As part of the School Food FOCUS National Gathering last week, I had the opportunity to visit a meat processing plant called Quantum Foods. FOCUS works to transform school food by supporting more healthful, regional and sustainable solutions— including a recent victory of getting 1.2 million pounds of antibiotic-free chicken into Chicago Public Schools. The Chicago area has a long history of meatpacking, and being in the center of the country gives it an advantage for shipping. Founded by Polish immigrant Ed Bleka in 1990, Quantum processes meat– or “proteins” in foodservice parlance– proteins for casual dining restaurants, USDA commodity foods, the military, schools and retail. The 300,000 square foot facility we visited focuses on portion control, impingement cooking (forced convection), and batter breading; another culinary facility has a smokehouse, and a third does high pressure pasteurization and storage. So where do the millions of pounds of beef, poultry, and pork come from? “In the U.S. and Canada, there are basically four phone numbers that you call,” says our guide, referencing the four largest meat producers; Australia, New Zealand and Nicaragua also provide product. All of the meat that comes into the plant is bar coded and can be traced to its source.
Fourteen thousand employees cover three shifts six days a week. They wear white smocks and white hardhats with their names neatly stenciled by a label maker. Signs throughout the plant are in English, Spanish and Polish, echoing their names. They are union workers, and the plant has been praised as a model in labor practices. Under glaring bright lights, stainless steel shines and the walls are white. It is a brisk, temperature-controlled 45°. But it’s the whirl and noise of machines that is most noticeable: one sorts by weight, tumblers marinate meat, other machines make meatballs or batter chicken breasts, some bag product or seal with barrier film, forklifts whiz by in the halls. There are neatly arranged bins and boxes everywhere and nearly everything is moving. There is a portioner machine that creates a digital image of halved chicken breasts—they’re naturally different sizes and shapes, after all— and topographically calculates the best angles to cut them into portions by weight. The cuts are made by high pressure water— essentially a water laser— as they travel along a conveyor belt. Despite a hefty half a million dollar price tag, the machine reduces waste and labor and increases yield. For bone-in meats (like T-bone steak), cutting is done by hand for thickness and weight on a bandsaw. Good cutters are hard to come by and many are nearing retirement age.
Our guide, Lincoln Yee, created a product line at the plant as his final MBA project, and proudly explained that the specifications of equipment determine what a particular plant can produce. By using underutilized assets more efficiently, costs are kept down and growth can be sustained. Some of the School Food FOCUS gathering attendees were uncomfortable with seeing such a large volume of meat being processed. Efficiency is necessary for current consumption. But there are questions too. What are the hidden costs of producing a global food supply that is “cheap, safe and consistent” by USDA standards? Is efficiency sustainable?