If you’ve ever made meatballs for a football tailgate or enjoyed chicken wings at a restaurant, chances are good you have eaten a West Liberty Foods product – our 2022 Frozen Foods Processor of the Year.
West Liberty Foods produces grilled, baked, enrobed, chopped/formed, steam-cooked and convection items, such as grilled chicken strips and patties, meatballs, breakfast sausage and fully-cooked chicken wings.
The company also produces sliced and whole muscle proteins and sous vide products for foodservice. The company celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. It was named R&FF’s Refrigerated Processor of the Year in 2017.
“It especially means a lot to us this year, just because it’s been a challenging year coming out of COVID. It presented its own challenges – inflation, record low unemployment and high turnover, so to be recognized in a year that felt like it was one of the hardest in my career certainly means a lot. We have thrived in a tumultuous time,” said CEO Brandon Achen.
About 60% of the company’s business is comprised of foodservice. The additional 40% is split between retail and co-packing services.
“Our customers’ brands are our brands. We are the workhorse behind the brand, is how we see ourselves,” Achen said.
Founded in 1996, when 47 farmers formed the Iowa Turkey Growers Co-Operative to purchase a turkey processing plant in West Liberty, Iowa, from Kraft Foods, the company has grown to over 2,000 employees across four facilities in three states, with a fifth location planned for construction in 2023.
The Bolingbrook, Illinois, location has two continuous cook and individually-quick frozen (IQF) lines, making meatballs, fully-cooked wings, sausages, chicken patties and other products.
“Out of that facility per year we’re capable of producing 40 million pounds of frozen products,” Achen said.
Its Mount Pleasant, Iowa, site produces ready-to-eat and deli meats in addition to frozen foods and the company’s “flagship” location in Tremont, Utah, has RTE and raw foods capabilities in addition to IQF products.
“We make about 50 million pounds of frozen products at our Tremont, Utah, facility per year, including chicken strips, wings, patties and nuggets. We also have a sous vide line were the product ends up being frozen,” Achen said.
The original West Liberty, Iowa, location does not process frozen products.
Striving for Sustainability
West Liberty Foods initiated its sustainability efforts in 2012, by becoming a Landfill-Free company.
The Tremonton, Utah, facility was first to become landfill-free facility in February, 2012. By the end of 2012, two other West Liberty Foods operations – Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, and West Liberty, Iowa – also achieved landfill-free status. West Liberty Foods’ landfill-free status was independently verified by NSF International Strategic Registrations (NSF-ISR).
Since then, less than 1% of all of West Liberty Foods’ waste has ended up in a landfill. The company strives to maintain this leadership position, now focusing its sights on becoming a responsible, sustainable organization throughout its supply chain—from the farms their turkeys are raised, through the manufacturing processes and all the way to the end user of their products.
“Our business is sustainability,” said Michele Boney, director of Sustainability at West Liberty Foods. “We’re celebrating our 10th year of being landfill-free. About 99% of our waste is removed from the landfill. About .5% goes to waste-to-energy uses.”
At the Utah facility, electric conveyors move finished product to an on-site Lineage Logistics cold storage within minutes of production. The company is expects to announce its science based (SBTi) targets in 2023 for GHG emissions and is examining the use of solar energy and other green initiatives.
West Liberty Foods is said to be one of the first in the nation to be verified landfill-free companywide and continues to share processes and successes with other businesses and competitors in hopes that those throughout the manufacturing industry can work together towards a common goal.
“We’re looking forward to the next few years and showing people what we can do,” Boney said.
Focused on Food Safety & Innovation
Ensuring food safety is at the core of West Liberty’s operations. They use a patented clean room food processing system that includes advanced air-handling, drainage systems, supplies and premier equipment to reduce the risk of pathogens contaminating food products. In addition, there is complete separation between raw and RTE areas at each location.
West Liberty Foods uses high pressure processing (HPP) systems to improve the safety and shelf life of our products. The company operates an on-site quality assurance lab at its West Liberty location and facilities are monitored continuously, BRC certified and audited on an annual basis.
The company’s R&D department turns chef-driven concepts into operationally feasible products. Focused on elevating comfort classics and highlighting global flavors, West Liberty offers clean-label initiatives including antibiotic-free turkey, pork and chicken, with gluten-free, MSG-free and reduced-sodium options.
Since development requests come from many angles, West Liberty recommendations are shaped by a combination of consumer research, flavor trends and culinary ideation sessions.
In its 26th year, the company is still growing, with plans to open a fifth facility in the Midwest in 2024.
“We’re still in the very early design phases but we have one major national retailer that we are working with very closely. The program saves a tremendous amount of cost through labor reduction and extended shelf life. It’s gone so well that we need to expand,” Achen said.
The fifth site will include a “tremendous amount of new technology” and “lines that are heavily automated to make fully assembled food products,” he said. “Stay tuned.”