Processing the Future of Freshness

Nov. 7, 2011
Sandridge Food Corp. mates high-pressure processing to traditional processes to achieve freshness and meet growing demand for fresh, refrigerated foods.

Sandridge Food Corp. (www.sandridge.com), Medina, Ohio, produces fresh deli salads, soups, entrees, desserts, sauces and dips for grocery and foodservice customers. In doing so, the company holds dear its brand promise to "always provide unrivaled, great tasting fresh food with consistent hand-made quality," and has aggressively worked to cater to consumer demand for freshness, healthfulness and minimal use of preservatives.

The family-owned company, now in its 52nd year, does a lot of things the old-fashioned way. But it’s also looking to the future. This is evidenced by the company’s $5 million investment of a high-pressure processing line, which began operations in 2010. Put simply, HPP uses cold water at extremely high pressure to kill harmful bacteria and eliminate the need for preservatives. While HPP has proved beneficial across many kinds of food products, the installation at Sandridge may be one of the broadest applications of the technology, owing to the company’s diverse product line.

While the new HPP line represents the state of the art in preserving freshness and safety, it’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the company’s overall focus on fresh, prepared refrigerated foods. HPP isn’t used on most of the foods the company processes. But the same dedication to freshness and safety is applied to all of its products, more than 750 SKUs in all.

"We're all about fresh — we don't do anything frozen," says Barry Pioske, vice president of plant operations. In keeping with a corporate philosophy that puts a premium on freshness and healthfulness, Sandridge's certified Safe Quality Food (SQF) 2000 Level 2 facility places heavy emphasis on making sure high-quality ingredients stay that way.

For instance, the plant maintains a vegetable preparation and specialty product-packing area that occupies "quite an extensive area in our plant, where we do nothing but process hand-mix and hand-pack fresh vegetables and ingredients to go into our salads and soups,” says Pioske. “We have some lines that are more automated, but we've always kept this specialty area, where we produce a very large lineup of products that's truly handmade. There's no automation in those lines, and this gives us a very superior product."

HPP for future growth
Mark Sandridge, company CEO, has called HPP a "game changer" — not just for the company but for the fresh, refrigerated foods category — for its ability to allow processors to ship safe, higher quality products while eliminating preservatives.

Continuous improvement

From the way it handles fresh ingredients to the commitment it has shown to adopt high-pressure processing, Sandridge Foods continues striving for freshness in all it makes. Ongoing performance monitoring, benchmarking and improvements support this effort. Toward that end, Sandridge maintains continuous improvement programs across food processing and broader operations, in which metrics and benchmarks form the basis of ongoing innovation and improvement.

"A lot's been said about this term, 'continuous improvement,' but we really live it. We are constantly trying to make improvements in everything we do, from incremental changes to improvements that sometimes aren't so small," says Jim Meadows, vice president of facilities and process improvement. Asked about a publicly stated a policy of "permitting failure" along the way to improvements, he says: "It's expected of all of us at Sandridge that we push ourselves to the edge and, if we don't hit our ultimate goal, that we learn from our failures."

To measure success, key performance indicators play a role here as they do across leading companies. Traditional operational KPIs at the plant include pounds per man-hour, attainment of the production schedule (including overages/underages), labor and line efficiencies, maintenance uptime and safety measurements. These indicators are guided not by plant efficiency needs but by longer-term goals that are modified and adjusted during the annual strategic planning process.

"For example, in our soup room we have several KPIs that our operators monitor to improve the flow of products through our cooling system to prevent bottlenecks," says Barry Pioske, vice president of plant operations. "We have a [computer] monitor right there at the bagger, and it drives the operation for the people doing the work. The information at that station flows into the soup production KPIs, which flow into the departmental KPIs, which flow into the strategic plan and ultimately drive results for the business."

Since the mid-1990s, HPP has proven its worth at destroying food borne pathogens; preserving the color, flavor, nutritional content and physical integrity of foods and doing so while eliminating the need for preservatives. It works across a wide range of products, including fruit and vegetable juices; shellfish and finfish; ready-to-eat and whole muscle meat and poultry; salads, dressings and more. Leading processors such as Hormel, Tyson and Kraft have been using it for years.

And now Sandridge is applying it to portions of its own range of soups, protein salads, pasta salads, sauces and fresh-vegetable salads. Already, lessons are being learned, such as the usefulness of processing fresh vegetables, which are very hard to clean, with HPP to extend freshness and shelf life. But while much of the emphasis on HPP across the industry is on extending shelf life, both Pioske and Jim Meadows, vice president of facilities and process improvement, adamantly oppose stressing this fact over freshness and quality.

For example, in addition to eliminating preservatives, HPP allows a processor to reduce excessive salt, vinegar and citric acid that might find its way into a formula, compromising it from the better-tasting products developed by chefs in the R&D kitchen.

"HPP is a big part of our focus going forward with new chef-quality product lines," says Meadows. In fact, it has been a big part of the reason the company was able to undertake a major expansion into upscale products, such as new seasonal convenience items and newly minted brands including Fresh & Delicious, Café Style Fresh Soup and Pacific Coast Cuisine. The last, for example, was introduced in October and features such treats as Cajun Crab Dip and Honey Smoked Salmon Dip.

"If you've never had a chicken salad with no preservatives — fresh, free-range or hormone-free chicken — there's nothing like it," Meadows says. Such entrees and the higher-end meat are aimed at upscale customers who seek "an ultra-fresh product with tremendous taste, without the need for preservatives. It's given us the ability to take that next step into healthier ingredients and food safety for our customers."

The system installed at Sandridge was supplied by NC Hyperbaric (www.hiperbaric.com) of Spain, and installed by Gridpath Solutions (www.gridpathinc.com), Stoney Creek, Ontario, which handled the turnkey installation. This included the HPP unit, associated infeed and discharge systems and a supervisory monitoring and control system with a local operator station. The automation system manages the both mechanicals (valves, actuators) and key parameters (time, temperature, pressure, etc.). The system also contains safety measures so, for instance, it will not allow discharge valves to open or the process to be manually stopped if safety processes have not been properly completed.

The process is relatively straightforward: Finished products already prepared in the facility, such as pouched salad or product in plastic trays or sealed containers, are taken from an infeed conveyor and loaded into four cylindrical carriers. These carriers are loaded into a high-pressure chamber that is sealed and filled with water to evacuate air. The chamber is then brought to pressures between 58,000 and 87,000 psi for up to three minutes, with water temperature below 45°F, to kill harmful bacteria. When the process is completed, the water is evacuated and the product carriers exit the chamber to be reloaded. Product is transferred for drying and final packaging.

The process specifics vary by product. For example, some Hormel vacuum-packed deli meats are subjected to 87,000 lbs. per square inch of water pressure to inactivate pathogens such as Listeria monocytogenes without harming the product's taste, texture or nutritional value. The company tried HPP on foodservice Bread Ready sliced meats products, and customer response was so favorable the company successively added Natural Choice retail products and many more products since to its HPP product line.
While ROI and payback financials are not disclosed, Pioske says the main benefit is that HPP opens a "whole new world for marketing and sales of fresh, healthier product" — that is, a broader market that will bring new sales and business growth.

Extended shelf life is not promoted by Sandridge as a headline benefit. That might be the first attribute many people in the industry think of when they hear of HPP. While it's true HPP can extend shelf life of Sandridge's potato salad and many protein salads to more than 60 days to eliminate "shrink" or losses for customers, "That's not what we're about when it comes to HPP," says Pioske. “HPP certainly does extend shelf life, but fresh is just too important to put in terms of 60 or 90 days. We want that consumer to enjoy that potato salad or other product within a few weeks — if not earlier.

“Certainly, our goal is to produce fresh, healthy products with healthy ingredients and get them to market while meeting supply chain needs." On that count, HPP is only one tool in the company's kit. A "Fresh Initiative" program with Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle supermarket chain, for example, successfully replenished store shelves for the Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle Supermarket chain within 24 hours of an order to reduce store shrink and eliminate as much as $200,000 in warehouse inventory costs.

Challenges remain in expanding HPP for mainstream processing. While the technology has proven beneficial in producing safe, high-quality products, HPP is only now maturing. Small-basket configurations have given way to larger, horizontal machines, but these still run in batch mode. While the company can run up to eight batches per hour of some products, throughput varies by product because some products and packages are better suited to the machine's cylindrical carriers.

"We can produce thousands of pounds more per hour of some products, such as salads in flexible pouches that conform to the shape of the HPP's round cylinder, whereas we might only be able to produce half that if we're processing meal trays or cups," Meadows explains.

Even though the company installed the largest system available at the time, such considerations have Sandridge ramping-up HPP operations a bit at a time. The current strategy is to reserve it for those high-end products that constitute roughly 10 percent of the company's total business. But these upscale products have the greatest growth potential, and they may well be the future of fresh, prepared foods.
See HPP in action at Sandridge Food Corp