Iowa-based further-processor West Liberty Foods faced a decision. Its biggest customers, Subway and Wal-Mart, were interested in having a supplier closer to their operations in California and Nevada. For West Liberty Foods, whose success has been founded on partnering with its customers and riding the wave of increased sales of pre-sliced products, the answer was easy expand and move west!

A big part of West Liberty Foods' rapid growth in further processed product sales has resulted from the company's commitment to food safety and its willingness to partner with its customers. With the company's further processed lines running at capacity at the company's three Iowa plants, expansion was the only way to meet growing customer demand.

"Utah was selected because we wanted to move out west," said Ed Garrett, president and CEO, West Liberty Foods. "Moving west allowed us to better service our customers in that region, decreasing freight time and costs as well as increasing shelf life to the customer." The company looked at possible plant sites in Arizona, Nevada and Utah. The site selected in Tremonton, Utah, is a little more than an hour's drive north of Salt Lake City and is close to three Interstate highways.

Moroni Feed Company and Nebraska Turkey Growers are cooperatives that have marketed products under the Norbest brand for years. West Liberty Foods is also a cooperative, and Western Sales, LLC, is a sales and marketing alliance formed between Norbest and West Liberty. Moroni Feed Company's processing plant is in Moroni, Utah. "The sales and marketing alliance West Liberty Foods has formed with Norbest (Western Sales, LLC) has opened the door for new opportunities for both companies. The selection process for location of the new plant can partially be attributed to the proximity to the Moroni Feed Company plant," Garrett said.

More Than One Plant

The Tremonton plant is really two plants with a cold storage warehouse in between. One plant is the log fabrication/IQF facility and the other is the slicing operation. Millard Refrigerated Services (MRS) owns and operates the cold storage and distribution facility. West Liberty and MRS have a similar partnership arrangement at West Liberty's Mount Pleasant slicing plant and distribution facility. West Liberty and MRS were named the 2007 co-vendors of the year by Subway for the cooperation and innovation that they have demonstrated.

Combined, the two processing facilities at Tremonton span 217,000 square feet, and finished product production will run around 1.6 million pounds per week. "West Liberty Foods will be doing things in this facility that have never been done before in the United States," said Garrett. To do what has never been done before took lots of teamwork from all involved in the design and construction of the plant. West Liberty Foods asked its equipment vendors to work together so that product could flow seamlessly through the plant from one vendor's equipment to another's equipment and with data being tracked along the way. "We have been fortunate to establish exceptional partnerships with many of our vendors that have a proven success record with us. They worked together to solve the issues we presented to them, because success for West Liberty Foods is success for them," Garrett said.

Ideas used to improve the design of the Tremonton plant came from inside and outside the organization. "We spoke with employees, customers, vendors and experts in the industry to seek suggestions for change," Garrett said. "Based on the feedback provided, some of the changes included, but are not limited to, alterations in the associate uniforms, upgrades to tools, more advanced closed-circuit monitoring devices for increased food safety, extended ceiling height in the slice rooms, revised lighting, and 10-foot logs for increased efficiency and reduction in human handling of the product."

Added Capabilities

West Liberty Foods has always produced a lot more than just turkey; currently turkey makes up 56.6 percent of sales based on pounds. Each of the company's three Iowa plants can produce other cooked or sliced protein products including beef, pork, chicken and cheese. Presently, chicken represents just 4.7 percent of total sales pounds, but that number is likely to increase soon. The IQF line at the Tremonton plant is the first of its kind for West Liberty, and it will allow the company to produce a wide range of fully-cooked, par-cooked and grilled, bone-in and boneless chicken items.

The IQF line incorporates a CFS continuous flow impingement oven line with a capacity of 7,000 to 10,000 pounds per hour, depending on the product being run. Everything from bone-in chicken parts to turkey meat can be run on this line. The bone-in parts or meat are injected, tumbled, and then can be seared or have grill marks applied. Product is conveyed directly from the oven to an RMF spiral freezing system, and product is weighed and packaged automatically.

Robot Handles 10-Foot Logs

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Tremonton is the first plant in the country to use 10-foot logs rather than the industry-standard six-foot logs. Use of 10-foot logs improves slicing yield. Reducing the number of end slices decreases the scrap rate. But, 10-foot logs, which weigh between 70 and 108 pounds, would be difficult, if not impossible, for workers to pick up before cooking. Enter the robot.

ABB Robotics produced Tremonton's robot, which is used to remove the 10-foot logs from the two Tipper Tie stuffers and put them onto the specially built racks. The robot doesn't have a name, yet, but plant manager Dave Frett said that they may have a contest among employees to give it one. Eight logs per minute can be handled by the robot, which can load two racks from two stuffers at the same time. The stuffers communicate with the robot to let it know when there is a log ready to be picked up. For customers who make a three-meat sandwich, a way has been devised for the robot to stack two kinds of meat on a rack at the same time, and then add the third type of log later. This way a rack can have all three meats on the rack all the way through the system.

When being loaded, the racks sit on load cells so that the stuffed weight of a rack of logs can be put into inventory automatically before it is pulled to the cooler or ovens.

The Marlen-designed racks can be picked up with a modified pallet jack and placed onto a chain drive system which feeds the ovens. This system pulls the racks into the oven for cooking, pulls them out of the oven and puts them into the blast cells for cooling, and pulls them out of the blast cells so that they can be moved by pallet jacks into the cooler for storage prior to being loaded onto trucks for the slicing plant. A hydraulic system moves the chain in the floor which pulls the racks.

The log fabrication/IQF facility has four Marlen batch ovens designed for cooking logs, but they can also be used to cook other racked products. Cycle time for cooking logs is four hours, and the ovens can be operated 24 hours per day. Four racks fit into the oven at one time, and each rack can hold up to 6,000 pounds of product. The plant is scheduled to operate five days per week on two shifts in the other areas of the plant.

Built To Slice

There are a few hundred yards of cold storage warehouse separating the log fabrication/IQF facility and the slice plant. Cooked logs are transferred via truck to the slice plant on the racks on which they were cooked, and the logs stay on the racks until removed and conveyed into the slicing rooms. The slice plant can also receive in logs from other facilities.

Some slicing rooms have oil-browning capability, and a variety of package sizes can be produced. All of the logs are crusted prior to slicing with the Weber slicers, which slice four logs at a time. Each room has its own drains, filtered air supply and other utilities. The highest clean room standards are maintained throughout the slice plant.

The slice plant now has 10 slicing rooms, but that capacity could be doubled by adding 10 more slicing rooms on the other side of the existing walls. Opening the Tremonton plant should help to relieve some pressure from West Liberty's other plants which often run seven days per week, but it was really built to allow for new business.

West Liberty's turkey slaughter facility in West Liberty, Iowa, kills on one shift only. Garrett said that the opening of the Tremonton plant will not change that. The company plans to increase slaughter slightly in 2008, but it will continue to be a net purchaser of turkey breast meat.

West Liberty Foods processed its first turkeys in January of 1997. The cooperative was formed by 47 Iowa turkey growers when Kraft made the decision to close its plant in West Liberty, Iowa, in 1996. At the time, a Turkey World cover story on West Liberty Foods asked the question, "Will This Turkey Really Fly?" Three other tom slaughter and deboning plants closed their doors in 1997, but West Liberty Foods survived that year and has thrived. This cooperative now operates four plants, all of which produce further processed products.

West Liberty Foods has grown by concentrating on food safety and quality in a time frame of great change in ready-to-eat production and slice technology. Partnering with its vendors and customers has allowed West Liberty Foods to grow and "fly" to places that few could have predicted 11 years ago when a group of Iowa turkey farmers needed shackle time for their birds.