STILLMORE — After a $45 million expansion and retooling of its plant and a shift to a smaller but more highly skilled labor force, Crider Foods isn't what Crider Poultry used to be.
Today you won't find "Crider chicken" as such in your supermarket's meat cooler. Crider no longer slaughters chickens. But people around the world are consuming chicken further processed into canned and pre-cooked frozen forms at Crider's facility in tiny Stillmore. Crider Foods is the source of all Swanson canned chicken, as well as Kirkland Signature canned chicken sold by the Costco chain and similar products under other labels.
"We have about an 85 share of the canned poultry, private label market out there, so if you walk into Publix or Kroger, Winn Dixie, Bi-Lo — more likely than not those are going to be products that we produce with their labels on it," said Mark Howell, Crider Foods vice president of sales and marketing.
The same facility also produces turkey, pork and roast beef items on different production runs.
A separate line under the same roof turns out fully cooked products such as diced chicken and fajita strips, marinated and seasoned to customer specifications. Frozen and packed in big bags, these go to restaurants and the food service industry. The school lunch program and other government food programs are major customers.
Crider Foods has a new logo — no longer a stylized chicken. But very few of its products retail under the Crider label, canned chicken and dumplings sold by dollar stores being one exception.
What Crider has undergone since 1999 amounts to punctuated evolution rather than a sudden change. The biggest break from the company's past occurred in January 2011, when Crider ceased butchering chickens.
That's not to say the company has anything against butchering chickens. It benefits from butchering done by contracted suppliers, including Tyson, JBS (processor of Pilgrim's brand), Mountaire Farms and sometimes Claxton Poultry. But Crider has moved away from that phase of the work.
Crider Foods owner and President William A. "Billy" Crider Jr. grew up in the industry. His parents originally had a fish market in Douglas in the 1940s but started dressing chickens and eventually dropped seafood for poultry. In the 1970s, the company was sold and Crider worked for the new owner for several years. But in 1977, he started his own company, reopening a previously idled plant at Stillmore.
He added a cannery at Lincolnton in 1985, and after that facility was destroyed by fire in 1999, moved the canning operation to Stillmore. From April 2000, the plant both slaughtered chickens and produced canned products. The fully cooked line was added in 2003.
Federal immigration raids in 2006 led to the departure of a large portion of Crider's workforce. The company was not prosecuted and found new labor sources, but labor considerations became a factor in changing Crider's business model.
"We always had good labor. That wasn't an issue," Howell said. "We just feel that, as a company, labor costs are only going to go up, so we needed to figure out a way to automate and get labor out of our plant. But at the same time, we're upgrading our labor pool."
The transformation means higher wages, but fewer jobs. At its peak when slaughtering chickens, Crider Poultry employed about 1,200 people. Crider Foods employs about 450 now, according to Howell and Vice President of Operations Philip Rehberg.
By closing the slaughtering facility, removing the equipment and renovating, Crider Foods was able to expand its canning plant into existing space. Meanwhile, it added a new 110,000-square-foot warehouse.
About two years after the renovation started, work is still going on in a few areas. New break rooms for employees and several training rooms were added. The finishing touches should be complete first quarter 2014, Rehberg said.
Three Crider Foods vice presidents gave a tour emphasizing automation and new equipment.
All along the processing lines, computer screens keep track of data such as production speeds, temperatures and fat and moisture content from product testing. Programmable logic controller, or PLC, technology guides the constantly moving machinery.
"We're into a very skilled labor force now versus where we were, even from a maintenance standpoint," Rehberg said. "On maintenance, the person who can weld a shackle back onto a kill line, that expertise is not needed now. Everything is electronic, everything is PLC-based, so it's a different mindset."
The canned meat products undergo their final cooking inside the cans. This happens in huge, cylindrical pressure cookers called retorts. With some older retorts still visible in one area of the plant and new ones fully functional in another, another technological upgrade was apparent.
Employees load the old retorts and close their doors by hand. But the new retorts load themselves and close automatically, controlled by a few employees working at digital displays and watching the retorts from a platform.
Quality control is another area producing highly skilled jobs at Crider. Dr. Gary Hurlock, the vice president of quality assurance and regulatory affairs, showed off two central labs. Chemists in one lab test product samples hourly for fat, moisture and protein content. Tests are also performed for nutrients and sodium levels.
"We test everything to make sure we are meeting the regulatory requirements for labeling and then that we're also meeting the customer's expectations," Hurlock said.
Meanwhile, the microbiology lab tests for pathogens. The plant is subject to daily U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections, as well as its own tests.
Along the production line, automated systems monitor the products with visual and X-ray cameras. Prior to canning or packing, meats pass through metal detectors to make sure no bits from machinery get in. A vacuum testing device, also known as a "dud detector" makes sure cans are properly sealed.
Also, technicians break some cans open to test the integrity of the packaging.
Crider has earned Level 3 SQF certification, the SQF Institute's top "Safe Quality Food" designation. It holds USDA certification for products labeled organic, European Union certification for export to Europe, and Halal certification for specific products that meet Islamic dietary rules.
Another recent addition is the Innovation Center, a pilot plant with equipment from the production lines duplicated on a smaller scale. It's for development of new products.
"Our two main focuses in future growth are new product innovation and global expansion," Howell said.
Crider Foods products are exported to Japan, Korea and Australia, as well as throughout the Caribbean, he said, citing examples. The company sees future potential in two areas: developing countries where people are seeking to add more protein to their diets, and Europe, which has few products like those Crider makes.
In addition to the Stillmore plant, Crider owns Claxton Cold Storage in Claxton. A separate company, Statesboro-based Coastal Meats, owned by Bill Crider, son of the Crider Foods owner, maintains Crider's former contracts with poultry companies for live chickens, but their birds are now slaughtered elsewhere.
Crider Foods is trying to get the word of its transformation out to job seekers.
"We have great jobs, clean environments, very sophisticated equipment, and we want these people to come out here," Howell said.