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Greenville Business Magazine

Redesigning Food Processing: A unique dilemma

Jun 29, 2020 11:46AM ● By David Dykes
Workers in a meat processing area in North Carolina prepare food while maintaining social distancing. Food processing facilities across the U.S. are facing a reconfiguring of their operations to prevent the spread of Covid-19. (Photo provided)

By L. C. Leach III

Since the World Health Organization in January published its first news of a new virus outbreak, one of the biggest concerns to public health has been the processing and distribution of food.

Throughout the U.S., food manufacturers have been scrambling to reconfigure their operations to carry on at full production while ensuring the health and safety of their workforce.

On the frontlines of helping in this mass reconfiguration is A M King, an integrated design-build firm, headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., with an established presence in Upstate South Carolina and an office in Greenville.

Since 2004, A M King has used in-house design and engineering services to develop facility solutions for food processing, food distribution, and industrial and manufacturing clients as they grow and expand their businesses. 

But these efforts are getting a new wrinkle – and as food companies look to the challenge of redesigning facilities due to Covid-19, A M King company president and CEO Brian King said the task is “one of the most unique and difficult dilemmas in all of business.”

“This is a first-ever challenge for the food industry…and no prior examples to follow,” King said. “Several major food processing facilities in multiple states have been forced to suspend their operations to stop the spread of the virus among their workforces.”

Four of the companies that have been forced to close or suspend operations to some degree include:

• Tyson Foods, founded in 1935 in Springdale, Ark., produces approximately 20 percent of the beef, pork and chicken in the United States.

• Birds Eye, founded in 1923 and headquartered in Chicago, Ill., produces brands of frozen foods.

• Smithfield Foods Inc., founded in 1936 in Smithfield, Va., is the largest pig and pork producer in the world.

• JBS USA Holdings, Inc., based in Greeley, Colo., an American-owned subsidiary of JBS S.A., Brazil, is the world's largest processor of fresh beef and pork.

“Practically every workplace throughout America will be changing how it operates and how it protects its employees,” King said. “Food facilities, by necessity, will be on the forefront of those modifications.”

To this end, A M King is focused on developing solutions in the following four areas:

- Adequate separation between workers. Separation in a food facility is not only difficult to accomplish, it must occur in many places such as workstations, break areas, and locker rooms. Methods of production must also allow workers to perform critical tasks without being impeded.

- Evaluation and review of operating processes. From the moment raw materials enter a facility to their final point of packaging and shipping, an operating food facility adheres to a set of proven processes. To adjust these processes for the future, facility managers may need to evaluate how employees enter and exit, where they can work safely, and when they can work. Changes may also result in new walls, more doors, relocation of equipment, and other modifications.

- Modified space planning. To prevent the spread of Covid-19, facility managers will need to consider how to allocate the proper amount of space for adequate distancing, whether it is more careful planning of their floor space; better managing under-utilized space; or expanding facility space to allow more square footage per person.

- Greater use of automation. While complete automation of food processing and distribution may not be achievable, food facilities can conduct a feasibility analysis to determine where automation can be applied in a manner to alleviate interaction among employees.

“The entire issue at hand is in a level of infancy,” King said. “And in anticipation of forthcoming requests for assistance, we have a dedicated team of experts working to ensure food facility owners and operators have the resources, knowledge and capabilities to reconfigure their workspaces – and to keep their businesses operating and their employees safe and healthy.”