The processing industry’s ongoing labor shortage has prompted many companies to take a long view to plant expansions and greenfield projects. It’s a perspective that takes into consideration a workforce shortage that will likely never resolve, so planning projects with automation at the forefront has become foundational.
The meat industry in particular has a tougher time staffing than other food sectors, so when turkey processor Prestage Foods planned its 295,000-sq-ft greenfield facility in Camden, S.C., it invested heavily in automation as a permanent operating template rather than as a stopgap until the labor market recovers. Consequently, Prestage has been able to staff the Camden plant with just over 300 people, compared to more than 750 workers needed without automation. Also, because that automated equipment performs so efficiently, Prestage employees enjoy a four-day, 10-hour work week—a first for the industry.
“We automated as much as possible,” says Zach Prestage, CEO at Prestage Foods of South Carolina. “The big additions are all the deboning and evisceration equipment. There’s a lot of really tough jobs that were eliminated because of the equipment available today. Those jobs are hard and they take a lot of people to execute without automation.”
In addition to the labor savings—projected to be $22 million annually—and increased food safety that comes from adopting advanced automation, Prestage also invested in a water-conserving, European-style air chilling model to prepare birds for secondary processing (compared to water baths for cooling carcasses) that is more common in the chicken industry, but less prevalent in the turkey industry, and certainly rare in North America. As a result, Prestage’s Camden plant is the largest air-chilled turkey processing facility in the Western Hemisphere.
For these reasons and more, ProFood World awarded Prestage Foods a 2023 Manufacturing Innovation Award for its new state-of-the-art turkey processing plant. Here, we’ll detail the many leading-edge ideas within the facility, including some that are being introduced to the North American turkey processing industry for the first time.
Progress for processing
Prestage is a family-owned business that was founded in 1983, and operates production facilities in Iowa (pork), North Carolina, and South Carolina (turkeys). The company oversees its own Prestage Farms and Prestage Premium brands, and processes meat under Prestage Foods for in-house retail products, as well as numerous private label and contract clients. The largest customer for the Camden plant is Kraft Heinz, which will further process turkey products from Prestage for its own retail turkey brands.
A catalyst to build the Camden plant came from a need to better utilize the proximity of its farm for turkey production in nearby Cassatt, S.C.—about 20 miles south. “This [Camden] plant gives us more control of our live operation [in Cassatt] because our volume was taking a hit due to inefficiencies over there,” Prestage says. “So, we built this facility to maintain our maximum volume for a live operation that we’ve had since 1994.”
Construction on the Camden plant was completed last year and opened for business in December. When running at full capacity, 48,000 turkeys can be processed daily (about 2.5 million lb), with leeway to process closer to 40,000, allowing room to address issues that might arise in real time on the line without stopping production. Breaking the numbers down further, up to 100 turkeys can be processed per minute, and about 5,400 each hour.
“We’ll harvest 8 million turkeys for the year,” notes Prestage. “We grow 6 million of them ourselves, and another supplier grows 2 million turkeys. We couldn’t handle that kind of volume within the four-day single shift labor model we have without the speed that automation gives us.”
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Prior to building the Camden facility, representatives from design/build firm Gray and Prestage Foods visited other poultry plants in the U.S. and Europe to see what automation options existed, and also asked operators which machines were most efficient and effective for them. As a result of those fact-finding missions, most of the Camden plant was populated with equipment from Marel, including the company’s Innova software to track and trace turkeys throughout. Others chosen for specific processing tasks include Humane Aire, Lyco Manufacturing, Prime Equipment Group, Morris Chillers, Lewis Machinery, AD Process Equipment, D&F Equipment, and Carlisle Technology.
“We didn’t go with the original [equipment] package that we thought we would at the start,” remembers Prestage. “We changed our mind completely in the end and went with the best package for what we wanted to accomplish at this plant.” The combined Marel equipment throughout the facility reduces the company’s utility consumption by 20%, he adds.
One of the defining features at Prestage’s plant is its air-chilling system, which is the standard in Europe, where water baths to chill poultry are forbidden due to the added chemicals needed to kill bacteria, and cross-contamination issues that can arise when multiple bird carcasses share the same pool. The Camden plant is the first in the Western Hemisphere to use an industrial-scale air-chilling model for turkeys, and saves Prestage 95% in water usage as a result.
“In a water bath, whatever’s on one carcass is going to be mixed in with all the other carcasses in there,” explains Prestage. “The water is usually not clean, so a lot of plants actually have a lid so you can’t see the water. The way air chilling is laid out, the birds don’t even drip on each other.”
Air chilling allows for each bird to occupy a single shackle as it moves through the facility, side-by-side with other birds. After primary processing, the turkeys chill overnight in one of Prestage’s six air-chilling chambers until the start of secondary processing the next day. The birds emerge at an ideal 36°F, without absorbing water weight that comes from being in a pool for hours. This added benefit gives Prestage and its customers true meat weight to work with for further processing.
There are 8,000 shackles in each chamber, so production is not contingent on moving all the birds in and out of a single room—they can be moved into secondary processing as the chambers are ready. Because of the space needed to house 48,000 linear shackles, Prestage requires 16 miles of chain to convey turkeys through processing, the longest chain in the industry.
Because the meat hasn’t picked up additional water or additives from being in a bath, air-chilled poultry is considered by many in the industry to be a premium product with superior taste. Also, because the birds come out at less than 40°F, no CO2 is needed to cool the birds down like those that emerge from a water bath, according to Prestage. This is a particularly timely benefit due to the current widespread CO2 shortage.
“Using a water bath might mean the turkeys are deboned or cut up warm. It takes a lot of CO2 or nitrogen to get those birds cooled below 40 within eight hours. If we used water baths, the volume of turkeys we process would require 25 truckloads of CO2 a week,” Prestage says. “On top of that, meat just debones better when it’s cold, just like fish that’s been on ice.”
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Traceability of individual birds and flocks is another air-chilling advantage, since each shackle can be tracked all the way through the plant. “If you dumped all those birds into a big pool, you could never say a specific turkey went in it at a certain time—it’s impossible,” says George Lehnerer, business unit leader, food and beverage at Gray. “Even in clear water, you wouldn’t be able to identify it. Air chilling offers a lot of advantages in regards to keeping chlorine out of the product, or other additives, as well as traceability.”
As turkeys move out of air chilling, they enter the secondary, deboning phase. This is where automation and the data collection attached to individual shackles offers precise placement on the lines for maximum yield.
“There’s a [turkey] weight identified with each shackle,” Lehnerer says. “When they go to deboning, there’s three lines set for small, medium, and large weights. The Innova system knows the weight of each shackle, and it’ll also know for that day’s production, for example, we only have 5,000 small birds. So, it’ll move some of the medium birds over to keep the small line full. Depending on the weight distribution that day, they’re not suffocating a single line with one weight, they’re actually pushing birds through all three lines automatically.”
Tim Sandberg, project executive at Gray, adds, “By setting [automated deboning] up with a small, medium, and large lines, you get the most amount of yield. There’s only a couple of pounds difference between the small, medium, and large turkeys, but you’ll get all that meat off.”
The Camden plant is a full-harvest facility, which means everything on a turkey is used and processed in some form. Boneless, skinless breast meat is the most valuable, Prestage says, while the plant also processes thighs, wings, drumsticks, turkey necks, giblets, and other cuts for tray pack and specialty products. “We also process for pet food, which is the lowest-end, mechanically separated turkey, but we want our plant to get the highest yield possible out of the main cuts, especially the breast meat,” he says.
Moving back to the start of primary processing, live turkeys are brought inside the facility via trucks and transport cages that are automatically loaded onto two intake lines. Prestage Foods wanted to implement what they considered the most humane, stress-free method available to harvest the birds—CO2 gas stunning inside a Humane Aire controlled atmosphere stunning (CAS) system—that moves the crates through a long, enclosed chamber specialized for turkeys.
“We use about 0.4 lb of CO2 per head [inside the chamber] and the turkeys just go to sleep,” Prestage explains. “We’re putting them to sleep so the heart keeps beating, and then they’re bled when they’re fully unconscious.”
Having two intake lines for the stunning system is important, he adds. “A lot of [companies] make the mistake of only putting one line on this system, and that becomes a bottleneck for the whole plant. Having two lines makes the whole process more efficient.”
Hygienic by Design
Sanitation is a key design element running through the facility. The primary and secondary processing areas were built to operate separately, with corresponding employee welfare areas serving as a buffer between the two. This eliminates employee cross-traffic (and potential cross-contamination) in those two processing areas, and allows complete sanitation to be performed on one side without having to shut down operations on the other side.
“It’s a very clean layout and design,” explains Prestage. “You want to do your best to separate your primary side from your secondary side. There’s separation because of the [employee] welfare areas, which are common areas and break areas. We have clear separation amongst all our departments.”
Sandberg adds, “When we met with Ron [Prestage, president of Prestage Foods], he said he wanted live harvest to be separated from people and the rest of the plant, and he didn’t want them all taking breaks at the same time. So, there’s designated common areas where employees can go, and they really only come in and out at the same location, which reduces the chance for cross-contamination.”
The pandemic also played a part in designing the building and how employees would interact with it on a daily basis, Sandberg says. Thoughtful additions include workspaces separated by several feet so staff aren’t working closely together; larger break rooms with extra space for people to spread out; the removal of all major doors for restrooms, replaced by switchbacks; and separate entrance and exit doors installed rather than just a single two-way door, which reduces face-to-face contact among workers moving through the plant.
Just outside the facility, a separate parking lot was created for clean cages and trucks, away from the intake area where live turkeys are offloaded. “Most people think cross-contamination only happens inside the plant because everything is vertically integrated,” says Lehnerer. “The trucks are a point of cross-contamination. So, [after unloading], the empty cages come off and get washed, the truck moves forward and gets washed, and then clean cages are put onto a clean trailer in a separate parking lot, and that goes back out to the farm. It’s a whole other way of thinking in the way we added this intervention step to capture the farm side of cross-contamination.”
Food safety is also prevalent for end-of-line tasks at the plant. All turkey products go through metal detection, and all boneless turkey products also go through X-ray to catch any contaminants before being sent to customers for retail sale or further processing.
As mentioned earlier, the heavy investment in automation at Prestage also has a ripple effect on workforce hours, enabling the industry’s first single-shift, 10-hour, four-day workweek for employees. Primary processing staff work Monday through Thursday, and secondary/deboning workers are there Tuesday through Friday.
“We all thought about how to create an environment at this plant where people actually want to come and work, and doesn’t have, for example, a 50% turnover rate,” Sandberg says. “What is the process for that? One way is telling someone they can make the same amount of money working four days a week instead of five. Prestage can hire people who don’t want to regularly work overtime, nights, and weekends like at other plants.”
By emphasizing automation for extremely difficult jobs in the harvesting/primary processing area, Prestage invested in ergonomic equipment, allowing employees to work comfortably and efficiently during their shifts. This includes individual height adjustments on platforms along the line, increased space between workers, and installing machines that do all or most of the work for repetitive jobs like cropping, and live hanging of birds (which can weight 40 to 50 lb each) onto shackles after gas stunning.
“The shackles are lowered down so workers never need to pick up the bird to hang it by its feet,” Sandberg explains. “There were so many areas like that where we focused on automated solutions to the hardest, most labor-intensive jobs.”
Another difficult task taken over by automation is the transportation of giblets, hearts, and livers after evisceration. Prestage installed a fully automated line using conveyors and vacuums to move those innards to another processing area without staff having to manually move totes of the product, limiting their contact with it.
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The employee welfare areas, like break rooms and the central cafeteria, were designed with extra space for staff to relax and recharge before going back to work. The cafeteria was originally developed with a full-service kitchen in mind, but Prestage opted not to install foodservice equipment since staff are only there four days a week, and just three days where all 300 primary and secondary workers are onsite together. However, Prestage kept the overall square footage of the space intact.
“It’s a very nice, wide-open cafeteria,” Lehnerer says. “We see a lot of [Gray’s] customers successfully using self-service vending machines in their cafeteria spaces with a lot more people, so that’s what Prestage has here.” In addition to the vending machines, Prestage also brings in caterers and food trucks on occasion to give workers additional variety for their lunches.
Looking toward the future and possible expansion of operations around the Camden plant, Prestage has right of first refusal on every part of the industrial park surrounding the facility, so that option is available. For now though, the pluck shown by Prestage to take a chance on a new operating model for the turkey industry that addresses automation and labor in novel ways is poised to pay off for years to come.
“If someone tells us our ideas are not possible, I don’t want them part of the team,” says Ron Prestage, president of Prestage Foods. “There’s nobody in the world that has a plant like this for turkey. It might not have been easy to plan and execute, but we figured it out, and there’s very few things I would have done differently.”