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Green Plant of the Year 2023: Hormel's Fontanini Foods

Oct. 16, 2023
Hormel’s Fontanini Foods plant used ingenuity and innovative engineering to drive down water and energy use and minimize the oils and sludge in the Illinois plant’s wastewater stream.

Food Processing’s Green Plant of the Year award has been awarded every year for more than a decade, but this year’s winning plant and parent company have been sustainability-focused for much longer than that.

When Hormel Foods purchased Fontanini Foods in 2017, the latter’s McCook, Ill., plant was less than 10 years old. However, it had already gone through three expansions to enable the company to produce more Italian meats, sausages, pizza toppings and meatballs for its foodservice customers. Fontanini Foods fit right in with Hormel’s culture, and that has extended to the foundational efforts to be more sustainable.

The combined effort of the teams at Fontanini Foods and Hormel Foods has reduced the Fontanini plant’s environmental impacts significantly in numerous areas — and has resulted in Hormel Foods becoming the first two-time winner of the Green Plant of the Year Award (the company’s Progressive Processing facility in Dubuque, Iowa, won in 2012).

Fontanini Foods emerged from a packed field of six candidates this year, edging out TreeHouse Foods, Wayne-Sanderson Farms, Smithfield Foods, West Liberty Foods and Conagra Brands to claim the prize.

Doubling down on water use

As sustainability has grown from buzzword to booming industry, food and beverage processors continue to monitor, develop and invest in environmental science and innovation. Keen eyes have been turned toward initiatives that minimize environmental impacts — and positively impact the bottom line as well. In some cases, opportunities to save resources can be found in plain sight, explains Michael Wysocki, manager of plant engineering for Fontanini Foods.

“Just walking by every day, you look for opportunities,” he says. The Fontanini team noticed a potential project in the cook room, where several ovens featured sealed cooling jackets filled with water, designed to help the oven deliver an even heat load across the entire product stream.

Water would come in from the municipal supply at 45-50 degrees, recirculate through the cooling jacket and eventually heat up to about 180 degrees, at which point it was drained and dumped.

“We saw a lot of hot water going down the drain from the ovens,” Wysocki says. “Now, we’re doing something with these ovens that had never been done before, recovering that water for use in our boiler system.”

At the beginning of this long, challenging journey, Fontanini Foods brought in equipment and water treatment vendors -- and Hormel’s corporate engineering group, equipment experts at the plant and other engineering resources also chipped in significant contributions. Andrew Sieren, Fontanini Foods plant manager, says it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that such a project became a team effort.

“Sustainability has been a big piece of Hormel Foods; it’s in our DNA along with continuous improvement,” he says. “A large part of what we do is try to drive waste out of the process, and that includes water use, waste generation, greenhouse gas emissions and non-renewable forms of energy.”

It became clear early on, Wysocki says, that this project would be a heavy lift, simply for all the different systems it impacted and inputs needed. “It was touching so many different systems at the same time,” he says, “and we simply could not negatively impact the quality of our products in any way.”

The final recirculation system at Fontanini not only saves on water use, “there’s a double sustainability effect here because of the free heat from the water, which allows us to save on natural gas needed to heat the incoming water,” Wysocki says.

In conjunction with the hot water reuse system, Fontanini looked at the hardness of its municipal water supply and determined it needed to do something to soften the incoming water to extend the life of its boilers and decrease blowdown losses.

The plant opted to invest in a reverse-osmosis (RO) system to remove the hardness and impurities which occur naturally in the incoming water supply — such as calcium or magnesium. These impurities can build up and hamper the efficiency of boilers and ammonia condensers over time if not addressed via regular blowdowns, a technique that uses internal pressure to force the impurities out of the equipment before they build up.

Unfortunately, for a company trying to minimize water use, a blowdown drains all the perfectly good and useable water from the system, wasting it simply to force out any impurities. With softer water from the RO unit, Fontanini Foods has been able to greatly reduce the number of blowdowns needed, which means less fresh water is needed to replenish the system.

Early wastewater intervention, more efficient energy use

Fontanini Foods also embarked upon a wastewater improvement process, an initiative Wysocki says offered a good look at the culture of employee engagement and empowerment at the company.

“We improved oil recovery from the ovens as well as our water cooker,” he says. “That was driven by the operations team, and we had a lot of employees very interested in getting to the bottom of it, trying to figure out how we could make the process better and recover more oil.”

A focus group was assembled and ideas were developed with the approach of trying to separate as much of the oil from the process/wastewater as early in the process as possible. One step that has paid dividends already was the installation of an oil skimmer in the wastewater process.

The skimmer works in conjunction with the plant’s sump pit, where the oils separate from the water after processing. The machine circulates a tube made of a special plastic that attracts the oils through the wastewater and collects it before the water passes through the dissolved-air flotation (DAF) system.

Wastewater reaching the DAF is then “cleaner” than it might have been without the oil skimmer. The oils and sludge skimmed from the sump basin are pumped directly into the waste stream, which is then sent to a third-party renderer for conversion into biodiesel.

“We’re pulling out as much of that oil as we can, as early as we can, before it gets mixed and emulsified-in as it’s running through the pumps and tanks,” Wysocki explains. “It’s been a huge driver of our ability to reduce how much sludge we’re creating, our wastewater chemical usage and our total suspended solids that we’re discharging to the municipal water district.”

Fontanini has made changes to the way it runs its high-pressure pumps for sanitation water as well, resulting in a significant reduction in the energy needed for that system. The previous operating procedure of running one of the plant’s pumps continuously during processing was found to be wasteful, and the team looked at alternatives.

“We ended up installing a 40hp pump on a variable-speed drive with a floating head pressure control, which allows the pump to automatically ramp up and down to meet the variable demand out in the plant,” Wysocki says. “Instead of running a 100hp fixed-speed pump for 16-17 hours a day, we’re running this system now and have been able to reduce the amount of energy used to pump high-pressure sanitation water considerably.”

Sieren adds that the company’s efforts to be more sustainable have succeeded regardless of the size of the initiative.

“It’s not just one big thing that we accomplished; it’s a lot of little things that have added to our improvements,” he explains. “We talked about the RO system and heat recovery, but we also retrofitted the plant’s lighting to LED, we’ve looked at recycling differently, keeping different materials separate to ship out.”

The plant also has implemented duty cycling in its ammonia evaporators in the coolers throughout the facility. Wysocki explains that the team has found that in certain rooms in the plant, in which there isn’t a lot of equipment or personnel, the largest heat load on the room becomes the ammonia evaporator itself. With the help of some control upgrades, the Fontanini Foods plant is using this to its advantage now.

“Instead of running these [evaporator] motors 24 hours a day, the ammonia unit will shut them off once it finds that the cooler has been at the same set temperature point for more than 20 minutes,” he says. “Then, it turns them on regularly for a period of time to simply keep the air moving in the room.”

Duty cycling helps reduce the energy needed to keep those rooms cool by monitoring and responding to temperature changes, rather than running the motors continuously.

As part of the larger Hormel Foods family, the Fontanini Foods team has been able to both learn from and teach others on numerous sustainability initiatives. Sieren says that resource has been valuable to the team in McCook. Wysocki agrees, saying there’s also some competitiveness for facilities who want to raise the standards within the company as well. But sharing of knowledge is encouraged and Hormel’s corporate team fosters that mentality as well.

“I’ve had an opportunity to present to plant engineers, and we’ve hosted other plant engineers here too,” Wysocki says. “We’re more than happy to try and help others across Hormel Foods to pursue sustainability initiatives and make an impact across the country.”

Meanwhile, the Fontanini Foods team will continue to drive improvements to its environmental footprint and be a leader both within Hormel Foods and out toward the rest of the industry.

Who Selected Fontanini Foods? You Did

For 13 years now, we’ve asked you readers to help us honor the best recent examples of sustainable manufacturing. Back in July, we put the essays of six nominees on a web-based poll and asked you to vote for a winner. The others were plants of TreeHouse Foods, Wayne-Sanderson Farms, Smithfield Foods, West Liberty Foods and Conagra Brands. 2,245 votes were cast – that’s a record. Thank you to all the companies and individuals who participated.

Our Past Green Plants of the Year

2022: Vital Farms, Springfield, Mo.

2021: None

2020: Bimbo Bakeries USA-Escondido, Calif.

2019: Smithfield-Orange City, Iowa

2018: Nature's Path (all three plants)

2017: J.R. Simplot-Caldwell, Idaho

2016: Clif Bar & Co.-Twin Falls, Idaho

2015: (TIE) Kraft Heinz (Planters)-Fort Smith, Ark. and Tasteful Selections-Arvin, Calif.

2014: Campbell Soup, Napoleon, Ohio

2013: Anheuser-Busch, Fairfield, Calif

2012: Hormel, Dubuque, Iowa

2011: ConAgra/Lamb Weston, Delhi, La.

2010: Kettle Foods, Beloit, Wis.

About the Author

Andy Hanacek | Senior Editor

Andy Hanacek has covered meat, poultry, bakery and snack foods as a B2B editor for nearly 20 years, and has toured hundreds of processing plants and food companies, sharing stories of innovation and technological advancement throughout the food supply chain. In 2018, he won a Folio:Eddie Award for his unique "From the Editor's Desk" video blogs, and he has brought home additional awards from Folio and ASBPE over the years. In addition, Hanacek led the Meat Industry Hall of Fame for several years and was vice president of communications for We R Food Safety, a food safety software and consulting company.

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