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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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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