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Sunterra Meats produces pork and other meat products for markets as far flung as Australia and Japan, where standards for quality and food safety are as demanding as anywhere in the world. Keith Regan learns how the company focuses on delivering quality from farm gate to dinner plate
he family behind Sunterra Meats has three generations of experience in the food industry and leverages all that history as well as the latest technological advances in livestock genetics, care and handling to produce top-quality pork and other products for demanding customers around the world from two facilities in Canada’s province of Alberta. “Whether it’s our own product or product we take in from contract finishers, we know we have a product that is second to none in terms of genetics, feed programs, herd health and our overall method for sourcing and production,” says Richard Johnson, general manager at the Trochu, Sunterra plant, where as many as 3,000 head of pork are processed weekly. Livestock are treated as humanely as possible, with the plant using a CO2 gas stunning method that renders the animals unconscious instantly. This method causes animals the least amount of stress possible, which results in a better finished product, with better moisture, better meat color and better shelf life.
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The plant also uses a skinless processing approach rather than the more common scalding process. “Using the skinless method aids us in the shelf life we are able to offer,” Johnson notes. Customers in Japan receive a shelf life of at least 30 days on fresh-chilled, never-frozen pork, which is shipped by truck from the plant to Vancouver and then taken by ship to Japan. Some 70 percent of Sunterra pork ends up on store shelves or in restaurants in Japan, a reflection of some longstanding relationships the company put in place some 18 years ago. “Those customers have grown along with us in that market,” Johnson says. “We’ve been able to keep them with us, and they’ve grown with us and we with them.” With close to 40 years in the meat processing business and a stint as an educator, Johnson says he has always maintained high personal standards for meat quality, safety and cleanliness. “I thought of myself as a very fussy, discerning type of consumer, and that’s the way I taught others it should be,” he says. “But when I came on board with Sunterra I found a whole new level of demanding and discerning, particularly in relation to the Japanese clients. They are definitely the most discerning in the world, and to be able to earn their trust and their business and maintain it over the long run is a process that never stops.” That process of maintaining excellence starts with keeping operations at a manageable size. The plant turns out as much finished pork in a week as some large-scale facilities produce in a morning. Producing a higher-end product means “our attention to detail just has to be there at every step along the way, and for the most part we’ve been able to do that, but we also know that gaps are always closing, and competition continues to be a driving force to push us to do better,” says Johnson. Sunterra employs about 100 people at each of its two facilities and has been forced to deal with local labor shortage issues in the past, particularly during the peak years of western
Canada’s oil sands boom. While the economy has cooled recently, the plant has also expanded its labor base, developing a robust program to bring foreign workers into the country. Many stay long-term and bring families to live in the rural prairie town of Trochu—giving it the distinction of being one of the few such rural towns with positive population growth. “Both the federal and provincial governments have strict rules for what workers can be brought in, and we have standards that exceed those,” Johnson says. “We have a very successful system in place for bringing in foreign workers,” with some bringing meat-industry experience along with them. As those workers and others are trained, a heavy emphasis is placed on safety, with the company having experienced a complete turnaround in that area. Using an outside coordinator to operate an ongoing program of awareness and recognition of the importance of safety, Sunterra has also found financial gain. “There was a time when safety was not top of mind,” Johnson says. “Over the past few years we’ve gone from having our safety record be a drag on the company to being in an industry leadership position. We came from where we were paying the highest insurance premiums and surcharges we could pay to now, where we’re in a rebate situation with our insurer thanks to our safety program.” Looking ahead, Johnson says that even though Sunterra’s sister company, Sunterra Meats Innisfail, produces specialty meats such as beef, bison and lamb under the “Canada’s Freshest” brand, pork will continue to be the bread and butter at the Trochu plant. A growing niche is being enjoyed in wild boar, which is in demand in specialty meat shops in Canada and the US. New opportunities may also open up in overseas markets, such as Australia and New Zealand. Sunterra Trochu will also pursue EU certification, something the Innisfail plant—Canada’s largest federally inspected lamb processing plant and part of the Sunterra family since 2003—already has in place. “The mission for us is to continue to focus on our core values of honesty and integrity and the highest possible quality and best service,” Johnson says. “We have to keep doing what we’ve been doing to keep our customers happy while always striving to do a little more and stay a step ahead of our competitors.” www.sunterrameats.ca