Traditional Manufacturing Values Keep Hormel Ahead of the Pack

One of America’s oldest food processing firms continues to keep its eye on tomorrow. Its 26-year-old Austin, Minn., plant may be the largest in the world.

By Mike Pehanich, Plant Operations Editor

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“We can buy generic empty cans and don’t have to run through an inventory of pre-printed cans,” says Coffey. “If we want to change our marketing (or a recipe), we can do it more quickly. We only have to apply a label.” 

A plaque-filled wall in the Hormel R&D center in Austin honors the company’s “hall of fame” patents. On it is a special recognition award for high-pressure pasteurization (HPP). While Hormel can’t take credit for the HPP patent, the company looms large in advancing this breakthrough process in the production of ready-to-eat meats, thanks to an engineering group that added proprietary improvements to the equipment. 

HPP is the linchpin of the preservative-free process for Natural Choice, the first nationally distributed meat product line processed with HPP. Hormel also exposes its foodservice sliced meats, including its Bread Ready line, to high pressure after final packaging.

“We employed a cross-functional food safety effort to validate the pressure and time required to eliminate listeria with the process,” explains Kevin Myers, group manager for fresh and processed meats. “To introduce the Natural Choice line without preservatives, we needed the HPP process for our products to remain safe.” 

Technology in Action in Austin

Palletizing robot: One of the busiest and most accurate workers in the Hormel plant in Austin, Minn., is the palletizing robot that prepares 80-lb. boxes of fresh pork loins and butts for shipment. In place of the teams of employees that performed the task 10 years ago, a single plant worker now monitors the work of the robot, which reads the bar code, identifies the item, takes boxes off the line, palletizes up to three items at once, puts in separators and moves pallets as needed.

AS/RS: The plant’s automated storage and retrieval system is a computer-controlled high-density storage system. Unmanned cars control up to 13,000 pallets in a four-row configuration 13 stories high on a first-in, first-out basis. “We built this into our plant 25 years ago,” says plant manager Mark Coffey. “It was way ahead of its time.”

Heat recovery: Another area of plant pride is in the rendering plant where recovered waste heat is recycled to heat the floors under livestock holding pens. Ice on the floors was once a common problem during January in Minnesota. But today, Hormel’s livestock can remain sure-footed until slaughter thanks to this eco- and cost-friendly innovation.

High-pressure pasteurization kills microorganisms such as salmonella and listeria by collapsing their cell walls under extremely high pressure.

“It’s an extra food safety hurdle for us,” explains Coffey, noting that meat products are exposed to pathogen risk each time they are exposed to an additional piece of equipment or process step. “We have our GMPs [good manufacturing practices] and SSOPs [sanitary standard operating procedures] in place to see that [pathogens] are not getting into the product. But this is a final step while the product is already in its final package.”

To face what Coffey calls “the economic headwinds” represented by the rising costs of commodities, fuel and even feed grains, Hormel has stepped up its efforts to improve manufacturing efficiencies and asset utilization as well as its sustainability efforts.

 

Among the company’s most significant and publicized sustainability efforts is the Dubuque plant, destined to produce Compleats and canned products. Hormel is employing the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) guidelines for sustainable, environmentally friendly facilities from before the groundbreaking. (See Hormel Cultivates a Green Plant)

“By putting more product through our facilities, we lower fixed costs,” explains Coffey. “As for our sustainability initiatives, going green is good for the environment, but it is also economically cost beneficial. It’s a matter of asset utilization, better control of the things we can control such as yields, efficient utilization of raw materials…efficient utilization of labor. These are all examples of attempts to offset what we know are increasing input costs.”

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