2013 Processor of the Year: For ConAgra Foods, Manufacturing Is a Core Competency

Despite a dizzying variety of products, ConAgra Foods always has prided itself on manufacturing great food.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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Management sets the agenda, whether it's the "zero-loss mindset" that drives production or the worker-safety initiative known as SWAG (safety with a goal), but the staff must take the lead if the desired results are to be achieved, he adds. "The people who really know how to run this place are out on the floor, and we have to listen to them," Castanhinha says, adding safety is "employee led; it can't be a policing action."

Near-miss documentation, peer observations and other employee-driven efforts have helped drive down recordable incidents and other injury metrics. Company-wide, the OSHA Incident Rate is down almost 28 percent, to 1.58 incidents per 100 full-time workers.

War on waste

"Personnel safety is employee led," Poppe re-emphasizes. "We are committed to being a good corporate citizen, and that starts with our employees' well-being.

"Safety is our entry point for best practices that engage our employees to help make us a better company," he continues. "We systematically identify skills our employees need to perform their roles, train them and then validate that the training has been effective."

That approach is reflected in ConAgra Foods' sustainability program. Corporate goals for reductions in solid-waste generation, energy consumption and water use were set in 2010, and green teams in the facilities identify the changes needed to attain them.

"Making sure we keep our lines stocked with what we need" is a big part of the effort in Council Bluffs, says Castanhinha, and it also advances the zero-loss objective. Identifying opportunities for re-use also contributes to landfill diversion.

For example, Council Bluffs generates 275,000 empty 5-gal. plastic buckets a year. The green team created a partnership with a firm that converts those buckets into water-filtration systems, portable toilets and shipping containers for medical supplies. "Separation of waste streams sounds simple but can be quite complex," offers Poppe, and detailed approaches developed at two facilities now serve as best practices for the entire organization.

Waste diversion has been so successful, ConAgra Foods was forced to move the goalposts. Twenty-seven facilities have achieved zero-landfill status, and a 93 percent diversion rate is the new corporate goal.

A 15 percent cut in water used per pound of finished goods compared to a 2008 baseline is proving more difficult to attain. A reduction of 4.8 percent has been achieved so far, though additional opportunities are being identified. Gail Tavill, vice president-sustainable development, cites the "drip spotters" team established in Russellville, Ark. Armed with blue tags, team members flag leaks and open spigots. In the first few months, 70 drips were fixed, saving millions of gallons, she says.

Those types of efforts are nominated annually for company Sustainable Development Awards that become network best practices. Since 2009, award-winning ideas have saved ConAgra Foods $122 million, estimates Tavill.

New lines of business and a growing roster of production sites will further complicate goal-achievement, but the more important objective is building a large, diverse manufacturing organization that does many things well.

"The store and the consumer and constantly changing," Poppe muses. "We have to react more quickly to those changes. That's where we're driving a lot of synergies."

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