Story by Jeff Demoss/Tremonton Leader

The folks at West Liberty Foods’ thriving plant in west Tremonton are serious about food safety.

Those who want a tour of the company’s state-of-the-art meat processing facility must first undergo a brief safety training, complete with a multiple choice quiz.

Ken Harvey, learning and development facilitator at the plant, points to a quote printed in large boldface type in a training handbook reminding visitors of the importance of following the plant’s strict procedures:

“What you’re around today will be eaten by someone.”

It’s just one example of the tight ship run by West Liberty, which has grown into Tremonton’s single largest employer in the decade since the Iowa-based company opened the facility. The plant’s phenomenal growth is one of the reasons it was one of nine companies in Utah to receive the Utah Manufacturers Association’s Manufacturer of the Year Award at a banquet on Nov. 11.

During a visit last week, Mike Pierce, who has been plant manager since joining the company 18 months ago, said it currently has 741 employees, most of them full-time, and the operation is not going at full capacity because it needs more hands.

“Right now we have jobs open for 40 people,” Pierce said. “With unemployment around 2 percent, our biggest challenge is finding people. This is a wonderful area for business, for growing — we just need the people here to support it.”

As it turns out, it takes a lot of people to crank out between 2.5 million and 2.8 million pounds per week of precision sliced-and-packaged meats and other products ranging from turkey and chicken to pepperoni and salami.

While it has a few of its own brands, West Liberty isn’t a household name across the country, but its customers certainly are. The company’s biggest customer is the Subway restaurant chain, and if you’ve eaten in one of Subway’s thousands of restaurants in the west, there’s a good chance that the meat on your sandwich came through Tremonton.

“Pretty much everything west of the Mississippi we do for them,” Pierce said. Costco and several other large companies are also major clients for West Liberty.

Since it opened in 2007, the plant has already gone through two major expansions, and is already planning for more growth.

Part of the secret to the company’s strong growth trend can be seen inside the Tremonton plant, which is the only one of its kind in the country equipped to create and process manufactured “logs” of various slicing meats as long as 10 feet.

Operations Manager Kent Rogers explains how the massive facility is divided into two separate operations, dubbed the “raw” side and the “slice” side. Meat from producers arrives at a cold, cavernous receiving area on the raw side, from where it is sent through a variety of processes and formed into the large logs, which are put into casings and through an oven before going over to the slice side, where they are cooked again, sliced and packaged for shipment. A separate company also located in the building contracts with West Liberty to provide logistics and shipping.

Keeping the two parts of the operation separate is critical to the food safety mission. The full body suits and other equipment worn by employees to prevent contamination are colored blue on one side and white on the other in order to make the distinction even clearer.

“We could be certified as two separate plants by the USDA,” Rogers said.

Among the massive, multi-million dollar machinery at work each day is a high-pressure packaging system, in which packaged sliced meats are put into a chamber where the pressure is cranked up to 86,000 pounds per square inch — pressure so intense that it kills bacteria by literally rupturing it at the cellular level.

While making sliced meats is the plant’s main focus, it has also diversified over the years into other products, such as chicken wings it prepares for Pizza Hut, another big-name customer. It also added a “water cook” area three years ago where it prepares meats in other forms for Subway’s seasonal specialty sandwiches like pulled pork and rotisserie chicken.

“We’re always looking to diversify,” said Tracy Walker, an operations manager who has been working for West Liberty since before the facility opened. “It definitely looks a lot different than when I started here, but what hasn’t changed is that everything is done with food safety in mind.”

In just one hour-long cook cycle, the plant produces enough sandwich meat to make it into the stomachs of 32,000 people, so safety is naturally a top concern, said Paul Foxworth, superintendent for the raw side of the operation.

Sustainability is another area where the plant strives for continuous improvement. Recyclable materials are carefully separated and sorted, and Rogers said less than 1 percent (about 0.25 percent this year) of the plant’s trash ends up in the local landfill.

“We’re the first food plant in the country to be certified landfill-free,” he said.

Pierce said the recognition this year from the Utah Manufacturers Association, which annually recognizes Utah manufacturing companies “for their efforts in improving their manufacturing processes, contributing to the communities in which they live, driving the business economy and in providing a safe working environment for their employees,” validates everything the hard-working people at the plant have been doing to make West Liberty a desirable place to work and a well-known pillar of the local community. That’s a perception that hasn’t always existed in Tremonton, he said.

“At first, we weren’t necessarily looked upon well. We were just kind of here,” he said. “We’ve been working hard to get more involved in the community, like Nucor and Walmart and some others have. I still don’t believe we’re where we need to be, but we’re always working on it and that’s the thing — we’re never satisfied.”