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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, June/July 2008

Food Quality from Bottom to Top

West Liberty Foods, which nearly closed in 1996, wins the Food Quality Award

by Stephanie Cajigal

At West Liberty Foods, a co-packer and private label manufacturer of sliced processed meat, poultry, and cheese products based in West Liberty, Iowa, food safety isn’t just a goal, it’s a company-wide mantra.

All employees, from facility managers to administrative assistants, undergo some form of food safety training. Five years ago, West Liberty partnered with Iowa State University to design a three-day hazard analysis and critical control point awareness and food safety orientation for new employees.

This widespread approach to food safety is just one of the strategies that helped West Liberty win the 7th annual Food Quality Award, sponsored by DuPont Qualicon and presented March 18 at the Food Safety & Security Summit in Washington, D.C.

A Customer’s Viewpoint

“When we implemented the program it was to give [employees] a better understanding of food safety from the standpoint of looking at it from a customer’s viewpoint and then also from a regulatory viewpoint,” says Mike DeSmet, the company’s vice president of food safety and quality.

Why send administrative assistants to the training?

“Those are the people who are going to be looking over the documentation, and you need someone who has a good understanding of why they’re doing what they’re doing,” says LeAnn Smith, senior manager of regulatory and customer compliance. The program also includes a trainer who regularly keeps employees—both rookies and veterans—up to date on new food safety techniques.

In accepting the award, chairman of the board Paul Hill explained that it is West Liberty’s attention to detail that makes its products safe. “Handling our food supply needs the same type of attention as disarming a bomb,” he said.

In 1996, Hill worked with 46 other turkey farmers to purchase the West Liberty plant, which was to be closed by then-owner Oscar Mayer, a division of Phillip Morris. West Liberty has since expanded from a single turkey processing plant in West Liberty to plants in three other locations: Mount Pleasant, Iowa; Sigourney, Iowa; and Tremonton, Utah. Each plant processes about 3.9 million pounds of turkey, pork, chicken, and beef per week, according to the company. Products include 10-foot turkey, chicken, ham, and beef logs for slicing, as well as nuggets, meatballs, fajita meat, and patties.

New Technology

In its quest to produce safe foods, West Liberty focuses on improving its technology.

Last August at its Tremonton facility, for example, the company installed a robot that loads all meat logs onto their racks and puts them through a cooking process. The logs do not come into human contact until they are run through a sanitation wash and are placed in ready-to-eat areas. The robot has made it possible for the company to use 10-foot lunchmeat logs in regular production, a first in the U.S., according to West Liberty’s award application.

“Anytime you minimize touching of product, you minimize the possibility of cross-contaminating the product,” DeSmet says.

Another innovation was last year’s redesign of workers’ sanitary suits.

“The initial ones we had, they were fine, but they just kind of hung there and they were harder to get on,” DeSmet says. So the company changed the material from polyester to cotton to make the suits more comfortable and added elastic at the bottom to keep pant legs from going past workers’ boots. Zippers replaced buttons to increase the suits’ sealing capability and decrease outside contamination.

Another strategy that has benefited West Liberty is working closely with its suppliers. “We’re working with our chemical company on a product that has helped tremendously in our chillers to reduce Salmonella,” DeSmet says.

“We really work very closely with our suppliers from the standpoint that we want the next best thing that is going to help us, whether it’s reducing pathogens or something to help us with quality,” he adds. “We will look at anything and everything that could make us a better company, even if we have to spend some dollars to do it.”

Lessons to Learn

So what can other companies learn from West Liberty?

“Don’t sit back and wait for the next recall to be forced to do something,” DeSmet says. “Go out there and work with suppliers and see what you can implement now.”

The success of the entire industry depends on it, he adds. “The thing about a recall is that it doesn’t just affect people having the product recalled. The consumer then questions the food safety of the entire industry, whether it’s meat, vegetables, or what have you.”

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