(Editor’s Note: For more information on the annual Food Quality & Safety Award, click HERE.)
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Explore This IssueOctober/November 2017
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In the TV show “Treehouse Masters” featured on Animal Planet network, one Pete Nelson, principal of Nelson Treehouse and Supply, and his talented crew create spectacular, jaw-dropping custom treehouses all around the county and the world. Nelson’s treehouses, all anchored on a solid, strong, specially selected tree, or sometimes group of trees, are nothing short of exemplary and inspiring dream house treehouses.
The same can be said about TreeHouse Foods, Inc., Oak Brook, Ill. So exemplary and inspiring are TreeHouse Foods’ quality and safety initiatives, the enterprise is being honored with a coveted 2017 Food Quality & Safety Award in the large business category.
TreeHouse, a publicly traded, globally-minded company, is best known for a myriad of food and beverages produced by its two largest businesses, the solid anchor Bay Valley Foods, LLC and a 2016 branching out acquisition, TreeHouse Private Brands (formerly the ConAgra Private Brands business).
Bay Valley Foods is one of the nation’s leading suppliers of pickles, salsa, peppers, relishes, aseptic sauces, powdered products, salad dressings, marinades, sauces, and jams/jellies/preserves/fruit spreads to major retail, food service, bulk, ingredient, and international customers. Bay Valley claims the distinction of being the nation’s number one packer of private label pickles for the retail market, the number one supplier of private label salad dressing, and the number one supplier of private label broths and stocks for the retail market.
TreeHouse Foods was established in 2005 by Sam Reed, E. Nichol McCully, David Vermylen, Harry Walsh, and Tom O’Neill, seasoned executives who previously served as the senior management of Keebler Foods Co. from 1996 through its sale to the Kellogg Company in 2001.
Under the solid oak strong leadership of these five company founders, in just 12 years TreeHouse Foods has grown as a seedling comprised of 11 plants spun off from the predecessor company Dean Foods to some 52 manufacturing facilities across the U.S., Canada, and Italy, according April Bishop, the firm’s senior director of food safety.
Serving retail grocery and food away from home customers across North America, TreeHouse operates under five divisions, Beverages, Baked Goods, Condiments, Snacks, and Meals.
With seven plants in the U.S. and Canada, the Beverages Division produces single serve beverages, including coffee and tea, plus drink mixes, non-dairy creamers, and smoothies.
The Baked Goods Division creates crackers, cookies, pretzels, candy, pita chips, refrigerated dough, frozen waffles, and in-store bakery at 17 U.S. and Canadian plants.
Cooking up dressings, dips, gravies, jams, mayonnaise, pickles, salsa, and sauces, the Condiments Division oversees 10 plants in the U.S. and Canada.
Operating five plants in the U.S., the Snacks Division is responsible for snack nuts, trail mixes, dried fruits and vegetables, and baking nuts.
The Meals Division, 13 facilities strong in the U.S., Canada, and Italy, makes dry dinners, macaroni and cheese, side dishes, hot and cold cereals, aseptic soups and broths, pie filling, and pudding.
It’s no surprise that TreeHouse, a leading supplier of shelf stable foods with a broad range of national and regional brands, bills itself as “one of the largest private label manufacturers in the world.”
Focus on Continuous Improvement
“We’re committed to continuous improvement, as demonstrated by our manufacturing expertise, innovative products, superior research and development, strong regional brands, and state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities and technology,” says Brian Perry, TreeHouse’s senior vice president of food safety and quality.
To say that TreeHouse continually embraces cutting-edge technology would be an understatement.
“As technology changes, we change and strive to be a leader in the industry,” Bishop relates.
“Each year during the capital planning process, management identifies the latest food safety and quality improvement technologies available. TreeHouse feels that putting money towards these improvements gives us a competitive advantage and is necessary to meet and exceed customer demands.”
One key example is implementation of X-ray technology to improve food safety. “In recent times, we have enhanced our existing protocols with additional X-ray on many product lines as a primary foreign material screening process, and many times as a last point of detection on the line,” Bishop notes.
This is no small undertaking, since TreeHouse offers finished products in many different packaging materials, including flexible pouches from individual size to food service size, metal cans from retail size to food service size, glass of varying sizes, paper for aseptic products, rigid poly containers, tubs, totes, pails, clam shells, fiber tubes, laminated films, plastic jars, single serve beverage pods, tea bags, and fiberboard, just to name a few examples.
Using the latest pest control technology also greatly benefits TreeHouse, Bishop mentions. “Many of our facilities are dry facilities and have stored product pest prevention as one of their largest sources of fumigation costs,” she points out. “Installation of Indian meal moth mating disruption technology reduced fumigation costs by more than $100,000 in just one facility.”
Solid vulcanized belting material has replaced most fabric-back belting materials in TreeHouse’s agricultural product facilities. “While there are no cost savings associated with this, sanitation effectiveness results improved by a substantial 10 percent,” Bishop relates. “Also, relative to sanitation, we strive to implement the most up-to-date technologies as new chemicals come to the market each year. Chemical technology opportunities identified by our sanitation partners have delivered more than $22,000 in savings in the Bay Valley sector of the company.”
The use of pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE), a molecular fingerprinting technique used to classify bacteria based on restriction sites within the bacterial genome beyond the species level, has been an effective prevention tool for TreeHouse.
“Through PFGE sequencing we have been able to make decisions regarding our environmental program, leading to pathogen prevention,” Bishop explains. “We have been able to identify areas that needed capital funding like flooring and drain replacements, elimination of trench drains, and roofing refurbishment—all driving pathogen prevention in our facilities.”
Bishop says the older TreeHouse equipment that was not designed with cleaning in mind has been redesigned to facilitate cleaning. “New equipment goes through a full sanitary design review before it is ever placed in a facility,” she notes.
The TreeHouse Food Safety Team has created a list of sanitary standards for the engineers to use when planning projects, Bishop adds. “Facilities have installed floor foaming devices, dry shoe treatment mats, and broadcast spraying devices for dry sanitizer in high-traffic areas to also aim at prevention,” she relates.
TreeHouse Foods also recognizes the potential risks of having raw versus ready-to-eat processing in the same building, Bishop continues. “While there has not been any cross-contamination within our facilities, we have put capital funding behind projects to ensure separation,” she says. “Instead of relying on items like control of traffic patterns or temporary barriers, we have chosen to modify rooms and place actual brick and mortar walls for physical separation.”
As a result, dedicated raw and cooked causeways have been established between plant and warehouse in these same facilities. “This minimizes the risk of cross-contamination from raw to ready-to-eat areas, eliminating a potential food safety risk,” Bishop points out. “Add to these measures roofing refurbishment and new flooring, plus water filters to prevent foreign material contamination from main city water lines.”
Having more than 16,000 employees catapults the importance of training for TreeHouse to the stars and beyond. Perry emphasizes that training for all team members is ongoing at TreeHouse plants. Internal training includes documented programs for quality, sanitation, and food safety.
“Two of our staff members have become certified trainers,” he relates, “one for HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) training and one for Preventive Controls Qualified Individual (PCQI) training. Our in-house HACCP trainer is certified by the International HACCP Alliance. Our in-house PCQI trainer is certified with the Food Safety Preventive Controls Alliance (FSPCA) and conducts a 2.5-day course several times per year.”
“We invest in continuously educating our employees about HACCP and FSPCA Preventative Controls to ensure our employees are knowledgeable and capable of writing, reviewing, and implementing these plans,” Perry elaborates.
Annual employee food safety training is required for plant team members. “Through computer-based training, each employee has to successfully complete assigned modules for re-certification,” Bishop explains. “Topics covered include foamer use, sanitation chemical safety, sanitation overview, foodborne pathogens, basic Good Manufacturing Practices (personal hygiene), allergen control, facility security, microbiology, HACCP, and maintenance and sanitation.
“Our cleaning and sanitation company’s food safety and sanitation professionals provide in-house hands-on training for the TreeHouse sanitation employees across all production facilities,” Bishop continues. “This includes chemical safety, titration, pre-operational reviews, cleaning in-place systems, and adenosine triphosphate use. This training is customized for our specific plants and our chemical and pest control needs.”
Additional external training for TreeHouse personnel includes FSPCA-PCQI, HACCP, Lean- Greenbelt, Better Process Control School, food defense, risk assessment and food safety, Safe Quality Food auditor/systems, and sanitary design.
All of this training has impacted TreeHouse food safety initiatives in a positive and measurable way, Bishop says.
“Sanitation effectiveness and pathogen monitoring have improved overall in our facilities due to sanitation, sanitary design, and annual refresher training,” she relates. “Score-carding of sanitation effectiveness and environmental monitoring has demonstrated the concerted effort put forth by the plants to improve the cleanliness of our facilities. Many capital projects at our plants were driven by the results of scorecard meetings. Sanitary design changes and facility infrastructure upgrades to improve clean-ability led to these key improvements.”
52 GFSI Certifications
Each TreeHouse plant is GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) certified. “In addition, there are many customer food quality and safety audits routinely conducted at all 52 of our facilities that cover all areas of quality and food safety, and these audits help drive continuous improvement,” Perry points out. “This drives home the point that, in all of our facilities, we have strong HACCP and preventive control measures that are reviewed annually by a trained cross-functional team and are all verified by GFSI third-party certification.”
Without question, quality and food safety are core seeds firmly planted in the TreeHouse culture, Perry emphasizes. “This culture originates with a commitment from our executive team through monthly CEO food safety reviews, and it translates down to every employee on every line through weekly quality meetings,” he elaborates. “With quality as a strategic goal for the company, we have successfully made meaningful impact in driving down key consumer complaints, mitigating potential hazards, and minimizing quality incidents in our plants year over year though continuous training, technical research, and investments in capital and integrated quality systems. This enables us to meet and often exceed our customers’ expectations, while enabling top line growth for the company. Our TreeHouse promise fully embraces the importance of food safety and quality, as we work diligently to protect the TreeHouse legacy and all of our customers’ brands.”
According to Perry, the company’s vision, which one might say was developed by “TreeHouse masters,” says it all:
May our TreeHouse stand straight and true, rising above branded ancients as the towering symbol of the best in customer brands and custom products.
May our TreeHousehold of many cultures expand and prosper through all seasons, united in uncommon customer devotion and unlimited resolve to win.
May our TreeHouse endure the test of time, ever growing strong and standing tall.