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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, December/January 2005

2004 Food Quality Award

by Mark A. DeSorbo

Here's the Beef. Beef Products Inc., the winner of the 2004 Food Quality Award, proclaims that food safety and quality is "good business." The small company has a big heart when it comes to applying its knowledge to make food safer.

The sides of beef were black from excessive ammonia exposure and plant workers were trimming and salvaging what they could from a leak that occurred two days earlier at a California slaughterhouse.

“I asked one of them what they were going to do with these things and I said surely they are not worth anything,” says Eldon Roth, founder and chairman of Beef Products Inc., a Dakota Dunes, S.D.-based processor of boneless, lean beef trimmings. “And one guy said, ‘Oh, we’ll cut off a bunch of the meat and then send it up to Stockton and they’ll treat it with acid to neutralize it.’”

Even though it was done under USDA supervision, the 62-year-old Roth, a welder in his mid 20s at the time, was skeptical when the worker explained that he would buy this marinated meat every time there was an ammonia leak. “In those days, there were a lot of ammonia leaks, but I didn’t say anything to him,” he says. “I just walked away thinking he wanted me to buy some of this meat.”

But what Roth observed that day and in Stockton later on would remain tucked away in his mind for years; never realizing that he would have a total recall that through a team effort would change the BPI and, in many cases, food safety and quality as the world knew it, forever.

It also created an ethic within BPI’s South Sioux City, Neb., Amarillo, Texas, Holcomb, Kan., and Waterloo, Iowa, plants that impressed a panel of judges, who overwhelmingly bestowed the 2004 Food Quality Award to the lean beef trimmings company.

BPI’s 95 percent lean product is a key component of ground beef and hamburger blends produced by major packers and processors. It is also used by the majority of quick-service restaurant (QSR) chains; hotel, restaurant, institution and food service suppliers. The company also prides itself on a pathogen reduction process and HACCP and SSOP programs that are a part of the culture in each of its four facilities.

Food Quality magazine, which toured BPI’s facilities last year, encouraged Roth and other officials of the 24-year-old company to throw their proverbial hat in the ring as one of many contenders for the 2004 Food Quality Award, which included Sysco Corp., Danisco USA Inc. and Wixon Inc. »

Two judges, Paul Hall, senior director of microbiology and food safety at Kraft Foods (Northfield, Ill.) and Dr. Purnendu Vasavada, a professor of food science at the University of Wisconsin in River Falls, noted that BPI had an excellent application and detailed supporting documentation; evidence of a well designed safety system and a validated HACCP program; computerized process controls and links to management, employee training programs; and community involvement.

“I was impressed with their innovation in reducing pathogens in ground beef. They sponsored research and also published and shared the findings with their competition,” Hall says. “They showed that food safety isn’t a competitive issue. It was very clear that the commitment to food safety was there. I was very impressed with that. The other thing was that it was very clear about the investment of the manufacturing infrastructure. I was very impressed with that, too.”

A Call to Action

Roth perhaps lived the epitome of the American Dream. He grew up in rural South Dakota, where he and his family were share croppers, left for California as a teen and worked there until his mid 40s. It was during this time that he learned about food processing and refrigeration from the ground up by doing sanitation work in ice cream plants, all the while maintaining a keen interest in learning from each new task he was charged with.

Roth later founded Freezing Machines Inc., and most of his work came from meat processing companies, which gave him educational access to process equipment and machinery of that day. In 1981, as the beef industry began to consolidate throughout the Midwest, Roth seized the opportunity to cash in on the large quantities of fresh trimmings.

At the 2004 Food Quality Award ceremonies, an event held last October and sponsored by DuPont Qualicon (Wilmington, Del.), Roth recalled the day in 1993 when the pathogen E. Coli 0157:H7 reared its ugly head and claimed some lives.

When that happened, Roth and his team, which includes his wife, Regina, who manages accounting and finance, became committed to finding ways to kill that bug and enhance the safety and quality of BPI’s product. It was then that Roth reminisced about the room where an ammonia leak had occurred at a slaughterhouse in California.

“It amazed me how cleanly the paint came off the wall and how clean that room smelled. Those were the things that just stuck in my head, and it really didn’t make sense to me at the time,” he says. “And it was a meat plant and the old days, so there was mold on the walls…but it was dead.”

So were bacteria on the beef that was inadvertently exposed to ammonia gas. “After the incident, in 1993, when the children died in the Northwest, we started looking for ways to kill that bug,” Roth says.

The BPI team learned relatively quickly that it could kill E. Coli O157:H7 and Salmonella, but they had a hard time getting rid of the taste and smell of the ammonium hydroxide that was used to kill bacteria.

“We worked on that for six years. The first time we did it, we didn’t know what we had done,” Roth says. “And quite frankly, several times, we gave up on it and thought we could never do it.” But they did; and the patented method became a federally deemed “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS) process.

The process elevates the pH level of finished products, which disrupts the environment of pathogens and kills bacteria. In fact, an Iowa State University validation study of the process was published in Vol. 65, No. 5 of the Journal of Food Protection.

“The results of our published researched showed that the new pH enhancement process that BPI had developed had a significant impact on the populations of bacteria of public health significance,” writes Dr. James S. Dickson, a professor in the Iowa State’s Department of Animal Science.

The Process: A Short Course

BPI’s product starts out as federally approved beef trimmings from the fabrication lines of approved beef distributors that meet BPI raw material specifications. Raw materials are purchased only from suppliers who have validated critical control points in place for pathogen elimination or reduction.

Once inspected by BPI employees for consistency and quality, trimmings are transported through a process system that was mostly designed and built by BPI.

Trimmings first enter a material accumulator and are brought to near postmortem temperatures to facilitate the separation of lean from fat by centrifugal force. The technology allows BPI to tailor fat and moisture contents to customer specifications and the product typically finishes at a leanness of 95 percent.

From here, the lean trim is treated with the patented ammonium hydroxide pathogen reduction process to reduce E. Coli 0157:H7 and Salmonella. Ammonium hydroxide is also used to process soft caramel, baked goods, cheeses and chocolates, among other items.

“We’re an ingredient in probably 70 to 80 million pounds of ground beef each week, so the risk of E. Coli is one that we must act on in this war for food safety,” Roth says. “Food quality and food safety are core to the values that make BPI successful today and will be central to our growth. We believe it’s very good business and that it is profitable.”

Once the product has been treated with ammonium hydroxide, it moves to a roller press freezer, a device that Roth invented. The gigantic roller rapidly flattens and contact freezes the meat in just 90 seconds. The technique, according to BPI, minimizes dehydration, locks in freshness and maintains the microbiological characteristics of the finished products.

As it comes off the roller press freezer, the product passes through an in-process metal detector, is formed into 60 pound blocks and is then packed into boxes. The whole process from its raw stage at the accumulator to the boxed finished product takes approximately 7 to 9 minutes. Sealed boxes pass through another metal detector and are then coded, dated and sent to a cold storage facility, where they are palletized for storage and shipment.

All processing equipment within BPI facilities is constructed of stainless steel. Walls are tile with non-absorbent epoxy between the tiles. All floor and wall mounted equipment are separated from surface areas by “sealed standoffs” so that cleaning can be done behind stationary items.

All flooring is brick and all floor drains are stainless steel with built-in chemical feed lines for continuous sanitization. Clean-in- place sanitation systems are used throughout BPI facilities and can re-circulate 40,000 gallons of water per minute at 190 degrees Fahrenheit with 160 psi for cleaning.

The tops and bottoms of raw material conveyors are outfitted with sanitizing misters. Metal detectors are also used on incoming raw materials.

Approximately 20 percent of the budget for BPI’s newest plant in South Sioux City was spent on food safety and sanitation. Outside the process area of the Sioux City plant, air is refrigerated, washed and sanitized before being pumped into process areas. The chilled air creates a positively pressurized environment that inhibits contaminated air from entering. Refrigerating the air in a room outside the processing area also eliminates the need for refrigeration coils, which can harbor bacteria. Air handling equipment and ductwork also have clean-in-place capabilities.

Along with stringent HACCP and SSOP programs, BPI’s QA department monitors and records chemical and microbiological results on incoming raw materials as well as finished products.

The QA team draws a small sample of BPI boneless trimmings from each box as it is being filled—approximately every 10 seconds from the product flow. The sample becomes part of a composite model representing each box. Samples are then sent to an independent laboratory for microbiological analysis, while BPI’s in-house staff determines fat, moisture and protein content.

Each box is bar coded and the information is entered into a corporate QA-computerized pallet tracking system.

BPI plants and its cold storage facility are forever linked to a master control center at its corporate headquarters. Each facility communicates critical information in real time, and that info includes times, temperatures, pressures, production speeds, refrigeration and hydraulic data to a master control room that two technicians operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

“I didn’t really like the idea of this at first,” Roth admits. “I thought it was like big brother watching everything, but it really created a lot of camaraderie. If somebody wants to make a change in a process, they make a call on their radio and that comes over the corporate phone system. We have a saying, ‘communicate and cooperate.’ If you can maintain this, it is a huge advantage.”

Modest Manufacturers

In addition to the ammonium hydroxide process, BPI designs and assembles its own block grinders and process pumps, an endeavor it embarked on after numerous problems it endured with process equipment made by other manufacturers. BPI also makes its own sanitary piping ferrules and gaskets.

This is all done in a 40,000-square-foot building near the South Sioux City plant. In fact, about 38 grinders have been sold along with its beef products to customers.

But aside from process innovations and a beef product that is used globally, Roth refuses to posture and insists that BPI will remain a small company with rapid market growth.

“We’re not very big and we are not necessarily very sophisticated compared to somebody like a Kraft. We are a small group. Everyone can have his or her input and it can be done quickly,” he says. “Sometimes it sounds cumbersome or that it slows things down, but it doesn’t. It works very well. There is a lot of knowledge in our company, and we know how to do things because we do things. We believe that with our hearts.” -FQ

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