Kinston, NC, has been home to a Smithfield Foods pork processing plant since 1979. David Hoffman, who recently was promoted to plant manager of the current prepared foods facility, was born and raised in Kinston. So, Smithfield has had a long-time presence in his community and eventually became the starting place for his career in the pork processing industry.

Hoffman went to work at the original Smithfield plant in Kinston in 1991 and spent most of his career in operations — 15 years as a supervisor.

“I’m one of the folks that went to work on the floor as an hourly [worker],” he said. “I got an opportunity to be a crew leader; I got an opportunity to be a plant supervisor, and it grew from there.”

Then, in 2005 Smithfield committed to building a second facility in Kinston about five miles from the original plant. Hoffman got the rare chance to be part of building a new plant.

“It was a great opportunity for me,” he said. “I was excited about it. If you ever hear it called K2, that’s why, because the original plant was K1 — Kinston one. And then when we had both plants, you would meet someone on the street and they would say, ‘well, do you work at K1 or K2?’

“So, I started my career here at K2 or the current Kinston plant in 2006 and was able to see it get built, which was exciting.”

The original Kinston plant, K1, operated until 2008. And Hoffman continued working his way up through the ranks taking positions of increasing responsibility, including superintendent. He spent 10 years in research and development at Smithfield. New roles within the company took him away from the Kinston facility, but not the town.

“I lived in Kinston the whole time,” he said. “I traveled to pretty much every plant in the company and worked in research and development. I spent one year, in 2020, in what we call continuous improvement, building a team there. And then I got the opportunity to be a plant manager at Wilson in North Carolina, which is about 45 minutes from Kinston. So, with my investment in Kinston, I never moved my family. My youngest son is in high school.”

And when Curtis Drimmel, the previous plant manager at Kinston, was promoted to senior director of production engineering for Smithfield, Hoffman applied.

“I said, ‘Hey, my roots are in Kinston. I’m ingrained in that community.’ Smithfield has invested in me, and I wanted to make sure I give back to Smithfield and my community as a plant manager.”

Prepared foods focus

The Kinston facility that was built in 2006 spanned 230,000 square feet and was outfitted to process boneless hams into lunch meat and cook-in-bag products.

In 2011, former North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue announced the Kinston expansion. The facility, at the time forecast to cost $85 million to build, would assume production of hot dogs and lunch meats from Smithfield’s Portsmouth, Va., facility which the company said it would shutter.

Smithfield doubled the size of the manufacturing floor with lines for hot dogs and bone-in hams. A prepared foods line was added in 2020, and the employee ranks grew to 900.

Today, plant capacity at the Kinston prepared foods facility ranges between 250 million lbs and 300 million lbs and items produced include bone-in hams, cook-in-bag, franks and prepared foods like Nathan’s Famous Pretzel Dogs and Carando brand Rip-n-Dips.

Feeding the demands of the Kinston plant is Smithfield’s Tar Heel fresh pork processing plant. A two-hour drive away, Tar Heel is recognized as the largest pork processing plant in the world covering 985,000 square feet.

Tar Heel ships processed fresh pork in combos that typically weigh about 2,500 lbs. Roughly 20 combos fit on a semitruck — and about 100 trucks a day arrive at the Kinston facility’s five dock doors.

The combos can be scanned for information on the cut which determines how the meat will be processed. For example, a combo of ham knuckles will be injected with a cure and massaged to help absorption. The meat is stuffed into a 4-by-6-inch square, or circle log and then run through Weber slicers to make lunch meat.

Weber developed a training program called Guardian, which facilitates training hourly associates along with Smithfield supervisors on the proper operation and maintenance of the high-speed slicers.

Wrapped in smoke

Bone-in hams are injected with cure, wrapped in meat netting and then placed on a meat tree. The meat tree is then rolled into a smokehouse to cook.

The cure is a proprietary blend developed by Smithfield Foods. After injection, the hams can increase in size by roughly 50%. So, a ham that weighs 20 lbs in a combo can weigh as much as 35 lbs after injection. The hams will lose most of that moisture during cooking. After the cook cycle, the hams can weigh about 23-24 lbs.

A worker observes the hams coming down the line to help with quality control and to ensure the injectors are evenly fed with cure.

Workers load up the meat trees — 26 trees with a total of 60 hams per tree. Hanging the hams on the meat tree is one of the more difficult jobs in the plant. Workers are constantly switched out of that position to stave off wear and tear on their backs.

The Kinston facility doesn’t utilize a pre-smoke or liquid smoke in the smokehouse. Instead, Smithfield employs bone in meat netting manufactured by PCM [Package Concepts & Materials], Greenville, SC.

PCM meat nets are infused with smoke flavor, and as the hams go through the heating process, the smoke goes from the net into the ham.

The smokers are programmed to ensure that the hams are smoked to the specifications required for the various products made at the Kinston facility. Probes are inserted in some of the hams to ensure placement in the proper category. Hams are smoked for 12 to 13 hours.Later, the hams are cut into portions — the shank, a butt or a slice, for example.

Smithfield has seen a trend of consumers selecting small portions of hams for regular consumption while reserving the large centerpiece hams for special occasions like Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, or other celebrations.

Baker’s delight

A unique feature of the Kinston facility is its in-house, all-stainless bakery. It features a two-story proofer for the dough. Products such as the Rip-n-Dips, Bagel Dogs and Pretzel Dogs, calzones and stromboli are the type of grab-n-go products aligned with consumer demand for convenience. In its What’s In Store report for 2023, the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA) found that 55% of the consumers surveyed said they were somewhat or very interested in easier shopping with grab-and-go for bakery and deli products, while 50% said they were somewhat or very interested in easier meal preparation with semi- and fully prepared items.

At the Kinston plant, industrial mixers produce 400 lb-batches of dough that get transferred to a line of rolling pins. The dough is turned 90° [The Kinston bakery is the only bakery in the world that turns the dough sheet 90°, according to Smithfield.] and sent to the production floor where the dough sheet is cut into different shapes depending on the product that is running on the line. For example, Rip-n-Dips begin as a flat sheet of dough that after it’s sliced, is formed, by hand, into a doughnut-shape.

Another notable feature of the bakery are video screens that reinforce the process of hand-forming the products. If the company were to run a new product or have a new bunch of employees, Smithfield records an employee demonstrating the correct way to complete the task. The video replays, and an employee can look up at any time and see how it’s done.

Smithfield started Rip-n-Dip production during COVID, and training was a challenge with social distancing mandates. The video screens helped teach employees that new process.

Exploring automation

Some processes in the bakery will eventually be automated while others already benefit from automation. For example, the amount of dough, cheese, pepperoni and seasonings are programmed by weight so that the combined ingredients add up to a predetermined minimum weight of the product. If anything is off spec the line is paused, and the products are reworked.

And the bakery isn’t the only area to utilize automation and state-of-the-art equipment. Hoffman noted as an example the Armor Inox cook-and-chill system used to cook hams.

“It’s not like the old conventional ovens,” he said, adding that robotics are in place at Kinston which has helped address challenges in finding labor.

“This plant in particular has quite a robust, what we call process control system,” Hoffman said. “When you’re making a formula, we have a strict bill of materials — we call them a ‘BOM.’ It gets downloaded and you’ve got to precisely add a certain amount of water and ingredients. This is one of the few plants that has that technology where an employee can look at a screen, check by check, and it tells them how to make a formula, how to make a recipe. So that has been a big help as far as technology in this new facility.”

The Kinston facility already makes use of robotic palletizing for boxes, and Hoffman expects to see more processing plants adopt robotics to address gaps in available labor “…more so in our fresh plants,” he said. “How can we trim muscles off the ham without as much labor? I see us going there.”

He also expects more exploration into automating packaged foods plants “… where our palletizers are all robotics, where our packaging end is robotics. I think that’s where we’ll go in the next few years here.”

Clear team goals

As the plant manager of the Kinston facility, Hoffman said driving quality and a food safety mindset among the team are top of mind, although his number one goal is to provide a safe work environment for plant employees.

“We want to get the President’s Award for the safest plant out there,” he said. “And not only that, but how does Smithfield Kinston, develop their safety program and communicate that out to our other 30, 35 plants?

“And then obviously for me, building a team and building a culture where employees feel we care about them. I want a team that says, ‘Hey, you know what? Smithfield’s a good company and that plant manager cares about me and the environment I work in.’”