "which is why we set our traps there." The inspection, he adds, was "extremely thorough. They aim to keep you on your toes." When reminded of how relaxed he appeared that morning, he responds that his father, Eugene, who founded the company in 1979, "had a zero tolerance for anything less than perfection." Pottinger's father is gone, but the sentiment lingers.
To be the best
Part of Pottinger's drive may have to do with perception. Even after 25 years, a period in which the company shed a chrysalis of seasoned flour to emerge as one of the nation's leading suppliers of custom-blended dough, breading mixes, seasonings and marinades -- a period in which it also built four bulk flour silos and oil tanks and boosted product throughput from 4 million to 45 million pounds per year -- Pottinger still regards Blendex as "a child in the woods." Most major dry ingredient blenders have been in operation for 75 years or more, having first learned the business by operating as mills, Pottinger says. Blendex, by comparison, simply started from scratch. The only way to compete, then as now, was to be the best.
Pottinger has been known to turn away entire truckloads of incoming product if it doesn't meet exact specifications upon receipt and inspection. Product that does pass muster is bar-coded for traceability before it is stored. Once ready for processing, all batch ingredients are double-weighed to ensure miscalculations don't compromise taste, texture or the processing operation itself. While one worker weighs the ingredients without any references, another checks them against specifications. If the numbers don't match, the blender , a ribbon blender, Pottinger points out, to promote consistency -- will remain idle until they do. Pointing to a large sack, Pottinger notes that all incoming spices are "bacteria reduced," meaning they have been irradiated prior to arriving at the plant. "Our suppliers charge a premium to do it, but it's well worth it," he says. "These days, you can't afford to take any chances." Pottinger and his crew are even sensitive to the ways that differences in weight and density among sugar, salt and flour can affect product integrity once product is shipped. "Train cars have a tendency to gallop a bit once they get moving, causing materials to naturally sift," he explains. "Ours don't because we use fine-ground salt and sugars that more closely match the profile of the flour. Consequently, the ingredients bind better. Materials like that are more costly, but again, they're well worth it."
Different day, same product
Shaped, as they are, by seasonal changes, geography and the unsteady hand of nature, materials such as flour, sugar and spice are sometimes subject to variability. Customer expectations, however, are not. Predictability is the life's blood of clients such as Kellogg, or the restaurant chains Wendy's and Texas Roadhouse, all companies that rely on their ability to produce the same product the same way day in and day out. "Consistency is tough when you're dealing with commodities," Pottinger says. "We may discover that a red pepper has the proper heat, but not the appropriate hue, in which case we'll add dye to it , whatever adjustment is necessary to ensure product is uniform. It's not always easy. You may find that the moisture content isn't the same, the ash content isn't the same"
How, one wonders, are discrepancies such as those resolved? "Sometimes they're not," Pottinger says. "Some shipments never make it past the front door."
Blendex's affinity for minute or exacting details has earned the company a reputation for tackling projects that other suppliers can't , or won't. "It started with taking orders that other suppliers found too time-consuming -- projects that may have been too dusty or too difficult to clean up," Pottinger recalls. "After awhile, we started getting more unusual requests. Could we make Teriyaki sauce? Chocolate mix? You could say that's how we found our niche. Our competitors deal in volume, while we deal with items that may have two to three premixes." Today, Blendex produces more than 200 dry food products, including barbecue rubs, sauces and mixes for biscuits, pancakes and waffles, not to mention several private label products. As such, the company's R&D department is continually developing new recipes or modifying existing ones. Some of the formulas are rather complex, particularly when specifications call for dry blends of such disparate elements as delicate herbs and dense whole spices, powdery ground spices and granular salts. In some cases, a pinch of soybean oil may is added to ensure spices are dispersed evenly. In others, oils and oleoresins are plated onto salts.
On the floor, the ribbon blenders help to further optimize blending consistency. The blenders feature a pair of weaving ribbon agitators, with the circling outer agitator catching product and essentially transferring it to the inner agitator. The rotating ribbons move materials both radially and laterally to ensure thorough blends in short cycle times. Typical blend times are 10 to 20 minutes.
During product development, R&D frequently recruits consumer panels to evaluate samples according to their taste, color, mouthfeel, aftertaste and texture, among other variables. Based on their suggestions, R&D may reformulate or recommend that production processes be modified. If the product doesn't result in consistent taste, color, texture and quality, it doesn't ship, Pottinger says.
He acknowledges that customers are as likely to raise the bar these days as he is, which is why Blendex's decision to seek HACCP certification was essentially a joint one. Processors, he elaborates, are simply not as tolerant of inferior or adulterated product as they once were, nor, in view of mounting concern about bioterrorism and food safety, can they afford to be. Pottinger himself routinely dispatches workers to inspect the facilities of Blendex suppliers, so it was only natural that his company subject itself to the same scrutiny. In all, the process of acquiring HACCP certification took more than a year, with Compliance Manager Jim Meyer, an 18-year veteran of Blendex, leading the project. Among other activities, Meyer received schooling on the subject from AIB and consulted with Canada's Guelph Food Technology Center, one of the foremost leaders in food safety and pathogen reduction. Meyer also formed an internal HACCP committee that, in addition to members of management, included employees from operations, particularly those involved in quality control.
Given the nature of the undertaking, one of the primary objectives was to identify critical control points within the entire Blendex operation , from material receiving and storage to processing, packaging, warehousing and shipping. Meyer recalls that members of the Guelph Center, to whom he submitted an initial draft of the company's HACCP manual, found the breadth of the proposed program impressive. Too impressive, as it turned out. "They told us we needed to streamline the manual," Meyer recalls. "That in and of itself was a huge learning process. We essentially had to pare down our critical control points from 17 to just a handful." The team eventually homed in on metal detection , the final critical control point prior to shipment an in-line sifter, among other activities.
Much of the HACCP training dovetails nicely with a more recent effort to promote allergen control in the facility. In addition to installing a dust collection system to contend with peanut flour and other potential sources of cross-contamination, Blendex has incorporated air locks and, where appropriate, one-way air flows into its HVAC system. Some processing lines are dedicated to non-allergenic product. Those that aren't , say, a pancake mix with nuts , are relegated to the end of a shift, after which cleaning crews arrive to prepare equipment for the following shift.
At about the same time Blendex was seeking HACCP certification, the events of September 11th alerted management to the urgency of plant security, an issue it has since taken several steps to address. "Every day we get letters from customers asking what we're doing," Pottinger says. And everyday, it seems, the company is doing something new. Some 25 cameras have been deployed throughout the facility to monitor employees, who now must use push-button codes in order to access certain areas of the processing plant and warehouse. Other points of entry have been completely eliminated. A chain link fence was erected around the facility's perimeter. Employees must now wear uniforms. And, yes, their backgrounds are checked before they are brought on board.
In many respects, Blendex remains an employee-driven enterprise. There was talk, for instance, of purchasing a palletizer, but end products are of such wildly differing size and shape that any given model could only accommodate a handful of them. Blendex employs some 100 workers, 20 of whom perform office work and 80 who work in the plant. The company runs two shifts of 40 workers each.
Like many processors, Pottinger says that attracting and retaining qualified labor, or unqualified labor for that matter, is a particular challenge. Unemployment in the Louisville area hovers at 4 percent, with UPS and some local auto plants providing stiff competition for plant labor. "It's easier to raise the price of autos to cover a wage increase than it is to raise the price of food," Pottinger says.
"Those who are hired are trained from the ground up , how to run a forklift, how to wear a uniform , you name it," he says. "We teach them everything they need to know."