Future Beef Operations report that August 2001 will see the start of production from their newly constructed plant in Arkansas City, Kansas. The project has been widely discussed in the industry, and provoked considerable interest among leather technicians since details were disclosed at this year’s IULTCS Convention in Cape Town in March.

The Arkansas City vertically integrated co-production meat and hide facility looks ready to establish new benchmarks for production efficiency, economics of production, conformity with US-standards of food safety, environmental protection and health and safety in the workplace.

The entry of Future Beef into the arena of meat and hide production will change many long standing assumptions about US hide quality, about quality and grades of heavy native and butt branded steers, and about the way wet-blue business is conducted. For the first time, the raw hide can be seen as a technical product, with a defined method of production, and with quality assurance and traceability as befits a modern industrial raw material.

If all goes to plan, the emigration of the leather industry from North America to Asia could be reversed, and eventually lead to new manufacturing capacity for finished leather and leathergoods in the North American and NAFTA area.

FBO’s vision began a decade ago with the technology started by Professor Ekhardt Heidemann, father of the Darmstadt Unhairing Process. This was the subject of the PhD thesis by Rainer Dorstewitz (Heidemann’s student).

By applying this process, the handlers of both the hides and the meat work in aseptic conditions, because the mud, manure and hair attached to the exterior of the animal is removed prior to opening the animal and removing its various parts.

Future Beef have implemented unique technologies, which are significantly different from existing technology, in order to make this process commercially viable and environmentally friendly.

At the same time, Future Beef are implementing a business plan that would eradicate wasteful practices, including the opaque dealing, offer and counter-offer of traditional trading. Today, FBO are looking for openness and transparency, intending that their clients are real partners in sharing the benefits of a more modern way of doing business.

Of course, scarcity and glut will still produce market price fluctuations, but in a system where FBO manage the cross-breeding, ranching, slaughtering and tanning, the business economics will become more transparent, more predictable.

FBO’s scientific animal breeding and meticulous veterinary care produces a healthy animal with consistent body weight and fat content at slaughter. Hide quality is on a curve of continuous improvement, extracting the maximum benefit from individual animal IDs and corresponding hide ID numbers.

These permit tracing of the origin of hide characteristics to an extent never previously possible, and in turn allow FBO to reinforce desirable traits and eliminate negative attributes – whether originating in the cross-breed, in the ranching or feed-lot operations, in the handling of the animals during harvesting and skinning, or indeed within the tannery.

When Swystem Logic GmbH were approached to design a tannery for the ‘co-product’ of this revolutionary new facility, the many synergies to benefit wet-blue consumers quickly became apparent. It was therefore decided to implement known and proven ‘best-practice’ and state-of-the-art technology throughout, to a degree never previously attempted in one coherent production flow through a wet-blue plant.

In the control and traceablility field, FBO supported and invested in developments which, although already in the pipe-line, needed added impetus to complete. These developments come from as far afield as Europe, UK and Australia.

To extract the maximum benefit from the sterile condition of the hide, and avoid risks posed by the usual wash via serpentine, it was decided to waste no time getting it into the tannery, and into the drum. Within seconds, the hide is transported by ‘hide cannon’ into the tannery – using a system which derives from Italian experience in slaughterhouse design.

Similarly the hide handling and automated conveyor systems, as well as much of the tannery machinery, have been sourced in Italy. The hides are thoroughly fleshed, and processed in a unique manner which ensures that FBO’s tanner knows exactly how much hide substance is in process. [This compares with conventional procedures, where tanners can only work with estimates of hide substance – since raw hides are weighed down with fat, hair, blood, dung, mud and other contaminants.]

The beamhouse and tanning procedures themselves are conducted with utmost attention to consistency of process conditions, as well as the uniform and rapid penetration of process chemicals. Processes, which may be tailored to suit individual consumers’ preferences, are conducted using the latest PLC-based distributed control, and monitored using a sophisticated SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) system.

Over a network, the SCADA system informs management that production is proceeding within planned parameters via a series of ‘live’ mimic diagrams that show different areas of the tannery including fleshing, and splitting, drum-yard, samming and final grading, stacking and palletising. Production data generated is continuously available to management for administrative control, and equipment-use is monitored to ensure timely mechanical maintenance.

The tannery has been designed to minimise the need for operator interventions, other than those requiring samples to be cut from the hide to check the penetration of chemicals. Fork-lift traffic within the drum-yard has been practically eliminated. The objective is to remove the opportunities for operator error, and to ensure consistency of process conditions and, hence, consistency of wet-blue quality.

An interesting feature of the tannery is the discrete division of the processing of the chrome-tanned grain-splits from the chrome-free area. This is to provide assurance to consumers of flesh-splits for human consumption, that the collagen is obtained free of contaminants such as sulfide, chrome and pathogens.

On the other hand, FBO have the flexibility to process flesh splits for leather end-use: as limed, pickled and wet-blue according to market demand. Likewise, the tannery is designed to respond to market demand if the grain-splits are needed in the wet-white condition.

Following samming, the wet-blue will be measured for area, then graded and palletised by grade, all in one continuous and automatic procedure. Pallets will be hermetically shrink-wrapped to protect from mould and dirt, as well as to prevent change in weight due to drying during transport. Shipments will be made in 40 containers, 20 pallets per container.

FBO indicate that the initial upgraded quality of wet-blue production from the Arkansas City facility is likely to be mainly due to improved handling of the animals just pre-slaughter, and also during the harvesting and skinning procedure. There is a self-imposed limit of 6 to 8 hours for trucking the live animals to the plant; the animals are allowed to calm down for several hours before being processed, and the calming pens are protected from the weather, from noise and distracting lights.

FBO assure Leather International that these rules go beyond humane treatment of the animals, and benefit the quality of the end-products. They ensure that the bruising and open scratch damage that usually occurs ante-mortem will be avoided, and lead to considerable up-grading. High adrenalin activity and high blood pressure lead to tough meat, ‘dark cutters’ and increased blood within the hide corium. During the tannery processes, further improvements can be expected thanks to the high level of accuracy and automated monitoring of process conditions.

The benefits of FBO’s selective breeding and animal husbandry regime will become even more apparent as time proceeds. Under the assurance of FBO’s incentive payments, the ranchers’ improved care with insecticide treatments and application of vitamins in nutrition will ensure that fly-bites, unhealed scratches and follicular mange is eliminated.

Brand damage will be minimised, and where possible eliminated. But, this improvement will be accelerated when compared with traditional farming techniques: using multiple ovulation and embryo transfer technology it is possible to harvest fertile eggs from heifers at 13 to 15 months, cutting the cycle to less than half the time compared with traditional breeding.

As a consequence, FBO will become a source of wet-blue which will be known as a source of Premium Grade hides. FBO believe that, for the first time, leather finishers will be able to plan bulk production of premium quality, full-grain aniline and semi-aniline lines. Dyers and finishers will have the assurance of knowing that all the raw material originates from a single source with strictly applied standards that begin with genetics and follow through with the leather processing.

[Conventionally, large volume orders for premium quality leather can only be filled by combining packs of premium quality hides bought from many different origins; this poses many challenges to the tanner intent on making consistent quality, consistent colours at the same time avoiding excessive use of pigments.]

FBO are looking for select partners to take advantage of this unique source of wet-blue. Future Beef will sell the wet-blue by area (per ft²), as the hides will be split to meet the end-users’ specification.

While initial production has been targeted for bulk evaluation by several major US and international groups, FBO invite interested consumers to contact John Crowther by email: swystem@compuserve.com for an immediate reply answering outstanding questions, and to arrange trial deliveries.