Keystone Foods boasts that no food supplier is better positioned to protect the world’s leading consumer brands. Its poultry further processing facility in Gadsden, Ala., is an example of how the company does just that by employing socially responsible business practices, avoiding risk and keeping costs low.

The state-of-the-art, 200,000-square-foot further processing facility has three fully-independent lines capable of producing cooked products at a rate of 13,000 pounds per hour in a variety of forms, including diced, sliced and formed poultry. Processing lines are equipped with the newest technology in cooking, chilling, freezing and packaging, including JBT FoodTech cooking and freezing systems.

Every facet of operation at the Gadsden facility, from further processing and cold storage to wastewater management, is designed to manage risk in cost, food safety and environmental compliance. Consider the following examples:

  • The further processing plant has a line control and manufacturing execution system to increase quality and performance.
  • Cameras positioned throughout the plant record every process as a part of quality control and food safety security.
  • Dedicated cold storage is professionally managed by an independent vendor, Southern Cold Storage, in a 71,000-square-foot, on-campus facility.
  • The plant’s high-performance wastewater treatment system is managed by the professional engineering firm, O’Brien & Gere, providing operational focus and accountability. Offsite engineers are able to remotely monitor and control the treatment processes through the SCADA, or supervisory control and data acquisition system, when system operators in Gadsden require technical assistance.

2011 Clean Water Award  

Keystone’s commitment to managing risk is nowhere better demonstrated than in its environmental programs and facilities. Keeping costs low while meeting stringent environmental standards earned Keystone Foods in Gadsden, Ala., the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association’s 2011 Clean Water Award in the pretreatment category.

When the judges for the 2011 Clean Water Awards initially reviewed the wastewater pretreatment data for the Gadsden facility, their first reaction was that there was some mistake in the data because the effluent parameters for biological oxygen demand and total suspended solids were so far below the permit limits.

Wastewater treatment performance  

Here’s what so favorably impressed the CWA judges about the effluent data (see Keystone Foods, Gadsden, wastewater treatment performance, 2010): Biological oxygen demand, or BOD5, averaged 12.4 pounds versus the permit limit of 917 pounds. Total suspended solids, or TSS, averaged 75 pounds versus the permit limit of 917 pounds. Oil and grease levels were usually below detectable limits. Nitrogen as measured by total Kjehldahl nitrogen, or TKN, averaged 6.88 milligrams per liter versus the permit limit of 30 milligrams per liter.

Designed for unfailing regulatory compliance  

David Toddes, director of environmental programs, Keystone Foods, explained why the performance of the plant’s environmental systems is so important to the company. “Customers for the products produced at this plant view the environmental capabilities as part of their total risk package. That’s why the design of the environmental systems was a very deliberative process to make sure the facility would be 100% compliant with all regulatory permits 100% of the time.”

Cost effective design  

Smart wastewater treatment process design helps the plant deliver highly efficient wastewater treatment without substantial increases in investment. “I would say that you couldn’t build a more cost-effective plant than this one,” Toddes said.
A unique feature in the facility’s design is the biological process that consists of two 135,000-gallon concrete aerobic basins. Each basin is divided into 25,000-gallon anoxic zone and 110,000-gallon aerobic zone.

The biological process is designed to remove soluble biochemical oxygen demand and nitrogen. The aerobic zone breaks down nitrogen to nitrates, and the anoxic zone completes the denitrification process where bacteria convert nitrates to nitrogen gas.


The aerobic basins are preceded by a 70,000-gallon weir-box for distributing the flow between each basin and the incorporation of the return activated sludge from the secondary DAF unit. All waste-activated, nutrient-rich sludge is collected and stored on site in an odor-controlled vessel. The sludge is then trucked to an agricultural site where the sludge is land applied as a soil amendment and nutrient supplement.

Following are other key features (see also sidebar: Wastewater treatment system features):

  • Redwater from slaughtered carcasses delivered to the plant in combo bins is pumped directly to a sludge holding tank prior to its entry into the wastewater system. This reduces the loading on the treatment system and results in the material’s beneficial use as land applied fertilizer.
  • Use of a secondary DAF, instead of a final clarifier, saves on capital investment and use of space at the facility.
  • Two aeration basins save on energy by allowing one basin to be shut down when the system’s flow is low. It also provides flexibility to isolate flow containing inhibitory chemicals that may be released in further processing.
  • Axial submersible mixers pull wastewater through openings in the internal walls of each aeration basin to move water from the oxygenated zone to the anoxic zone. This makes the anoxic process more effective with very little incremental investment.

People and incentives  

While the facility’s design is important to the system’s performance, Toddes said the company’s people and program make an even bigger difference.

“When you start with the philosophy that the wastewater system will not fail even before it is designed, this is reflected not only in its design but in the investment in your people and your program. I would say that the wastewater treatment plant here in Gadsden is okay, but the people and the program are great.”

One key program decision was in selecting an engineering firm to manage the wastewater treatment system on a contractual basis. The approach means that those managers have a dedicated focus on wastewater management. It also means that the wastewater operators in Gadsden are working in an O’Brien & Gere profit center as opposed to a Keystone cost center. It’s a subtle but important distinction with incentives for responsibility-taking and performance.

Meeting future treatment requirements  

The Gadsden plant’s design provides the flexibility to meet new treatment requirements that could result from changes in the plant’s further processing business (increases in productive capacity or new product formulations) or new regulatory requirements.

Uncertainty surrounding regulatory requirements at the time of the Gadsden plant’s construction in 2009 influenced the design decisions for the wastewater treatment system. Regulatory proposals for the total daily maximum loads in the Coosa River Basin were under development in 2009 and remain undetermined. The plant’s design, therefore, included two build-out phases, the first of which is already in place, and the flexibility to adapt to possible future requirements such as a 1-part-per-million phosphorus limit.

Objective: Invisibility  

Toddes said that his objective for the environmental system in Gadsden is to make it as invisible as possible to the company’s further processing operations and the company’s customers. That means being invisible to regulatory agencies by having no compliance issues. It also means being ready and able to handle changes in production volume and products.
“We are protected in almost any eventuality,” Toddes said, “whether from changes in product mix or new TMDLs.”