I have mixed emotions on the misfortune that has come to Beef Products, Inc. in the last few weeks.
In 2005, I worked in the Amarillo BPI plant for about six months as a systems electrician. I was initially excited to work there; it was a neat place for a person interested in technology to work. They use an amazing amount of cutting edge technology, everything from the computer systems to an amazing amount of telemetry on every plant system. The core software system that runs the plant can show the conditions in any area of the production line to three decimal places. The head technology guy used to scoff at the space shuttle, because he thought it wasn't properly monitored.
The production line has at least three metal detectors that can detect a piece of metal that is too small to see in a stream of meat flying by at fifty pounds a second. They sample every single box of meat produced, and keep the box it came from until the sample passes tests for several e-coli strains, among other tests. The product is either in small corn-flake size chunks or sixty pound blocks, ready to be mixed with lower grade ground beef - the whole point of the BPI product is to allow meat packers to use lousy grade beef, and add the BPI product to cheaply upgrade the quality.
The Amarillo plant is shoehorned in with IBP, now Tyson. Everywhere there was a bit of unused space in the IBP plant, BPI has it's facilities. The difference between IBP and BPI is shocking. IBP was filthy, old, rusting and worn out. Everything BPI was stainless steel. They run a cleaning routine every day that sterilizes the entire scattered plant. They really do care about the whole food safety thing; if not out of genuine care for customers, look what being careless can do to a food company.
My grief for BPI's misfortune is tempered by the fact that it is far and away the most miserable place I have ever worked - dangerous, noisy, terrible environment, with management that would rather fire everyone and start over everyday.
I believe the miserable working conditions in any packing plant come from the fact that packing plants are the only place a person who cannot get a normal job that pays as much as this industry does. You can be a felon, or an illegal immigrant, or just a dirtbag in general, and make a lot of money compared to anything else available. And the plant operators treat everyone like they are dirtbags, and you can be fired for pretty insignificant transgressions. BPI had a point system - late to clock in less than five minutes got you half a point. More than five minutes was one point. Take a sick day? Two points. At fifteen points, they fired you. I had a friend who worked there for nearly twenty years, and was instrumental in the building of the plant, who was fired as soon as they suspected he was thinking about leaving.
It is a very dangerous place to work, and some of the working environment is pretty bad. I left (aside from the horrible working conditions) because I am far too careless to work in such an environment - Once through carelessness, I very nearly electrocuted myself with a five hundred volt, five hundred amp circuit because I wasn't paying attention.
I flew to the South Dakota plant once with the owner of BPI, Eldon Roth, on his private jet, for a training tour of the plant. Eldon is a genius, has dozens of patents, is always thinking of new ways to make the plant more efficient, and make the end product safer. He spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to develop a system to recover helium that is somehow released in the plant through the normal processes. It never worked, as far as I know. He knew of the coming helium shortage, though.
From the conversation we had on the plane, I know he has a personal problem with Tom Vilsack, who was then governor of Iowa. There seemed to be some long running issues between the two. I wonder if some of the problems BPI has now are a product of the poor relationship, as Vilsack is now the Secretary of Agriculture.
So I think it is a shame the media, specifically ABC, has apparently destroyed the company. Just like the whole DC10 story - a good product destroyed by a media telling only the sensational part of a story. Your hamburger just got more expensive, and a whole lot more cows are headed to the production line to replace what BPI isn't producing now. The current beef shortage just got shorter.