Food Processing Awards ConAgra/Lamb Weston 2011 Green Plant of the Year

ConAgra Foods' Delhi, La. sweet potato processing plant not only contributes to a healthier Earth but also to a healthier bottom line for the Omaha, Neb.-based food company.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

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For the second year, we asked you to identify the best recent examples of green/sustainable food manufacturing plants, and 3,092 of you picked the winner. That is, after you had nominated three exemplary plants for that honor.

Faribault Foods' main plant in Faribault, Minn., General Mills' Albuquerque, N.M., plant and the ConAgra/Lamb Weston facility profiled below were the finalists in the first step of our process, which started with your nominations on our web site during May and June. Those three nominees were asked for 200-word essays to help familiarize you with their efforts.

In late June and July, we asked you to return to our web site and choose among those finalists. We were overwhelmed by your response – 3,092 votes were cast in just one month. ConAgra's Delhi, La., plant was the runaway winner this year. That plant joins last year's winner, Kettle Foods' Beloit, Wis., plant, in our virtual hall of fame.

Following is a trio of stories: a profile of the ConAgra Delhi, La., plant; ConAgra's corporate philosophy on sustainability; and the nominating essays of the two runners-up.

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ConAgra Foods, Delhi, La.

Sweet energy savings are no small potatoes

We may still call this our Green Plant of the Year contest, but the color green has transcended Earth-friendliness to the color of money.

The design and construction of ConAgra Foods' Delhi, La., sweet potato processing plant, completed in September 2010, not only contributes to a healthier Earth but also to a healthier bottom line for the Omaha, Neb.-based food company (www.conagrafoods.com).

The 164,000-sq.-ft. plant earned Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council in January. LEED platinum is the highest distinction achievable through this program, and the Delhi plant is the first frozen food manufacturing facility in the world to achieve it, the company claims.

"We had an opportunity to build a great sustainable plant from scratch, which is right for our customers, our business and who we are as a company," said Rick Martin, vice president for manufacturing at ConAgra's Lamb Weston division, which operates the plant. "We had very aggressive quality goals and very specific environmental goals. We wanted this plant to showcase everything we had learned in 10 years of sweet potato processing. And we wanted it to be a facility the employees were proud of."

Some examples of how the Delhi plant is sustainable:

  • Energy-saving equipment is projected to save 40 percent of the annual requirements of comparable plants.
  • Biogas, produced by treating process waste water, is piped back to the plant and is expected to offset approximately 20 percent of annual natural gas demand of the plant.
  • Climate controls throughout the facility increase worker productivity, comfort and safety.
  • Low-VOC materials, including paint, carpeting and cleaning products, are used in the interior, reducing worker exposure to airborne pollutants.
  • More than 100 acres of property will be maintained as open space, including protected wet-land areas.
  • Fuel efficient vehicles and van-pools get priority parking privileges.

"Previously, people thought of doing things on a ‘first-cost basis,' not really for the long term," says James Lime, ConAgra's vice president of environment, health and safety and the head of the company's sustainability efforts. But he says the Delhi plant shows that a properly designed and built facility – with a little more funding up front – can be good for the community, good for the employees and good for company shareholders.

The Lamb Weston division supplies sweet and regular potatoes plus other vegetables in frozen form, operating 15 manufacturing facilities in North America and five more in Europe. It segued into sweet potatoes about 10 years ago and was further augmented by the corporation's acquisition of Alexia Foods in 2007. That timing put the company at the crest of a wave of interest in the orange potatoes. They're not just a holiday side dish anymore. Consumers are enjoying them as a different option and in different forms (french fries, chips) and appreciating them for their dietary fiber and vitamins A, B6 and C.

"One of the things we looked for was to be close to a growing area, and Louisiana is one of the best sources; we had been buying sweet potatoes from there and shipping them to our plants in the Northwest for years," says Martin. "We found not only a prime growing region but a community and a state that were ready to work with Lamb Weston to make this happen."

The plant design is particularly heavy on reuse and recycling of energy. "We get the most out of every BTU and kilowatt hour we buy," says Martin. But that also was the most difficult part of this plant's sustainability story. "The level we took energy reuse to … let's just say the devil was in the details."

LEED certification also requires plants to use recycled materials in construction, to install as much natural lighting as possible and to pay attention to indoor air quality.

Waste byproducts – small pieces of sweet potato – are sent to a digester that turns them into methane gas, which is reused in the facility, cutting natural gas needs by about 20 percent.

Most importantly, the greening of this plant did not end at the ribbon cutting. "We try to instill a culture of sustainability in all our employees," says Martin, "We have an active and ongoing employee engagement program where people are expected to own their job processes and make them as green and efficient as possible. That means constantly trying to improve things. I like to say the engineers designed and built this plant, but now the employees must take a very good plant and make it even better."

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General Mills, Albuquerque, N.M.

General Mills' Albuquerque plant is committed to a sustainable future by continuously striving to improve its environmental performance. A recent addition incorporated a number of environmental features that have been recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The addition has qualified for "silver" under the USGBC's LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) standards and is being considered for "gold" certification. The Albuquerque plant is one of a select group of food manufacturing facilities to earn this recognition.

Other environmentally friendly features include an energy-efficient production line upgrade that uses 25 percent less energy, and an HVAC system that reduces energy consumption by automatically substituting outdoor air for conditioned air on cool nights. Water conservation is also a priority for the plant. Storm water generated on the site is retained in designated areas, and non-native, water-intensive grasses have been removed and replaced with native vegetation that requires minimal watering. Finally, the expansion shortens the distance product has to travel from our production lines to customers, reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

This plant has achieved a special combination of functionality, productivity and sustainability, providing not only business value to General Mills but a commitment to a greener future.

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Faribault Foods: Faribault, Minn.

Faribault Foods, in conjunction with selected contractors, designed and installed an energy-saving heat and water recovery system retrofit for its bean cannery in Faribault, Minn., in November 2009. The plant accounted for roughly 21 percent of the city's water use and 20 percent of sewer flow, and was one of Xcel Energy's largest-volume natural gas customers.

To address these environmental impacts and increase efficiency, the plant developed a system to recover and reuse 100 percent of the process heat, allowing Faribault Foods to decrease its heat-energy per can by 25 percent, decrease water use by 20 percent and sewer flow by 25 percent, and account for 13 percent of Xcel Energy's business customers' natural gas savings in 2009. The system also reduces the plant's water usage by nearly 100 million gallons per year. The natural gas savings accounts for a reduction of 3,030 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. The water savings would provide the water for roughly 4,000 average homes annually.

This project has been awarded:

  • The 2010 Xcel Energy Efficiency Award for the largest natural gas reduction in Minnesota, a total of 38.7 percent since 2007!
  • The 2010 Environmental Initiative Award for "Green Business and Environmental Management."
  • The 2010 Environmental Initiative Award for "Partnership of the Year."

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Sustainable Plant (www.SustainablePlant.com) is an online information resource and community dedicated to improving the sustainability of manufacturing and other industrial operations to the long-term benefit of society.

A confluence of social, economic and environmental trends has contributed to the rise of sustainability as a key organizational performance metric of today and for the future. From a resource perspective, a growing global population and rising standard of living point to the need to produce more energy and yet use it more efficiently. These same demographic pressures apply to the optimal use and re-use of raw materials and water as well as the reduction of polluting emissions and waste. Further, growing evidence of climate change has raised awareness of the importance of reducing the production of greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide.

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