Our 2022 winner established a new benchmark for innovation and efficiency in a poultry plant, while elevating employee and animal welfare. Part 1
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, Pa.—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 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.
The 411,500-sq.-ft. plant allowed Bell & Evans to determine optimal dimensions for poultry processing. “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 EVP Scott Sechler Jr.
“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.
The new Bell & Evans facility is highly automated, including several machines to box products, seven palletizing robots, four pick-and-place robots for packing, and the company is also testing a prototype AGV to operate in the plant’s warehouse.
“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.
“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,” says EVP Scott Sechler Jr.
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.
Bell & Evans’ $360 million chicken plant in Fredericksburg, Pa., also doubles as the company’s new headquarters with approximately 1,200 employees.
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. End of Part 1