Rich Vesta’s pride in his family’s state-of-the-industry beef-processing plant is evident as he talks about the features that will make Harmony Beef a one-of-a-kind plant in North America.
The modernized Rancher’s Beef facility located in a vast industrial area east of Balzac, Alta. is now loaded with the latest European technology to provide a safe, comfortable work environment and produce a safe, quality product in the most efficient manner possible.
Vesta and his sons, Jeremy and Christopher chose the new name of the plant to reflect their intent to operate in harmony with all aspects of the beef business. It’s a role Vesta has fulfilled time and time again in a lifelong career in the meat-processing industry serving as both manager and owner of several large packing plants south of the border.
Christopher joined his dad in the packing business after college, while Jeremy’s background is in risk management and grain trading.
Vesta says the original Rancher’s Beef plant was state of the art in its day back in 2006-07 when it was certified as a federally registered, European-approved plant.
Although he realized the extent of the renovations that would be required when he purchased the plant in November 2013 — chiefly a European-designed water treatment plant and mechanical upgrades — the job has taken longer than he anticipated.
As of June they were preparing to begin construction on the water treatment plant this fall with a start date for the plant sometime in the first quarter of next year.
“Having our own water treatment facility to recycle and purify water will cut our need for fresh water by 80 per cent. That’s unprecedented in North America. We will still use the same amount of water overall as any plant our size, but we will be an efficient user of water.”
Vesta has no doubt Harmony Beef will be able to meet all the requirements needed to ship product into Asia, Europe and other key markets. As per standard Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) protocol, the plant will operate as a domestic (provincial) plant for the first three months as it ramps up production.
In anticipation of that day marketing and sales staff have been busy hosting plant tours and buying and selling beef from other sources to build up relationships with potential customers. They’ve already been in touch with 250 buyers in Canada alone.
Their procurement strategy has been ongoing as Harmony has been building relationships with a number of western Canadian feeders and is still open to further inquiries.
They will operate on a just-in-time delivery schedule for cattle to eliminate overnight stands. That’s normal industry practice but Vesta says it will be easier to manage in a mid-size plant, particularly one in a province like Alberta with so many large feedlots relatively close to their doors.
On a walk-through tour Vesta points first to the receiving area with its covered scale and serpentine-shaped handling system with deeply etched heated concrete floors to provide good footing and easy cleanout even on the coldest days. It’s the one area of the plant that Vesta didn’t see any need to renovate.
Next are the three welfare areas — hide on, hide off and fabrication. In keeping with European requirements each step is carried out in separate rooms, with separate fresh-air ventilation, complete with precision-engineered fans for quiet operation.
The carcass rail was engineered in Holland for quiet operation. Like the walking beams in the cooler, conveyor table chains and many other structures, the rail is made with stainless steel to avoid corrosion which can potentially become a food safety issue.
The computer-controlled rail is set to run at 93 head per hour, or 750 to 800 head per day at full capacity, compared to 200 head per hour in typical plants of similar size. In this plant the computer stops the rail for 25 to 30 seconds at each work station to give the employees time to complete their task without rushing to keep up with a steadily moving rail. All work stands above floor level can be lifted up or down by air-powered controls to reduce strain on the employees.
Food safety measures begin right at the start. In the hide removal room each station is equipped with three knives and a sterilizer so a clean knife is used for each cut through the hide to lessen the chance of bacteria contacting the meat. Each exposed area is sprayed with a five per cent lactic acid solution that kills bacteria within 20 seconds.
The wash box is next in line, and the evisceration room. The conveyor table in the evisceration room is fitted with dividers to separate white offal (stomach and intestines) from red (kidney, heart, liver, trachea and lungs and head) as they are pulled from the carcass. This is done to avoid losing all of the drop credit organs from several carcasses should there be an issue with a carcass down the line.
The offal on the table is aligned with the carcass above for examination by CFIA inspectors. Separate rooms are set aside to process white and red offal before it enters the blast freezer. Blast freezers are common in large plants, but less so in mid-size operations like Harmony Beef. Typically, says Vesta, the offal goes into a freezer truck stationed by the plant.
The last step in the evisceration process is splitting the carcass into sides before it enters a high-pressure wash box with 190 F steam for 1.5 minutes followed by a complete lactic acid spray before chilling.
Each of the four coolers that hold 300 head (600 sides) have overhead walking beams that space out the carcasses so they cool evenly. Double-size refrigeration units take carcasses from 92 F down to 40 F or less in 36 to 48 hours to attain the best yield.
Carcasses are then graded and sorted by grade and weight.
From the cooler the sides pass through another lactic acid cabinet on the way to the remodelled fabrication floor with separate lines for the chucks, ribs, loins and rounds. All trim will be sold to further processors.
The cold-storage room has been completely retrofitted from floor to the highest rack and can now hold 27,000 boxes at a time.