Atria slaughterhouse

With butcher’s knives swinging behind the wall, it is essential to work efficiently and with nerves of steel. The renovation of a slaughterhouse in Kauhajoki was carried out completely on the terms of the production operations in the facility.

Outsiders are rarely allowed in slaughterhouses. Nevertheless, Tapani Potka, Director of Supply Chain Management and Investments at Atria, and Reijo Äijö, Production Manager of the Kauhajoki bovine slaughterhouse, immediately suggest the slaughterhouse’s cutting line and large cold storage room as the backdrop for photos. Both are full of large cattle carcasses hung on hooks, waiting to be cut up and packaged for supermarket meat sections and vacuum packs for summer barbecues.

“Where else would we go? This is what a slaughterhouse looks like,” Potka says.

The slaughterhouse, which began operations in the 1960s as part of the Salonoja meat empire, came under Atria’s ownership as a result of an acquisition completed in 2000. A few years ago, it was recognised that the slaughterhouse no longer met current production standards.

In July 2010, Atria and Lemminkäinen began an extensive renovation and rebuilding project. The old wooden slaughterhouse was renovated, with new production facilities built next door. The project was completed in May 2013.

“We needed more capacity. We are now better equipped to meet today’s requirements for slaughterhouse operations,” Potka says.

These requirements stem from not only the consumers that purchase the products, but also Atria’s shareholders.

After a transaction with Saarioinen, Atria also has bovine slaughterhouse operations in Jyväskylä. In its annual report, however, Atria states it is consolidating its bovine slaughterhouse operations in Kauhajoki. This is estimated to result in an annual cost reduction of EUR 6 million. Potka points out that the goal is to maintain the competitiveness of Finnish meat production.

“The efficient control of production volumes has substantial advantages throughout the process. It allows us to improve profitability by making minor changes,” Potka explains.

In recent years, Atria’s beef production volume has been approximately 32 million kilogrammes per year. After the 7,300-square-metre expansion and the implementation of new technology, the slaughterhouse can now process 90 carcasses per hour, compared to 56 in the past. 

“Height became an issue with the old slaughterhouse. In the 1970s, the average size of cattle was under 200 kilogrammes. Breeding, better feed and a larger number of breeds have since seen this figure exceed 300 kilogrammes,” Äijö says.

Cattle is delivered to Kauhajoki from various parts of the country. After slaughter, the meat is transported to Atria’s production facility in Nurmo for processing. Some cattle is also slaughtered in Jyväskylä, but the EUR 28 million renovation investment makes it clear that Kauhajoki will be the focus of Atria’s bovine slaughterhouse operations going forward.

“Kauhajoki plays a special role in Atria’s bovine slaughterhouse operations,” Potka explains.

The construction site was also quite special. The work was carried out completely on the terms of production operations.

“With the exception of just five days, slaughterhouse operations continued throughout the project. The contractor faced significant challenges to plan and schedule work in such a way as to maintain animal welfare and hygiene standards,” Reijo Äijö says.

Lemminkäinen won the contract for construction as well as heating, water and electrical installations through a tendering process.

“We were familiar with Lemminkäinen and the way they work. That was very important to us,” Tapani Potka says.

In competitive tendering, price is always a crucial component. Potka says that, for Atria, it was equally important to have confidence in the contractor’s ability to complete the work on schedule.

“A company of this size cannot afford to have projects stretch out like the infamous Olkiluoto nuclear plant project. We would run out of money. The project must proceed on schedule and be completed on time with no do-overs.

According to Potka and Äijö, in addition to finding a high-quality contractor, it is important that the customer knows what it wants. Atria produced a list of key attributes for a modern slaughterhouse. When work began, Atria continued to manage the project and take responsibility for it. No external construction consultant was hired for the project.

“As this project involves special construction, we would have had to first explain our needs to the consultant and then remain closely involved in the project. A renovation is also an opportunity for learning, and by being intimately involved in it, we can keep those lessons learned in our organisation,” Äijö says.

According to Regional Manager Antti Leskinen, who was in charge of the construction project on Lemminkäinen’s side, his only regret about the project is that he is not a young man anymore.

“I would have learned so much from this project. I don’t think I will ever work in a project involving a construction site as unusual as this one,” Leskinen says.

The most challenging aspect from the contractor’s perspective was that the old slaughterhouse was designed and built in the 1960s, and not every detail was documented. There were also a few surprises.

One in particular has stuck in Reijo Äijö’s mind:

“One day, a valve had been left in the wrong position. When the sludge recycling mechanism was turned on, the sludge sprayed out right on the construction crew. They had to go home to change their clothes. It’s funny now, but there weren’t too many laughs at the time.”

In the project, the new facilities were first built next door while the old slaughterhouse remained in operation. The production lines were then moved to the new building, while the old one was renovated for use as maintenance facilities and employee break rooms. 

“The biggest issues were the scheduling and phasing of work. For example, we had to determine how to keep the old electrical installations and fire detectors online until the new systems were ready for use,” explains Jukka Peltomäki, who was in charge of the project’s electrical installation work on Lemminkäinen’s side.

In addition to ordinary technical building services, the construction site had certain special characteristics unique to a slaughterhouse, such as water and pressurised air connections for the work surfaces of the cutting line. 

“Deploying the new cutting line was the most difficult phase. The slaughterhouse had to move from the old cutting line to the new one over a single weekend, and we did not have the opportunity to comprehensively test the new system,” says Timo Kotala, who was responsible for heating and water installations on Lemminkäinen’s side.

After a great deal of planning, a few mishaps and plenty of hard work, the new slaughterhouse is now running cleanly and efficiently. Atria’s people are pleased that the work was completed on schedule.

“In a project like this, the challenge for the contractor is to take control of the work and its scheduling without the customer noticing it. Taking responsibility in this manner is a future opportunity for the contractor,” Potka says.

After we leave the hanging carcasses behind, my eyes are drawn to a knife carving out a nice piece of fillet. I wonder if Potka would notice if I slipped it in my bag?

“It would be quite difficult for you to get away with that. All of the more valuable pieces of meat are tagged and monitored to ensure that they can be traced later if necessary,” Potka says.

I suppose it would be a bad idea to try to take it. Perhaps I will find it one day in the supermarket.