Canada’s largest fresh fruit and vegetable processor takes pride in its quality assurance efforts to bring only nature’s best to the table
June 8, 2012
by Andrew Joseph, Features Editor; Cole Garside, Photographer
It’s not really considered bragging when a company is already widely acknowledged as an industry leader in its chosen field. And it’s really been a field of dreams in recent years for Pride Pak Canada Ltd., Canada’s largest fresh fruit and vegetable processor with a stellar reputation for quality and food safety that more than justifies the company’s self-assured choice of a name.
In fact, there is plenty to be proud of for a company that its chief executive officer Steven Karr founded in 1984 after identifying untapped vast demand in Canada’s fast-growing market for high-quality, healthy, easy-to-serve fresh food sold at a reasonable price.
But unlike many other one-time competitors that have tried to cash in on new market opportunities but ultimately failed, Karr not only talked the talk, but also walked the walk to become the Canadian market leader in fresh-cut processing—leveraging remarkable business savvy and unyielding genuine desire to provide Canadian consumers and foodservice customers with a truly value-added product.
Today operating out of a state-of-the-art, 135,000-square-foot facility located a half-hour drive west of Toronto in Mississauga, Ont., Pride Pak still considers itself to be a regional producer, as Karr explains.
“Even with the size and output of our company, we are a regional processor, which allows us to receive fresh product daily,” he says. “And by ‘fresh’ I mean that we are always processing that product today for delivery tomorrow.”
Pride Pak’s extensive product covers the full gamut of popular fresh-cut produce blends and mixes—including carrot and celery sticks; broccoli and cauliflower florets; shredded lettuce, carrots and cabbage; diced or slivered onions, peppers and celery; chopped iceberg and romaine lettuce; stir fry and other vegetable mixes—along with a broad variety of salad recipes and soup mixes, including Minestrone, Potato and Leek, and Kale and Potato recipes.
Despite enjoying a well-earned, well-respected reputation within the industry, most Canadian consumers are probably not intimately familiar with Pride Pak because up to now the company has resisted the urge to create its own flagship brand—instead consciously choosing to concentrate on private-label products shipped directly to grocery retailers, foodservice distributors and other food processors.
Nevertheless, the odds are pretty good that most average Canadian consumers have eaten Pride Pak products far more often than they realize, according to Karr, because they are featured quite prominently in salads and sandwiches served at many global fastfood restaurant chains operating across Canada.
“We have over 100 SKUs (stock-keeping units) we produce on a regular basis, but we can and will design any value-added fresh product to meet a customer’s needs and specifications,” says Karr, citing Pride Pak’s impressive product shelf-life ranging from eight to 21 days.
Along with its smaller satellite facility that Pride Pak opened up in 2006 in Paradise, Nfld., the company has the capacity to process over three million pounds of product weekly—without the use of any artificial preservatives—to serve a loyal base of customers across Canada and in parts of northeastern U.S., according to Karr.
“Being a Canadian company, I obviously feel it is important for us to support Canadian-grown products whenever possible,” Karr told Canadian Packaging during a recent visit to the Mississauga facility running two shifts per day, with a third shift for cleaning, seven days a week.
“I love what I do,” Karr states. “I’ve been involved in all aspects of fresh vegetable processing in my career, and I am also a part-time farmer in my spare time.”
The company’s success is naturally an enormous source of personal pride and fulfillment for Karr, with three of his children playing key roles in its day-to-day operations.
“But I treat all of my employees as though they are family,” Karr quickly points out. “In fact, not only do we have many employees with over 10, 15 and 20 years of employment here, we feel that once you are here past six months, you will want to stay as long as you can.”
According to Karr, the value-added produce segment has enjoyed exceptional growth in Canada over the past 15 years, with fresh-cut fruits and vegetables and packaged salad mixes now accounting for approximately 20 per cent of the total produce department sales at grocery stores across the country.
“Foodservice operators have also increased their use of value-added produce, which comes as a direct result of the maturation and refinement of this industry,” notes Karr.
“Foodservice operators like our customers recognize the value of purchasing washed, ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables which translates to less labor, less waste, higher quality, improved food safety and controllable costs,” he explains.
“The thing is, Pride Pak was already active in the value-added produce industry long before fresh-cut fruits and vegetables became popular in Canada.”
Prior to launching Pride Pak, Karr worked as a wholesale distributor of fresh fruits and vegetables to restaurants, hotels and private clubs in the city of Toronto.
During that time, Karr says he often heard a litany of complaints from his demanding chef customers: not so much about his product, but rather concerns over food costs, space constraints, excessive waste, availability and cost of labor, and other things that affected their bottom line.
Hearing those complaints naturally gave him an idea of creating pre-bagged salads for his customers, he recalls.
“I told them that my salad bags could save them time and labor … that all one had to do was open the bag and pour the salad into a bowl.
“Of course, everyone thought I was crazy,” he chuckles.
Crazy or not, Karr went about doing what he said he was going to do—cutting ingredients to size, washing them multiple times, bagging them, etc.
Before long, what originally started as a once-per-week product offer, the bagged salads produced at Pride Pak became increasingly more and more popular with newer and larger customers joining the fold.
The fast-growing demand soon made it imperative for the Pride Pak plant to automate many aspects of its operations over the years to remain a competitive and successful business, Karr relates.
“Back when we started, it took 12 people a total of 16 hours each to pack 20-pound cases containing 25 bags apiece,” recalls Karr.
“Nowadays we do about 10,000 pounds of produce an hour on a single automated line,” says Karr, explaining that the Pride Pak facility has been designed and set up to be operated as a high-output processing plant that can offer its customers safe, quality food at a reasonable price, with impeccable on-time delivery.
“Thanks to our investment in automation and our dedicated employees, as long as we get a minimum of 24 hours’ notice, we can get it into the customer’s hands,” he asserts.
“Our customer service is second to none,” Karr stresses. “We set the standard, and we are fortunate to have the support of our suppliers, customers, employees and the government to ensure that these goals are continually met.
“Our flawless record is one we are very proud of, but it takes a lot of work,” relates Karr.
“It’s not only about the integration and cooperation of all the departments and employees: it’s also about integrating all the automation we use on our production lines,” he says noting that both Pride Pak plants have been recognized for achieving the coveted Gold standard during independent, third-party HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) audits administered by the highly authoritative Guelph Food & Technology Centre (GFTC).
Karr says Pride Pak’s uncompromising food safety and quality assurance programs were developed following strict guidelines of the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) and FDA (U.S. Food & Drug Administration), along with its own in-house GMP (good manufacturing practice) procedures and HACCP programs—all periodically reinforced with continuous staff training.
“Food safety and product quality is the responsibility of each and every employee at Pride Pak and its suppliers,” states Karr.
The company has even gone a step further, he relates, by formed a buyers group with other Canadian and some U.S.-based processors, which contracts key growers up to three years in advance to secure the most advantageous land elevations—thereby minimizing risks of adverse weather conditions such as too much or too little rain.
Moreover, Pride Pak employs its food safety auditor to inspect each ranch prior to seeding, during growing, and prior to harvest, Karr reveals, with the thorough inspections including the review of all documents and analytical work on the raw product by an independent lab.
Any noncompliance with Pride Pak’s specifications leads to immediate rejection of the field for future harvesting, he explains.
“It’s one of the reasons why when we develop a raw product supplier, they remain our raw product supplier, as each must follow structured food safety protocol with excellent results from reputable third-party auditors,” he states.
Currently running a total of eight production lines, the Mississauga plant is looking at adding another line or two before the end of the year, says Karr.
“Six of our lines are bagging lines and the other two are tray-sealing lines,” says Karr, citing two Hayssen lines runs between 40- and 60-bpm (bags per minute); three Matrix Packaging Machinery lines running at 40- to 50-bpm; a generic spring mix line of fresh-cut veggies; a tomato tray line; and a dual apple packaging lines running at speeds of 60- to 80-bpm.
All of the pre-printed bags used on the bagging lines are supplied by the Toronto-based Lynnpak Packaging Ltd., according to Karr.
“Four of our bagging lines utilize a nitrogen gas-flush when required, with the balance of the lines using MAP (modified-atmosphere packaging) lidding and plastic film to help extend the shelf-life of the products,” he notes.
While each of the lines is different to some extent, Karr is quite proud of the equipment installed on the plant’s Line No. 1, which he calls “one of the most technologically advanced lines in our business.”
Along with the plant’s Line No. 2, this high-performance line is dedicated to processing all of the lettuce products handled at the facility.
Before it enters the production line, raw product is inspected for quality and then loaded into a crate dumping system that tips the product onto a trimming conveyor system manufactured by the Hamilton, Ont.-based Hager Industries Inc.
“Once the product has been trimmed and cored, it is inspected again before being sent along a conveying system to be cut to the customer’s specifications,” states Karr.
After passing through an Urschel Translicer, the pre-cut product enters the Model 450 automated inspection system manufactured by Raytec Vision S.p.A., which thoroughly checks the product for foreign materials and any defects in color and density.
The product then passes into a Turatti three-stage wash system, becoming progressively cleaner with each station.
After the product is fed into automated spin dryers to remove excessive moisture, it is conveyed to the actual packaging line, where it passes through state-of-the-art chilling tunnels to maintain optimal temperature before moving up and into one of five Ishida weighscales (Pride Pak also has a Yamato weigh scale)—before being packed by a Hayssen Ultima horizontal form-fill-seal (F/F/S) bagger.
After bagging, all product is inspected by a Fortress Technology Phantom metal detection unit, checked for seal quality and weight accuracy, and then packed in corrugated cartons for storage in the company’s refrigerated storage area to await same-day shipment.
Other key systems and materials employed at Pride Pak include:
“You could ask anyone involved in the produce industry, and they would all tell you that it can be a very stressful business,” reflects Karr, “but it is also a very, very fulfilling business.
“I can tell you without a shred of doubt that I love providing people with high-quality produce and that I have a lot of fun doing it,” he sums up. “We take pride in our work, and we are proud of the quality and safety of the products we produce.
“Pride Pak is not just our name: it’s also our philosophy.”