Interview: Walt Shafer about Costco’s new, hi-tech processing plant

Walt Shafer

Walt Shafer is leading construction and operation of Costco’s Lincoln Premium Poultry plant, to be established in Fremont, Nebraska, USA.

Interviewed by Tom Johnston from Meatingplace magazine, he told about possibly the world’s most technologically advanced chicken processing plant which will be a new standard in the industry, completely equipped with Marel Poultry systems and solutions.

The new company, Lincoln Premium Poultry, will process 2 million chickens per week in a 360,000 square-foot facility that promises to be among the most technologically advanced in the world and will employ 1,000 people. Costco is the owner and also the only customer of Lincoln. Walt Shafer and his team can focus on highly automated plant operations that primarily will address animal welfare concerns and increasingly vexing labor issues.

First ATLAS in the US

“The product we bring in is going to be handled in the best and most humane way it can be. We put the technology in place that does that.” Walt Shafer refers to the ATLAS system when he talks about the advantages of the chosen technology in live bird handling. “You set a module in a chicken house and—whereas the industry uses what we call cages where you have to open a door and put the chickens in—we slide the floors away and put the chickens in. And we think that is going to be a lot better for the handling and the welfare of that bird. I’m not aware that any of this particular transport module is being used in the US. The company that we’re working with, which is Marel Poultry, is developing this module. We’re the first ones in the US to go with it.”

Robobatcher Flex Breast Fillets

The new company, Lincoln Premium Poultry, will process 2 million chickens per week in a 360,000 square-foot


All other advanced systems and solutions in the Lincoln Premium Poultry plant will also be provided by Marel Poultry. Walt Shafer is particularly excited about IRIS visual grading technology, the Thigh Fillet System and the RoboBatcher Flex. “We’re using vision technology to essentially take 360º pictures of these birds as they go by, where we can then distribute them by weight and by grade. This facility also has automatic thigh deboning in it. It actually has robots that pick up the boneless breast meat, thigh meat, drumsticks – all the Costco products – and puts them in the package, eliminating labor.”

Automatic transfers

Taking us back to primary processing, Walt Shafer tells about CAS SmoothFlow and Nuova evisceration. “We’re gas-stunning these birds. All of our lines are essentially the latest technology from kill, pick, all the way though evisceration with such things as giblet harvesting, et cetera. Our facility will be air-chilled.  One advantage of air-chill is that the process is automatic.

When our birds come through kill, pick, they’re automatically transferred to evisceration. And when they come from evisceration, they’re automatically transferred to air-chill. And when the air-chill comes into our secondary process and the sizing distribution cut-up line, it’s automatically transferred. So, that replaces a lot of manual labor. From a traceability standpoint, it gives us a lot better opportunity to actually trace birds more on a bird basis than on a flock or a house basis.

Maturation air chilling

Walt Shafer continues, “Costco feels air-chilled product potentially could be a better product that their members would like. They have experience with these types of products in other countries where they do business, and they want to try it here in the US.  The process itself that we’re using is new and unique. It’s called maturation. We feel that it’s going to tenderize that product better. The air-chilling process itself is almost three hours. We use various degrees of temperature in that process. The other thing is we don’t anticipate we’ll have as much moisture in the pack.

A featured item of Costco warehouses and really what the members enjoy is the rotisserie deli WOGs (whole chickens without giblets). Costco believes that an air-chilled bird on that deli spit is just going to have a lot better product attributes.”

Innova runs the plant

Lincoln Premium Poultry will have an elaborate Innova processing software package installed. “The Innova software system essentially operates the entire plant floor. And yes, part of our process will be to get everything to talk to each other, and Innova has that technology. We have to figure out the wiring diagrams and so forth to get it done. But we’ll have an immense amount of data coming from the floor, and I’m the type who says that’s great, but first of all we’ve got to ask ourselves, ‘What data do we want to see? What data really makes a difference to us? How do we want to handle that?’ We’ll have the ability to look in on every machine to see how it’s performing—up time, downtime, mechanical expense, yields, quality—on a real-time basis.”

Proactive and innovative

Walt Shafer has a long-standing relationship with Marel Poultry. “Personally, I’ve done business with Marel Poultry probably going on 30 years. I’ve had a relationship with these people through their growth, and I know a lot of them personally. I’ve been to their facilities all across the world. They’ve asked for my advice on technology that they’ve developed. They’re proactive and innovative.”

European show plant in the US

“As a matter of fact, while on our trip to visit them in Europe, we said ‘Why don’t we become your European plant in the US?’ Meaning, ‘Why do you need to take US customers to Europe to see everything you’re doing?’ So we’re putting an office in for those folks. They’ll have a presence at our facility. 

And we’ve opened the door for them to bring US customers, and that means the poultry industry, to come and see what Marel Poultry has done here. Again, I’m not competing with the industry. My customer is Costco. Anything we’re doing that can benefit the industry, we’d be glad to do it. And anything we can do with Stork and Marel Poultry to improve technology here in the US, we certainly want to partner with them.”

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