Alberta beef plant works its way back into marketplace

Bringing a decommissioned beef plant back into business may have taken longer than owner Rich Vesta expected, but Harmony Beef is making a name for itself in the western Canadian cattle scene.

He and his family bought the former Ranchers’ Beef plant near Calgary at Balzac, Alta., in November 2013 and opened it in March 2017. Dealing with two municipalities — the City of Calgary and Rocky View County — for approvals and refurbishing the plant caused delays.

“It tested the limits of my patience,” he said at the National Cattle Feeders Association meeting held during the recent Canadian beef industry conference held in Calgary.

The plant was the brainchild of a group of Canadian ranchers in response to market struggles due to BSE.

There was no other plant like this one when it opened in 2006, said Vesta, who retired from JBS in the United States in 2011.

“It is the most unique plant in North America,” he said.

Various market struggles forced Ranchers Beef to close after 14 months and the owners looked for a buyer for a small plant that could handle specialized processing requirements.

It mirrored European standards on the slaughter side and had high standards for animal handling and food safety. The barn is fully enclosed and the floor is heated from a heat recovery system to 15.5 C.

It has a unique water recovery system to use less water each day and has a $7 million boiler room and three sets of heat exchangers.

When Vesta took over the place, the fabrication room was gutted and rebuilt. Food safety was a primary concern and handling of offal and other potential contaminants also required a different approach.

At Harmony Beef, cattle move six feet per minute whereas in a big plant each one moves 45 feet per minute.

“Speed is one of the inhibitors to food safety,” he said.

All the carcasses are chilled 48 hours before grading.

The plant has the capacity to process 750 head per day but so far about 550 per day are handled. Costco is a large customer and was an early supporter of the company.

It could not export for its first six months of operation but is now in all the prime markets of the world with 65 percent of production going to international customers in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Mexico.

Japan lifted the younger-than-30-months age requirement so Harmony has developed a program called Heritage Beef that deals with cows for that market.

Cow meat is becoming popular and with proper handling has good potential in the market.

“The cows we have here are probably the best I have ever seen in my life. They are robust and have great genetics,” he said.

The company employs more than 450 people.

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