Duda Farm Fresh moves into new fresh-cut facility

May 16, 2008

Duda Farm Fresh Foods has been growing, packing and shipping celery for more than 80 years, but as the demands of retail customers changed, the company branched out into fresh-cut celery products with them.

“Convenience is king,” said Greg Tirado, plant manager of Duda’s new processing facility in Oxnard, Calif.

The new plant Tirado manages opened March 24, but it’s been in the works for a few years. Tirado accepted the job as plant manager two years ago, after hearing about plans for the new facility and getting excited about building a fresh-cut operation from the ground up.

Duda Farm Fresh Foods, a subsidiary of DUDA, operates facilities in California, Florida, Texas, Arizona and Michigan. The new California plant consolidates all of Duda’s southern California operations into one facility. The new plant was built in partnership with Western Precooling Systems Inc., which handles the storage and cooling of Duda’s raw product and field-pack celery.

Duda’s Oxnard facility covers 65,000 square feet, with about 40,000 square feet devoted to processing lines, 23,000 to cooling and storage and the rest for support equipment. The old plant had only 12,000 square feet of processing space – and more than tripling the space will allow an immediate increase in volume and give the company room to grow.

The Oxnard plant operates two celery stick lines (one more line than at the old facility), one diced celery line and one limited or industrial processing line. There’s space for one more line that might be used for other value-added products in the future. Even with the added capacity, there hasn’t been a need to increase the workforce, Tirado said.

“We have not changed our workforce yet, but we have increased the capacity.”

The plant employs 85 people year round, but increases that to 115 employees during the two peak seasons: Early April when celery is coming in from Florida and during the holidays. The plant operates on two shifts, six days a week, 52 weeks a year; the building was designed to handle the spikes in volume.

“That’s what we want to target with our expanded capacity,” Tirado said.

Before the expansion, Duda was processing about 1.5 million pounds of celery a week during the peak times. About 650,000 pounds was industrial or limited processing and 800,000 pounds was fresh-cuts.

“That will double immediately with the addition of the second stick line,” Tirado said.

The added capacity will give Duda’s organic celery sticks room to expand. Organic celery is processed first, but with the second line the conventional celery doesn’t get held up. Organic celery sticks don’t make up a large percentage of Duda sales, but there is increased demand for them.

“It’s a growing segment,” Tirado said. “We’re just establishing what we can do with organics.”

In addition to adding another line, Duda added equipment that will increase the quality of its celery sticks. The line now uses a water jet to cut the celery sticks to size, which gives a smoother cut compared to metal blades and creates a physiological wound-healing process in the plant tissue that seals in water that would otherwise be lost, causing the sticks to whiten and lose firmness. The water jet uses high-pressure potable water at 40,000 pounds per square inch of pressure, and while it’s not a new technology, the Duda plant is one of – if not the only – application in fresh-cut produce.

Starting from scratch and designing the building from the ground up also allowed Duda to build food-safety measures. The workflow of the plant controls product movement so that raw and finished products never contact each other and temperatures can be monitored more efficiently. Even the cardboard cartons are stored in a separate area, limiting the amount of dust and debris that could come into contact with the celery.
“Food safety’s become a way of life, and it should be,” Tirado said.

The waste system at the plant was also designed to be more efficient. The plant uses municipal water – which can be an issue when dealing with municipalities, especially those in California – so its design takes into account the monitoring and testing needs of the water quality personnel. Instead of various safeguards that were installed at the old plant, the new facility has a streamlined system that allows for easier monitoring. Solid waste re-use was upgraded during the move as well. Celery byproduct from the fresh-cut lines that is still usable is collected from the processing line, washed and sent for further processing to the dice line or industrial lines. Waste that can’t be re-used is collected and sent to a cattle company as feed. The goal of any produce plant is to use every portion of the raw product to reduce waste, Tirado said.

Other issues, such as employee movement and work stations, could also be designed for easy monitoring and efficiency. The facility’s workflow generally allows product and people to move in a more food-safe manner, Tirado said.

Added security measures meet Department of Homeland Security guidelines, including controlled access points inside and around the grounds. There are 32 cameras in and around the plant that monitor what’s going on 24 hours a day.

Getting into the new space put a few more gray hairs on his head, Tirado said. The move-in date kept getting pushed back due to delays in the construction, with one of the peak seasons rapidly approaching. The setbacks weren’t major, just normal inspection and approval delays, the construction company told Tirado.

The transition ended up going smoothly, due in part to the move happening over Easter weekend, when the plant was scheduled to be closed anyway. Once everything was in place, production ramped up quickly, with few problems.

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