Where’s the Beef?
Ramstein’s Central Meat Processing Plant leads the

Monica Mendoza
Kaiserslautern American

***image1***A flip of a burger out on the grill this summer represents thousands of
miles traveled by train, ship and truck under strict security and in
cold temperatures.

That perfect six ounce patty has come a long way from the packing
plants in the midwest to the shipping yards in Holland and finally to
the Central Meat Processing Plant at Ramstein.

“We process 1 million hamburger patties a month,” said John Hoca, Ramstein plant manager.

The journey of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved meat from
the U.S. cattle ranches to the barbecue grill of a European-stationed
servicemembers is extraordinary. And, for customers of Defense
Commissary Agency Europe, that burger – or steak or butterfly pork chop
– is unique in how it’s been packaged. So special is the vacuum
packaging, that eight years after the first super-sealed pack of meat
was sold, DeCA still leads the industry.

***image6***“It’s probably the best packaging there is right now,” said David Costello, Ramstein deputy plant manager.

Whether you are flipping burgers or trying a new apricot-sauce rib
recipe, the beef sizzling on your grill today left the States one month
ago sealed in special vacuum-packaging. It arrived in Holland and then
arrived four days later at Ramstein, where its proper documents were
verified, numerical seals were cross-checked and German guards
validated that the boxes had not been opened.

All the while, the meat was maintained at 28 to 32 degrees and handled
under high security. Inside the meat processing plant – where 87
employees have identification cards that work only in the eight-hour
daily time period when they are authorized to be in the building –
there are cameras everywhere.

“In the days following 9-11, food security is paramount,” said Corey
Deery, quality assurance inspector. He has a sanitary check list with
nine categories of 73 points to inspect, including the temperature of
the water used to wipe down the counters.

“We have zero-tolerance for failure,” said Mr. Deery, who is a
veterinarian and certified National Registry of Food Safety
New era

In the mid-90s, DeCA was sliding into a new era. The two-day shelf-life
for fresh meat wasn’t good enough when trying to get fresh meat to
servicemembers in remote locations in Europe and downrange. Getting
meat to troops was the reason DeCA officials investigated vacuum
packaging – a process that had been used by companies to ship meat to
distributors, but had not been used by distributors to send meat to the
grocery stores.
The new technology was controversial, Mr. Hoca said. When meat at
Ramstein’s Central Meat Processing Plant is packaged, 99.7 percent of
the oxygen is removed, and the package is sealed.

To the first-time European commissary shopper, the color of the meat
can be alarming. The meat is dark and some shoppers conclude that it’s
gone bad. But, it’s just the opposite, Mr. Hoca said. The vacuum pack
preserves the meat longer and keeps it safer from bacteria. Meat packed
in a traditional tray, with plastic wrap, has a two-day shelf life, as
air and bacteria seep into the sides of the tray. Vacuum-packed meat
has a 14-day shelf life – confirmed by U.S government and private
German medical laboratories. An added bonus: the oxygen-free
environment makes for a natural meat tenderizer, Mr. Hoca said.

***image2***“No more pounding the meat, no more meat tenderizer,” Mr. Hoca said.
The process sparked interest from Japan, China and European countries
who want to explore vacuum packaging. Tyson Food, Inc., which supplies
meat to Wal-Mart, toured Ramstein’s plant a few years ago and is now
using the same process.

“Absolutely everything about meat changed,” said Gerri Young, DeCA Europe spokeswoman.

Today, the new packaging process continues to be reviewed.

***image3***Commissaries served by the Central Meat Processing Plant offer 113 meat items and cuts compared to 40 before the new package.

“The variety has doubled,” Mr. Hoca said. “And, every store pays the same price.”

Butchers, who used to work behind the meat counters in each store, have
moved to the Central Meat Processing Plant, where they use their meat
cutting skills on such large orders as 1,596 T-bone steaks, 732
porterhouse and 3,096 ribeyes a day.

“We’re pleased with how far we’ve come,” Mr. Hoca said, “but, that does
not keep us from constantly looking for the next new idea.”

How it gets here:

***image4***•All of the beef sold in the Defense Commissary
Agency stores is U.S. Department of Agriculture approved, bought from
Tyson Food, Inc., which recently acquired Iowa Beef Packers. “We order
it six weeks out,” said John Hoca, Ramstein Central Meat Processing
Plant manager. “Tyson puts it in boxes and ships it by boat.”
•The beef is cut into quarters and then each quarter is further cut
into primal and subprimal pieces to be shipped. It’s vacuum-packed and
takes 28 days to arrive in Rotterdam, Holland. 
•It arrives at Ramstein four days later. DeCA orders five truck loads a
week. Each truck holds 20 pallets of meat, each pallet has 1,600 pounds
of meat.
•Transit temperature must be between 28 and 32 degrees. “Temperature control is very important to us,” Mr. Hoca said.
•Pork is ordered locally from Bavaria and DeCA receives three shipments
a week. A quality assurance inspector visits the Bavarian plant every
six weeks.
***image5***•All meat is cut at the Central Meat Processing Plant
– a $4.5 million facility that opened in 1998 behind the Ramstein
Commissary. There, the meat is again vacuum-packed, placed in boxes,
sealed with shrink-wrap and sent to a distributor who delivers the meat
to 57 commissaries in 16 countries.
•A boxmaker assembles more than 4,000 boxes a day.
Meat will be at Vogelweh the next day, in Turkey, Lajes and Sigonella in three to four days and downrange in one week.