[QA cover story] Flawless Fries

Features - Cover Story

At McCain Foods, the world's largest producer of frozen french fries, quality control is more art than science.

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October 23, 2006

Whether you prefer your french fries straight or curly, crinkle cut or even shredded and shaped into nuggets; whether you like to grab a steaming fry from a fast-food drive-through bag or nab one from the baking tray or fryer basket in your own kitchen, you’ve more than likely eaten a potato processed at McCain Foods USA.

The world’s largest producer of frozen french fries, McCain produces one-third of all the fries consumed in the world, producing potato products at 1,000,000 pounds per hour.

In and of itself, the potato is not a particularly exciting vegetable – with its dull brown coat and starchy-white innards and its lackluster taste – it is almost never eaten raw and rarely without some enhancement. Yet the potato is one of the world’s most popular and arguably its most important vegetable. And in Easton, Maine, you would certainly find those who would argue its popularity, its importance … and its excitement. A sentiment we saw first-hand in a tour of the Easton McCain Foods plant.

We visited the Easton plant to find out just what made McCain’s prolific quality so extraordinary that not only is it served in a number of top-tier fast-food chains but its plants make up nine of only 10 food processing plants across the U.S. in the AIB International’s Gold Standard Program (see Going for the Gold, page 14). At Easton, we discovered a culture where quality is a result of a commitment from every member of the team and an enthusiasm that carried throughout the tour. Where superior quality is simply part of the job; "You don’t get a Superior [rating] by not doing the job every day," says Production Manager Kevin Nichols. Where the proof is in the potato – and the paperwork. "If you say you do it, prove you do it," says Regional Quality Assurance Manager Bruce Hagelstein. "And have documentation."

Embedded Quality

We followed potatoes from their roll off the back of a farm truck through sorters, samplers, peelers, sorters, cutters, sorters, blanchers, fryers, shakers, sorters, coolers, freezers and samplers to their final pass through a metal detector (McCain’s single CCP) as packaged frozen french fries. And through it all, Hagelstein’s animated narrative of the potatoes’ journey and McCain’s quality control at each leg rivaled the spiel of the best fine arts – make that science – museum tour guide.

"This is no longer an art, it is a science," Hagelstein said at a number of points along the process – explaining the process of slowly warming the cooled, stored potatoes to limit their starch conversion; discussing the need to pre-cool strips before freezing to avoid bursting fries; and passing out handfuls of blanched fries for touch tests.

"Quality is a process. It’s not just tuned into one area of the operation," Hagelstein says. In fact, he adds, with the Gold Standard program, audits are not only no longer announced, they are also no longer just the responsibility of the quality control manager. "With AIB Gold," he says, "every discipline in the operation is responsible. All have a part; all have their responsibilities."

From Potato to Frozen Fry

From the moment a potato rolls off the back of the potato truck onto McCain’s receiving belt until the time it reaches its fodoservice or retail destination, it is subject to McCain’s integrated quality checks. While many of the steps are standard frozen french fry process, it is the quality checks made along the way that not only keep the quality high, but also maximize recovery.

And the earlier in the process that you conduct checkpoints, the more you can maximize this recovery. "Managing the raw product is very, very critical," Hagelstein says. "You want to know as much about the raw product as you can before it hits the line to make good business decisions and good quality decisions," Hagelstein says. Step by step, McCain:

1. Starts with quality…

Off-the-truck sampling – The potato is carried into the Easton plant on a conveyor belt, and within a few seconds, it hits its first quality checkpoint – two random samplings per truckload conducted by full-time, on-site USDA inspectors. These samples are tested for size, specific gravity, bruising and color, with the grading providing results for USDA inspections, McCain quality control and processing decisions and grower payment. From here, the potato may move on to processing or may be put into storage.

Off-the-line sampling – On the other side of the wall from the USDA sampling lab is a McCain sampling lab which tests samples from the line, which may have come directly from a truck or from a storage unit on-site. These samples are graded for customer requirements and determine the final fate of the potato – whether it will become french fries for one top-tier fast-food chain, curly fries for another or waffle fries for retail.

2. To process or store…

The samplings also determine processing and storage decisions. The "best of the best" are put into storage. With five separate climate- and humidity-controlled storage bins, McCain is able to store potatoes at their optimum climate in order to process product year round. And in fact, some products are best made from potatoes which are not fresh from harvest, such as the curly fry which is best made from those which have been allowed to sit for at least a month, "after the potato has undergone a pre-conditioning stage which enhances maturity," Hagelstein explains.

Those potatoes which do move on to processing, or have come from storage for processing, are then merged together by characteristic to generate the percentages required by customer specifications. And because no group of potatoes can possibly have the exact same characteristics, the grading enables an assessment for "processing to the majority" to provide the best possible fries.

3. Sharp, straight cuts…

Creating the potato strips is a rapid one-step process with McCain’s "water knife." Water shoots the potatoes through a squared slicer, in which the intersecting knives form a checkerboard to cut the potatoes into strips in one step – perfectly sized to maximize recovery. Keeping the cutting machine going is a full-time knife builder/sharpener, with knife changes conducted every four hours. Not only can there be a problem with stones which made it through the sorters, but the potato starch itself is hard on and dulls knives very quickly.

4. Automatic defect removal…

As the potato strips move to the next leg of their journey, they are once again sorted into size – now determined by length, and create waterfalls of strips as they cascade over a multi-tasking computerized electric eye. The eye photographs all four sides of each strip, detecting length and color, tagging those which are too short, too long or defective; then causing these to be pulled from the line for trimming of defects, cutting to length or complete removal; then rerouting the now-acceptable strips back into the flow of fries.

Although it is not considered a factor of quality under U.S. Standards (with the exception of "shorts"), length is generally a critical customer specification, with specified percentages of lengths to be included in a package, and longer fries generally designating higher quality and value. This is not only because of the aesthetics and customer preference for longer fries, but also because the longer the fries, the more servings and better plate coverage per pound.

5. The processing…

It is now that the processing actually begins … and ends. "The potato is one of the most difficult vegetables to process because of its physiology," Hagelstein says. And, in fact, the potato is almost three-quarters of the way through its journey before the literal "processing" even begins. The process begins with blanching of the strips:

 to stop the enzymatic action, which keeps the potato from turning black when frozen

 to gelatinize the starch in the cell structure for a crisp exterior texture

 to control color of the potato through osmosis.

Finally, the strips are dropped into oil for just under a minute to become french fries. Although quality is still a key consideration, the goal is to have conducted enough checks prior to this point that every potato strip going into the fryer comes out a perfect french fry – or at least within all specifications. "If you’re out of grade at this point, you’re out of grade," Hagelstein says. Waiting until the product is processed to check or control quality "handcuffs you if you do that." On the other hand, "If you’ve done everything right, this just exemplifies it."

Out of the fryer, the fries are run across a shaker then into a freezer. The final step is six minutes in sub-zero temperatures, but because subjecting the fries to such a drastic temperature change would cause the more slowly cooling core of the fry to burst, the fries are pre-cooled first with high-velocity air. ("It’s science, not art.")

6. The final samples…

After a one last "tweak" for sizing, samples of the fries are pulled for final tests in the grading lab. A final sampling at a french-fry plant is like getting free fries at your favorite fast food – but even better. Though the random sampling is just that, and the fries are cooked up exactly as is specified for each restaurant, it is done under ideal conditions – fresh oil, experienced lab techs, and no frantic teens trying to serve impatient lines of customers. "These are the best ‘fast food’ fries you’ll ever have!" In addition to taste, the final samples are tested for all the specified attributes – length, defects, color, solids and texture.

7. Improved traceability…

Institutional fries are often bagged in clear plastic then boxed for shipping. In the past, McCain would code each box with the lot designation. Now, however, they code not only the box, but each bag as well with complete lot, time and date stamps. The codes on both the bags and boxes are so detailed – and automated – that a box can be located down to its coordinates on a trailer. "Mock recalls have gone from an hour or an hour and a half down to about 30 seconds," Hagelstein says.

8. The CCP…

It is just before the bag is loaded into its shipping box that the potatoes-turned-fries pass through McCain’s one and only Critical Control Point. Prior to implementing of the Gold Standard Program, McCain had 13 CCPs. Today they have just one – the metal detector through which the bagged fries are run comprises its single CCP. Should metal be detected in any bag, it is automatically removed from the line and its detailed coding enables a thorough line check for the cause – and the fix.

9. Distribution…

Throughout the potato’s journey to becoming a french fry, very few human hands aided the line process, with each step conducted instead by customized, state-of-the-art automation. The warehouse is no exception. Alongside the manned forklifts run robotic palletizers – moving around the warehouse, palletizing, lifting and placing product as though they too had eyes and hands. Their computerized systems are so accurate, they are able to correctly place and choose product for First-In-First-Out rotation. Though lines of railway crisscross northern Maine, McCain’s potatoes are transported by truck, both because of the just-in-time requirements of its customers and to reduce spoilage with the more direct distribution enabled by truck.


The Quality Path

In any french fry processing plant, the potato follows a fairly standard path, but it is the quality controls that are added to the journey that make the real difference. Thus McCain’s own journey to attain AIB Gold Standard Certification was not so much a matter of changing the path of the fry as it was assessing its systems for ensuring the quality of the path, noting the points at which improvements needed to be made, then not only making and documenting the improvements, but making them – and a focus on quality – a part of the plant’s inherent culture. So perhaps, it was indeed, changing the path of the fry.

Taking the "long hike" toward certification was a lot of work, a lot of education, Hagelstein says. But its results are well worth the journey. "It brings discipline to your operation and consistency," he explains.

There was some natural resistance when the program was first introduced to plant employees, with some asking, "Is this just a new flavor of the month?" he says, but they quickly realized that not only was the program at the plant to stay, but that it actually benefited the plant and its workers.

McCain’s quest to attain the certification began at the corporate offices of Senior Director of Quality Assurance Peter Minghella. "Our goal is to be the best we can possibly be in terms of providing our customer with a safe and high-quality product to not only meet their requirements but go above them," Minghella says. And it was for this reason that the company chose AIB’s program for its integrated quality system. (See Going for the Gold for the complete story of McCain’s Gold Standard journey, page 14.)

Easton was among the first of McCain’s plants to go for the gold, so much of the precedence was set here. The plant had HACCP in place and was familiar with the AIB food safety audit; Nichols attended AIB training; and an AIB representative came out to the plant to train, but when the plant went through a first dry run of the audit, they were not quite where they had expected to be, Hagelstein says. "You always think you’re doing better than you are."

But persistence and commitment paid off, and in November of 2004, Easton and McCain’s Othello, Wash., plants were certified. Since that time, McCain Foods USA has standardized its plant audits to these specifications and is working toward certification at all locations.

Other Benefits

Along with increased quality, the Gold Standard program has benefited the plant in:

 security – Easton, Maine, is a city with a population of 1,249 where neighbors know one another and doors are left unlocked. But the combination of the events of September 11, 2001, and McCain’s preparations for Gold Standard certification increased its awareness of the need for food-chain security, and brought about the introduction of measures such as fencing, truck seals and visitor logs.

 communication channels – the Gold Standard brought with it a whole new language and "ground-breaking terminology," Nichols says. With commitment required from the line worker to senior management, it also increased the lines of communication flowing both ways.

 consistency – both within the plant and across the company, the standards have increased consistency in both the processes and the documentation, with the Easton and Othello plants "paving the way for the others."

 suppliers – a review of plant suppliers actually reduced the number of total suppliers, due to both quality standards as well as consistency and security.

Following the potato along its complex journey to becoming a McCain french fry brought with it a new appreciation for this seemingly dull vegetable and for the teams who are responsible for the process. Grabbing that fast-food french fry or dropping a handful of frozen fries onto a baking pan will now bring a realization of something more, of a deeply rooted commitment, of a quality so infused in the process that it has become second nature, of an enthusiasm that needs no enhancement. QA

The author is a staff editor on QA magazine.

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GOING FOR THE GOLD

"No matter how good you are, there’s always room for improvement. McCain is all about continued improvement."

It was for this very reason that McCain Foods USA took on the challenge of AIB International’s Gold Standard Certification – and it is also a philosophy reaffirmed by the process.

It all started late one Friday afternoon four years ago. McCain Foods USA Senior Director of Quality Assurance Peter Minghella was sitting at his desk leafing through trade publications when an AIB piece caught his eye. "If we are half the manufacturing outfit we believe we are, we should put ourselves to the test," he remembers thinking as he read about the Gold Standard Certification program. "Have a third party audit everything we do to see how good we really are from an independent point of view."

So he did exactly that. "I didn’t persuade anyone originally. I just went out and organized it." The result? "Quite frankly," he says, "We weren’t as good as we thought we were."

The Gold Standard Certification Program is AIB International’s Integrated Quality System for the food industry, which is designed to provide continuous improvement in plant confidence, security and prosperity through process quality, safety and sanitation. Because it can take two to three years to attain certification, through unannounced prerequisite audits, HACCP validation and verification, and quality systems evaluation, attainment of the certification means, AIB states, "Your facility will be regarded among the best of the best." Once a plant is certified, an unannounced recertification audit is required for the following two years. This single audit covers all aspects of the certification requirements.

The quality against which each plant is assessed is defined not by AIB, however, but by the plant itself. "We’re not trying to tell [the plant] what quality is, that’s their choice," says Maureen Olewnik, vice president, audits and technical services. "We just make sure that they are doing what they say they are doing." For example, if McCain designates a high quality french fry to be of a certain specific color, then AIB uses that criteria in its product evaluation.

The recertification audit is a two- to three-day process in the plant, which Olewnik says "we lovingly call our ‘Thousand-Question Audit,’ but I’m sure other people have other names for it."

As of this writing, only ten plants in the U.S. are involved in the program, nine of which are McCain plants. "It’s a relatively new program," Olewnik says. "It’s been out there a little while, but it’s a tough program." If a plant doesn’t feel ready to take on complete certification, she adds that everything in the program is offered "stand alone," but it is the integration of all the elements that make it complete quality system. "Any one of these things standing alone gives you a part of the picture of a well-run operation. But until you integrate all of them, you won’t be able to elevate beyond a certain point."

While an annual recertification audit is a key part of the program, the overall effect is very different from plants "cramming" to pass an audit. This is because the audit is unannounced, so "what [an inspector] finds is what is happening every day," says Vice President of Marketing and Sales Brian Soddy. "The key word is integrated. It becomes a fundamental business process."

The program can be especially valuable for plants that supply large corporate customers with stringent guidelines, Soddy adds. The program can be integrated with the needs and requirements of challenging customers, and make the plant better through the process.

With four McCain plants having received certification and five more projected to be certified by the end of the year, the company has seen such betterment across its facilities. "They shake the system hard!" Minghella says. "We changed dramatically as an operating company. We are now so much better because we know where we are good and know what we need to do to keep improving."

The Easton management team agrees. "It made us a lot smarter," Hagelstein says. "There were a lot of thing we had assumed."

And it is a process which seems to have had a snowball effect across the company and among the employees, with the plants competing to be the first to be certified. "It was a fully employee-oriented process," he says. "The factories were so eager to be out in front in terms of the recognition the employees would get for being first. It just became like a big snowball; once it got rolling, it just wasn’t going to stop."

But it was also imperative that there be complete buy-in and support from senior management as well. And with some parts of the process originally alien to McCain standards, this wasn’t always easy. For example, Minghella says, the company typically allowed independent or customer GMP audits; but to allow a third-party to go into a McCain plant and audit everything was very different. "It was a bold move, but what it told us was that we were committed."

In such a challenging program, commitment at all levels is essential. "It is a fairly brutal examination of what you do," Minghella says, referring to the level of detail included in the GMP audit qualification, HACCP validation and verification, and Quality Systems evaluation which take place once AIB and the company decide a plant is prepared to undergo the certification testing, as well as the annual unannounced audits required to maintain certification. "It takes courage," Minghella adds. "You definitely have to go through this with a backbone." It’s essentially a criticism of what you’ve been doing, but you can’t see it as a personal attack, he says. "It’s not wrong to have an issue on the line, it’s how you deal with that."

Minghella and the Easton team offered a few tips for those considering AIB Gold Standard Certification:

 First, conduct an honest appraisal of your plant yourself, then get an independent auditor to come in and work with you. "If you go through your facility and you cannot satisfy yourself, then you’re not going to satisfy an auditor, and you’re not going to satisfy your customer at the end of the day," Minghella says.

· "Repeat. Repeat. Repeat." says Facility Quality Assurance Manager Judy Clark. Continued education and ongoing reminders are necessary to change the culture of a plant. Clark cites, for example, the posters in the restrooms which ask and answer: "What’s HACCP? Safety. … What’s the CCP? Metal Detector." AIB could show up any day for an audit, she says, "we put visuals out there because people remember that more than verbal."

· Have a champion. Production Manager Kevin Nichols attended a Gold Standard training program at AIB prior to the plant’s initiating the system. While it is critical that all be involved in the process, he says, "I would have a champion dedicated to it – and not just on a part-time basis." The champion would attend AIB training and be responsible for employee training, follow-through and documentation.

· Have a commitment from upper management. Continued improvement will at times require the dedication of resources and investment in tools, Nichols says, citing the example of improved mock recall time from hours to minutes because of an investment in documentation tools. "Our record keeping is so much better," he says. The company sought tools which could provide instant feedback and, as a result, made the job easier and more efficient.

 Know your focus and prioritize. Because AIB does not designate the points of quality, the plant needs to determine just what quality means and the systems it has – or needs to have – to ensure this quality is met. Then it needs to prioritize the needed improvements, focus on those which are most critical, then keep whittling down for continued improvement.

 Understand that the Gold Standard, like any integrated quality system, continually evolves. "It is a living, breathing document," Nichols says. Every time a change is made or considered in the plant, a HACCP analysis should be conducted, asking the questions: What else does this affect? What needs to be done to maintain – or improve – quality?

 Plant variation. While the Gold Standards helps companies increase consistency from plant to plant, each plants process needs to reflect it individualism. "The system needs to be designed for the facility you are operating in," Minghella says. "It absolutely needs to be relevant to that factory or it will absolutely fail." Guidelines and templates should be developed with key points, recommendations and approaches, but that should then be handed to the individual plant with the instruction: Now make it fit your facility.

Because McCain has always focused on continued improvement, it was ahead of the curve even before working with AIB, Minghella adds, but the process has taught the company two key lessons: One, No matter how good you are, there is still room for improvement; and, two, When you engage and empower the workforce, you gain incredible power in what you can achieve.