Bell & Evans is the oldest branded chicken company in the U.S., with roots dating back to 1894. Its storied history as a chicken processor doesn’t mean its current operations are stuck in the past though. The brand’s new $360 million plant in Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania—which doubles as the company’s new headquarters—is the realization of a career-long dream for a state-of-the-art, “European Plus” harvesting and processing facility by Chairman and President, Scott Sechler Sr.
The new plant started construction in July 2020 and opened for business in early December 2021. It replaces Bell & Evans’ previous harvesting facility and now operates nearby the company’s organic-certified further processing and packaging plant, and their organic-certified, animal-welfare-focused chicken hatchery. The new facility harvests approximately 300,000 chickens daily.
“I always dreamt of building a new chicken plant from the ground up to incorporate the ideas I accumulated over my 50-plus years in the industry,” Sechler says. “One of the biggest improvements we wanted to make was around live receiving with stress reduction for animal welfare, and we accomplished that with the new facility.”
Animal welfare is just one of the elements where the Fredericksburg facility excels, along with a thoughtful focus on every detail when it comes to food safety, automation, sustainability, energy savings, staff satisfaction and much more, which is why we’re giving Bell & Evans our 2022 Plant of the Year award.
Foundation for the future
“We’re a very innovative business, and retrofitting our existing plant to meet our needs was no longer enough,” Sechler explains. “We wanted to build a new, chlorine-free, organic-certified, state-of-the-world facility that matches the rest of our model.”
The 411,500-sq.-ft. plant is a greenfield project, which allowed the brand to incorporate several important details into the design of the building related to hygiene and sanitation—vitally important for a poultry processing facility.
One of the most innovative ideas was to weld all equipment infrastructure to stainless-steel plates embedded directly into the precast concrete walls of the building, eliminating exposed nuts and bolts that can collect moisture and bacteria and are often located in hard-to-reach areas for cleaning.
Other notable hygienic design ideas include acid-brick flooring in the production areas, which is more expensive than other surfaces but also more durable. That flooring is also sloped with strategically placed drains to accelerate drying after washdowns. The company also incorporated stainless-steel surfaces and UV lighting in the air make up units to prevent bacterial growth and kill airborne viruses.
Another design addition not seen at many meat-processing facilities is a second-floor mezzanine where managers, executives and visitors can watch production from above behind large glass windows, which not only provides transparency of the operation, but keeps outside contaminants away from processing areas, and eliminates the need for people to change clothes or scrub out like they would before visiting the production floor in person.
In order to make sure these and other design additions would fit under one roof, Bell & Evans virtually mapped all of the equipment and utility details before construction. “We fully designed our building and our equipment utilizing 3D technology,” says Bell & Evans COO Mike Bracrella. “On a typical construction project, you might have hundreds of clashes and interferences where two different subcontractors want to use the same air space for utilities. Stellar did an incredible job of hosting the 3D plan, and we designed every single pipe and conduit, down to every nut and bolt, in that plan. We only ended up with two interferences that had to be worked out in the field.”
Many of those utility lines are located in a climate-controlled interstitial space between the rooftop and the ceiling above processing areas that acts like a thermos bottle buffer between the rooftop and production areas. This saves energy throughout the building by preventing weather-related temperature fluctuations to penetrate past the rooftop.
The climate-controlled interstitial space is just one of many sustainable initiatives throughout the structure that’s good for the planet and the bottom line. In fact, Bell & Evans received the first green loan in U.S. poultry from Rabobank specifically for this facility, punctuating their eco-friendly focus from the start.
The company’s Air Chill process for chicken already saves millions of gallons of water each year compared to conventional chicken cooling systems that use chlorinated water. According to Bracrella, this also makes for tastier, higher-quality product, since chicken can absorb up to 12% of that chlorinated water into the meat.
“We’re reconditioning over 400,000 gallons of water every day at our new onsite wastewater plant,” says Bracrella. “When this is paired with our 100% Air Chill processing, we’re conserving more water than any other poultry producer.”
Bell & Evans also worked with Stellar to design and install a sustainable ammonia refrigeration system with stainless steel piping rather than carbon steel piping, used to cool the facility’s temperature-controlled processing and cold storage areas.
Recycled heat is another initiative at the plant with eco-friendly results. “We are recovering waste heat from our own neighboring rendering plant to serve our new plant’s hot water needs,” Bracrella explains. “Also, we did not install typical steam boilers in the facility. We went with direct-fired gas heaters that achieve 99% efficiency compared to the best boiler that might operate at 89% to 90% efficiency.”
Other notable energy saving steps at the plant include LED lighting throughout the facility, and insulated walls that were designed above code requirements.
The size and shape of the facility is a result of how Bell & Evans visualized their perfect processing plant, particularly with room to extend the length of processing lines. “It was very important to us to limit turns in our processing design. Every turn in processing creates a potential impact on quality, so we maximized the length of our facility to incorporate straight lines for a very linear process,” says Bell & Evans EVP Scott Sechler Jr., adding that the new equipment populating those processing lines can actually run at a rate faster than what’s currently approved by the USDA.
Within and around those lines is a highly automated infrastructure, covering every area of the plant, including receiving, harvesting, processing, packaging and palletizing. “We have North America’s first fully automated live and empty loading and unloading systems for chickens. No forklifts are used at any point of the live process at this facility,” notes Sechler Jr. “We also have seven palletizing robots and another four pick-and-place robots for packing, and we’re currently testing a prototype AGV to operate in our warehouse.”
The automated live loading and unloading system detailed above is one of the keys to keeping chickens calm as they enter the plant for harvesting, according to Sechler. “In our opinion, we have constructed the greatest live receiving area and process in the world. Our chickens are never moved by forklift at the plant and are kept in a quiet, dark and air-conditioned space to minimize stress,” he says, adding that the SIA (slow induction anesthesia) equipment installed is “best in class because oxygen is introduced to the tempered CO2 gas for a slow and gentle process of rendering the birds unconscious.”
After harvesting, the chickens go through a high-speed camera system called IRIS (Intelligent Reporting, Inspection & Selection) which takes a digital image of each individual bird as it passes before an IRIS camera, identifying specific poultry diseases, potential contaminants and other safety concerns on the birds, and can track each chicken to its farm of origin. Bell & Evans is the first to install an IRIS system on a poultry processing line in the U.S.
Competition for a shrinking labor pool is an ongoing concern throughout the industry, so Bell & Evans dedicated much of their new facility to increasing the comfort and satisfaction of their workforce, while making it an attractive place to work for new hires. About 1,200 people are currently employed at the plant.
At workstations along the processing lines, each employee has a fully adjustable platform to make their jobs as ergonomic and efficient as possible—especially important for high-repetition tasks. All work areas are climate controlled, and windows line the walls for natural light throughout production spaces, which Sechler says is rare in U.S. plants but is common in European plants.
“We collaborated with our team members on their requests for workspaces,” explains Sechler. “One of the hardest jobs is at the hangers, and we significantly improved this workspace with lighting and HVAC improvements. With building the new plant so close in proximity to our old plant, the operations team developed an excellent plan of bringing teams to the new construction weekly to get their input on design of the individual workspaces.”
The new employee cafeteria is the perhaps most visual example of Bell & Evans’ dedication to its workforce, with high ceilings, natural light from dozens of windows, ample seating, an outdoor patio, and a full foodservice kitchen with changing menus and fresh food made daily.
“We spent a lot of time making sure our cafeteria is a bright, spacious and welcoming space for team members to be very comfortable during breaks. Our cafeteria operates as a full-service restaurant where team members can enjoy a high quality, at-cost meal. We incorporated a hot meal station, commercial air fryers, grill, salad bar, prepared foods, fresh juices, free coffee and more,” Sechler says.
Bell & Evans designed this plant with the future in mind, both inside and outside the facility. Inside, there’s an additional 20% of space that can be transformed into a second processing and packaging area as Bell & Evans grows and expands.
Outside the building, approximately $5 million in earthwork was performed before construction, and this includes master planning for a second harvest facility, which would be located behind the current building.
Since Bell & Evans moved their headquarters to the new building, they added an all-new meeting space with an adjoining executive kitchen and wall-sized viewing screen for presentations. Clients and visitors can also view the production areas through windows in this section, similar to the second-floor mezzanine mentioned earlier.
Construction on this plant happened during prime pandemic months, accompanied by all the supply chain scrambles and safety precautions that rippled throughout the industry. However, even with those challenges, the plant was completed on time. According to Bracrella, Bell & Evans’ main financier said this was the only project the bank had invested in that remained on schedule through the pandemic, and he says it’s a testament to the team effort and daily communication between Bell & Evans and Stellar that made it happen.
“We’ve found that Bell & Evans customers are incredibly brand loyal because they recognize that a true commitment to quality yields an unparalleled product,” says Sechler. “This facility is no different. It features the best of the best in technology, innovation, employee welfare and sustainability because our customers and employees deserve no less. This is just the latest chapter in our never-ending story of challenging the status quo and leading our industry forward.”
Photo and video credits: Scott S. Smith/SSS Studios