Mistakes to avoid when building your meat processing business: CONSTRUCTION

This is the third in a series of posts on building your meat processing business.  Once you have left the planning phase and completed your design, you are ready to break ground and get started.  The following are observations around the five biggest problem areas in meat processing construction.  However, there are two pieces of advice to take with you at all times throughout the whole process.

The first is, no single person on your team is going to have ALL the answers.  Your architect may be totally pulling some things out of his ass.  Your engineers might not know the nitty gritty details to comply with USDA requirements.  Your USDA inspector may care more about whether or not he gets his own bathroom, so they will most likely be useless during construction as well.  If you suspect that something needs to be changed, at any point in the project, then I recommend employing the next step:  stop and figure it out before moving forward.  When building a processing plant, it's all concrete, steel beams, and expensive equipment.  Few mistakes can be dealt with easily once in place.  Make sure that you are addressing each detail and making 100% sure that you are making the best decision possible before giving the OK.

Floors

There are lots of varying opinions regarding the floors in processing plants.  How much slope from wall to drain?  How much texturing - slip resistance vs. ease of cleaning.  Where to put the drains, and how many do you need?  What size should they be?

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Concrete issues and plumbing issues are not mistakes that you can solve with a band-aid.  Only a jackhammer.  You’re about to build a brand-new processing facility.. Why pay for your floors twice?  Seeing lousy concrete and plumbing design and execution is one of the reasons I began consulting start-up processing facilities... I have already seen this mistake made, and you could potentially lose thousands of dollars with one or two hasty decisions.

What is an “industry standard” in architecture for adequate drainage may not be enough here; you need to make sure that your slopes are adequate and then some.  You cannot afford to have even a small area of pooling.  This becomes an issue with both the USDA, and with keeping overall moisture in check.

In the least creepy way possible (take multiple other adults with you and a witness affidavit) go visit a gym locker room.  Your processing room and kill floor will be operating much the same way as a YMCA shower:  lots of hot water hoses running at once, for short bursts of time.  If you have even the slightest problem areas of pooling, they will constantly be a problem for you, both with keeping things clean, keeping the rooms dry, and with safety.  You don’t want to have to order fancy “caution wet floor” placards to place on every wall.

In my personal opinion, a textured floor is worth the extra elbow grease it takes to clean.  I know managers who prefer an easier surface to clean, and are OK with slick floors being a major safety hazard to their employees.  Not for me.  What would you rather have?  Eight months of worker’s compensation when somebody falls and tears their rotator cuff, needing surgery and ending their meat cutting career.... Or a few extra minutes to clean the floor?  This scenario actually happened to a coworker of mine a long time ago, and it wasn’t the only slip and fall that required medical attention - it just happened to be the worst.

No matter what floor you choose, choose boots that are compatible with that floor.  Strong, trained, knowledgable meat cutters are hard to replace.  Be sure you are thinking of employee safety throughout each stage of the process.

Freezer Space

One tip you may have heard from interviewing other meat processors is to build more freezer space than you think you need.  Sadly, these rumors are true.  Don’t use estimates for freezer storage based on weight of the meat.  That is useful for home chest freezers, but in a walk-in freezer, you need shelves, aisles, space for carts, trays, shifting product, and ventilation.  Everyone is going to have different freezer storage needs based on their particular business model, desired capacity, and market.  How much space the meat takes up and your maximum production capacity in relation to how long you need to store the meat is going to determine how much space you need.  I can help you calculate this.

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Ventilation, rails and floor all in one photo

Ventilation & condensation

Keeping your air circulating, to keep condensation at a minimum, and for other reasons (relative humidity in your cooler, mold growth, etc) is something to keep in mind.  Condensation can be a major issue that will be hard to remedy once the building is completed.  Moisture will collect at any point where cold meets hot:  which is, well, a million places in a processing plant.  Walls, ceilings, between coolers, between cutting room and kill floor rooms, loading dock areas.

Where there is moisture, there’s bacteria.  Where there’s bacteria, there’s a guy in a white USDA coat swabbing something with a q-tip and filling out a form.  The inspectors will be diligent about excess or pooling water, and will definitely have something to say about any water that drips onto meat or food contact surfaces.  Try and keep things insulated well, the air moving, and use your rags and squeegees when cleaning to mop up any excess moisture.

Septic System

You are required to “have adequate waste water removal systems” in place.  From your floor drains to your septic system, you should be thinking about this as you design your waste disposal systems.  Consider that you will be using a lot, and I mean A LOT, of water per carcass.  From washing the actual carcass down, to cleaning your various rooms, to other general needs for water you may use a minimum of 250 gallons per beef carcass.  This means that if you’re running 10 head of beef through your plant per day, you’ll be using at least 2500 gallons of water a day.  And all of it must find it’s way from all over the room, to down the drain.

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Your septic system must be able to handle this, plus any domestic usage (i.e. bathrooms, hand washing).  Make sure that your septic engineer can design a system that can handle this volume of water (overestimate!)Steamy. Like I said, lots of water. lots. over a 24-hour period.  Also make sure that your filters/traps will be able to catch most of the blood, hair and fat heading down the drain.

Design Team

Architects don't always know best.  Neither do most engineers.  You must have a solid team of people WORKING TOGETHER.  The architect, engineer, and general contractors all know their business, but you, along with these members of your building team will only make the right decisions if they and you listen to each other.  Sometimes the general notices details that will save your butt in the long run, sometimes the engineer has a great idea to work around an issue, and sometimes you may know that something is just plain not going to work.  Communicate constantly with these parties and never defer due to lack of confidence - if you don’t know, stop and figure it out first.  Discuss, listen, and get help when help is needed.  You don't want to settle for something only to find out later that it's built in such a way that it is permanently going to slow things down during operations, or that you need to fix it.

I’m not aware of any architecture firm that specializes in small red meat processing facilities with humane handling design incorporated.  I’ve seen all these mistakes first-hand, and sadly, most are in brand-new plants.  Why risk making those mistakes again?  Your success is only going to be limited by the quality of the infrastructure you have built for your business.  Get it right the first time!