Crunch Pak and Birko are two entirely separate companies, yet both make it clear that they have a partnership that goes deeper than that of the basic customer-vendor.
The Cashmere, Wash.-based Crunch Pak produces organic and conventional sliced apples for distribution nationwide and in Canada. Based in Colorado, Birko is a provider of antimicrobial process aids and sanitation chemistry.
The two companies connected at the United Fresh trade show in Las Vegas in 2009, said Birko Corporation Director of New Business Development Dana Johnson.
“Crunch Pak wanted to see if they couldn’t enhance their HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) program and improve their food safety,” Johnson said. “We started calling on them. It’s been a really good fit for both of us.”
And it’s been a collaboration that’s only grown.
“In the past, you pick up the phone, you order your chemicals: ‘I need ABCD chemicals, what’s the price and when can you deliver?’” said Ozgur Koc, director of research and food safety/quality assurance at Crunch Pak’s Washington plant.
Not so with Birko. For one, Crunch Pak works closely with Birko senior chemist and microbiologist Elis M. Owens, Ph.D.
“He’s been on our site at least three times, and he has looked at our flow charts, as well as our sanitation activities,” Koc said.
Tony Freytag, Crunch Pak senior vice president of sales and marketing, added that Birko “really dove into it.”
“They took the time to understand because … so many of the issues don’t come on the fruit,” Freytag said. “Somehow it can be transmitted by a forklift, by boot. These are wide ranging issues.
“Somebody who comes in and learns what we do, how we do it, how the product moves – they’re going to have a much better understanding. Unless they’re here spending time with us, they’re not going to know.”
Learning from meat
In business for 60 years, Birko’s roots and much of its experience in food processing sanitation processes and products grew out of servicing the meat industry. But as fresh-cut produce emerged as a growing market starting with bagged salads, the company saw opportunity.
“My first PMA show was, I think, in 2005,” Johnson said. “We started going to PMA shows first, then with what we do and the kind of products we offer, we started going to the United Fresh shows because they kind of tend to focus more on the fresh-cut produce.
“And that is really up our alley in terms of cleaning and sanitizing, HACCP, all of that.”
Birko microbiologist Owens said the company’s experience in meat production put it in prime position to develop programs for clients like Crunch Pak.
“Although sliced apples and the apple slicing process are very different from the processes involved in red meat production, there is a certain commonality with regard to the food safety hazards and the methods used to address these hazards,” Owens said via email. “For example, the pathogens of concern, listeria, salmonella and E. coli, are the same for produce and meat, and similarly effective cleaning and sanitation processes are key to controlling these pathogens in both industries.”
It wasn’t a matter of reinventing the wheel then, but of studying fresh-cut processes and needs and applying what Birko already knew to cutting produce.
“The saying around here is if you can clean a rendering plant, you can clean anything,” Johnson said. “And there is some truth to that.”
In fact, it was that depth of experience in meat processing that attracted Crunch Pak.
“There’s been more regulation and more testing done in meat over the years than there has been in fruit, simply because we’ve been cutting up meat and selling it for a long time,” Freytag said.
While Crunch Pak’s food safety challenges are similar to those of most fresh-cut processors, apples present an additional layer in that they have nooks and crannies some other commodities don’t.
“The other challenge that Crunch Pak faces that may be a little different from other fresh-cut producers is the length of their distribution chain,” Owens said. “While other producers may have more regional distribution, or multiple plants supplying different regions of the country, Crunch Pak endeavors to supply a nationwide demand from a single geographically non-central location.”
Birko has also been working to provide alternatives to chlorine.
“It’s not good for the environment and it’s kind of hard on equipment,” Johnson said. “Some of our sanitizers are a lot more environmentally friendly.”
Shelf life comes into play, too.
“It’s all about keeping the equipment clean and sanitized,” Johnson said. “And we know enough to really concentrate not only on the equipment, but on things like air handling systems … the floors and the drains.
“We have a lot of experience coming out of the meat industry knowing it’s not just the equipment. Sometimes you have to look at other factors that are involved, especially in something that’s a ready-to-eat product like apples that Crunch Pak is making. You have to make sure that product is not going to harm anybody. We take that very seriously.”
Birko recently installed its improved entryway foamers at Crunch Pak plants in Washington and Pennsylvania.
Crunch Pak is also using Birko’s Algae Guard Quat blocks in refrigeration unit condensate trays to prevent growth of harboring biofilms. Birko’s Sterilex Ultra Kleen CW-502 HF Powder foaming drain cleaner is an instrumental part of Crunch Pak’s listeria prevention program. Two other Birko biofilm removal products are being used for deep cleaning of processing equipment.
The two companies continue to look at ways to reduce the potential for pathogens that can create foodborne illness as well as bacteria that reduce shelf life, outside of traditional products like chlorine or paracetic acid.
“We are trying to come up with a new sanitizer to reduce the micro loads on apples to give us better shelf life,” Koc explained.
Birko also works with Crunch Pak to help improve efficiency.
“They look at how … we can do the same work in a shorter time without taking any food safety risks,” Koc said. “Or, are there ways we can reduce our water usage? Water consumption is a big area for all of us. So this is another area where they have really added value for us.”
Freytag said Crunch Pak expects that kind of participation and leadership from its vendors now.
“With every one of our major vendors, every one of our strategic vendors, we’re looking for what’s next – what do they see on the horizon,” Freytag said. “Birko … they help us turn the light bulb on.”