Forecasts of the world’s growing population vary – predicts 9 billion by 2050 and estimates 11 billion by 2100. Regardless of where the number ends up, the fact is the population continues to grow. That growth coupled with widespread prosperity throughout socioeconomic classes produces a demand for more meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. —

Population, prosperity and even politics have led to meat processors and food distributors building new facilities and renovating existing operations. From investments of under $1 million to almost $400 million, the meat and poultry industry continues to grow.

“Construction of food processing facilities has definitely been on the rise since 2017, and it seems that more new ‘greenfield’ facilities are being constructed compared to past years,” says Michael Davis Jr., vice president of operations for Stellar, a Jacksonville, Florida-based design and build firm. “This likely has been a repercussion of the favorable tax cuts and reduction in regulations ushered in by the current administration.”

While facility construction has increased, a shrinking labor pool and uptick in the economy have presented a unique set of challenges when it comes to large-scale construction projects, mainly finding enough qualified subcontractor bids. As a result, firms have employed subcontractors from various trades to provide prefabricated solutions to minimize job-site labor. “3D design and building information modeling (BIM) services have been far more prevalent in recent years as the need for these prefabrication services has increased,” Davis says.

Construction considerations

More than 20 new greenfield, meat and poultry processing facilities were completed, under construction or announced in 2019 and early 2020 in North America alone, with new offices and distribution warehouses being planned or built as well. Thirty-three processing facilities are undergoing expansion while 20 offices and distribution warehouses are currently under construction (see “Construction Report” chart Pages 48-49).

“Time is money, and market share for your products can evaporate quickly in this economic climate.”
— Michael Davis Jr., vice president of operations for Jacksonville, Florida-based Stellar

The process of project development, whether greenfield construction or expansion, includes identifying and defining the needs to move pre-construction activities such as budgeting, scheduling, engineering and design coordination and acquisition of long-lead items forward. Construction and design companies along with their customers must define the full scope of work first to meet schedule and quality expectations.

“With the basis of design documented via proper project development, detailed design, permitting and construction services can follow,” Davis says.

In initial construction planning, companies consider a multitude of factors, however the largest factor in the equation is most often money. Building a new facility around intended products, processes, technology, equipment and automation is always ideal, but not always economical.

“We’re still seeing a wide variety of project types, but today’s clients seem more inclined to build new than to renovate an existing property,” Davis says. “Front-end purchase capital seems to be a limiting factor in whether a client builds new or not, as most prefer to build to suit their needs rather than be limited by existing property and/or building constraints. However, dollars still drive the decisions. Many projects that are planning for future expansions seem to be needing those expansions sooner than anticipated in the current market.”

Building together

A recent deal involves an exclusive partnership between processor and supplier. In February of 2020, Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania-based Bell & Evans teamed with processing and software provider Marel with US headquarters in Lenexa, Kansas, to start construction on a state-of-the-art greenfield poultry slaughtering plant in Fredericksburg.

The two companies based their agreement on a shared set of values regarding the same vision for sustainability, animal well-being and food safety. The new plant will increase Bell & Evans’ production of premium and organic chicken through Marel equipping two processing lines with capacities of 140 birds per minute (bpm), prepared for 175 bpm.

“We are very pleased to cooperate with Bell & Evans in this milestone project because we share the same values. It is through partnerships with companies like Bell & Evans that we realize our vision of transforming the way food is processed,” says Roger Claessens, executive vice president of Marel Poultry. “Bell & Evans is known to add maximum value to the entire chain by maintaining the highest production quality from egg to end product. The company recognizes that only a strong partnership, covering the entire processing line can raise the quality of poultry processing to the same high level. We’re happy that Marel can contribute to this final link in their value chain.”

Due to their belief in humane animal treatment, the partnership includes the new facility’s use of Marel’s Atlas automated transport system to eliminate forklifts and minimize stress by noise and light reduction. The system also offers smooth movement from the trailer to the slow induction anesthesia system (SIA), seen by many as a more humane version of controlled atmosphere stunning (CAS).

After a 100 percent air chill, birds will go through a Marel ACM-NT line with a Q-Wing solution for cut up, and from the time birds enter the plant through final packaging, Marel’s operating software, Innova, will ensure full traceability back to the birds’ farm.

“Marel is the only company in the world that has all the pieces figured out and in place together to offer a truly remarkable poultry processing system that I’m proud to use in our new harvesting plant,” says Bell & Evans’ owner Scott Sechler.

Getting it done

As the population grows and the world demands more food, the tastes and desires grow and evolve just as fast. Consumers vote for the products they want in the retail meat case or on a menu with their dollars, and processors need to react and adjust quickly to acquire and maintain market share for their products.

“Time is money, and market share for your products can evaporate quickly in this economic climate,” Davis says. “Clients have preferred utilizing design-build services, because it allows them to get products to market quickly. The tastes and habits of today’s food consumers are constantly changing, so new product lines require that speed to market, whereas traditional staples may still be able to utilize a long, extended delivery method.”

Davis suggests processors select firms providing both design and construction when considering expansion or greenfield builds.

“A design-build firm that is nimble, flexible and can react to the ever-changing market conditions would be an invaluable resource to any food processor in today’s dynamic market,” he says.