‘Most modern plant in the world’
A slight delay in opening puts Prestage Foods of Iowa on track for early 2019
In less than three months, state-of-the-art machines that will be used in the process of butchering pigs at Prestage Foods of Iowa will be powered on as the company prepares to open its $300 million, 700,000-square-foot plant south of Eagle Grove.
“It will be the most modern plant in the world until the next one is built,” Jere Null, chief executive officer of Prestage Foods of Iowa, said.
A $2.5 million thermal oxidizer to control the odor of the plant is one particular machine considered to be highly advanced.
That will be used in the rendering plant, which Null said is the most potent source of odor.
“The rendering plant cooks the inedible parts of the animal down and turns it into animal feed,” Null said. “That can be a pretty pungent odor. Most plants will put an air scrubber on the rendering plant, which is what we do on our barn, which we consider a pretty low offensive odor.”
The thermal oxidizer will burn at 1600 degrees Fahrenheit.
“A thermal oxidizer incinerates odor,” Null said. “Literally burn up these particulates in the air that create the odor before you release the air to the atmosphere. It’s highly effective. It virtually eliminates any odor coming off that system. We think it will be extremely effective.”
Null said this is just the fourth thermal oxidizer used in plants throughout the United States.
“The other three are in urban areas, in areas where companies were almost forced into a situation where they might close if they don’t resolve their odor issues,” Null said. “We felt like we made a commitment to be a good neighbor. We will have the only thermal oxidizer in the state.”
An air filtration system, built by Hog Slat, of Humboldt, has been installed in the barn portion of the plant.
Robots will be used for a number of processes, including moving the animals throughout the plant and precision meat-cutting.
“A lot of the back-breaking jobs have been engineered away,” Null said. “Whether it’s odor control or animal handling, this is very modern, new technologies.”
To date, Prestage has hired about 50 employees, according to Terry O’Rourke, general manager and vice president of Prestage.
O’Rourke moved to Eagle Grove from Council Bluffs to take the position.
“At this point we are bringing on management and there is a lot of excitement for the opportunity to work at Prestage Foods,” he said.
Null, who came to Iowa from Virginia, said the company has hired employees from North Carolina, Minnesota, Nebraska, Missouri, and throughout Iowa.
According to Null, the hires so far have benefited other employers in the area, as many of those employees have spouses who found work.
“We are right on schedule as far as where we want to be right now,” O’Rourke said.
Null said the company will begin its push to hire hourly workers in December.
“Our initial processing, which we call plant shakedown, will occur in late December,” Null said.
That will include turning on equipment and working out the kinks.
Prestage plans to hire about 650 production workers and more than 100 mechanical and engineering workers. About 200 employees will be hired for office, shipping and warehouse departments.
“The process flow runs from one end on the south side to begin the process and is completed on the north side for shipping,” O’Rourke said. “Within that there will be various levels of skills.”
Some of the production workers will be asked to handle livestock as they are introduced into the plant.
“That’s one of the most important factors in the process,” O’Rourke said. “The humane handling policies and procedures. Those people will need to be able to understand and interpret. Production jobs, skilled butcher positions that will keep the food safety at the highest level during the process.”
Prestage will export about 30 percent of its meat. The top markets are anticipated to be Mexico, Japan and China. South Korea is another important market to the U.S., Null said.
He is hopeful the trade disputes with China will get straightened out.
“I think the whole industry understands the need to resolve our issues with China,” he said. “With that said, it has been tough on the pork industry. We believe China needs the product. The U.S. is extremely efficient producing pork, corn and soybeans. We are honestly the best in the world and China is a huge consumer of those products. So I know our industry and company believes, as painful as this is, it will be resolved.”
Null said the changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement have been welcome.
“We still see meat going to those countries,” Null said. “We are relieved that it appears not to be an ongoing issue.”
The United States reached a new deal with Canada and Mexico in September.
The agreement will preserve zero-tariff access for U.S. pork to Mexico and Canada, according to the National Pork Producers Council and North American Meat Institute.
About 45 percent of Prestage’s meat will go to other processors. Those processors will then make bacon, ham or sausage.
“This is a raw material plant,” Null said.
The other 55 percent of meat will be cuts such as pork loins, spare ribs, back ribs, tenderloins and Boston butts.
The plant, which was scheduled to open in November, will begin its operations in January.
“That will be a ramp up over several months as we build to full capacity,” Null said.
The slight pushback of the opening was due to weather, he said.
“Weather and just general construction delays,” Null said. “We always believed the shakedown would be in November, now that’s in late December. We are probably five to six weeks behind where we hoped to be. But it’s a huge project. That’s not an extremely significant delay. This plant will be built in less than two years, which is a very fast track for an operation like this.”