From left, Gretta Irwin (Iowa Turkey Federation Home Economist and Executive Director), Noel Thompson (Iowa Turkey Federation President), Governor Branstad, Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds, West Liberty Foods representatives Michele Boney and Joe Thompson
In 1996 Governor Branstad passed legislation that allowed 47 turkey farmers to form a closely held cooperative and purchase a meat processing plant. In September, 17 years later, the governor toured one of the facilities owned by those Iowa farmers.
West Liberty Foods was formed by the Iowa Turkey Growers Cooperative in 1996 after then owner Oscar Mayer closed the plant. “We were turkey farmers without a place for our turkeys,” explained Noel Thompson, turkey farmer and current president of the Iowa Turkey Federation. Thompson, along with 46 other turkey farmers, formed the Iowa Turkey Growers Cooperative and bought the processing facility.
Facility manager, Joe Thompson, speaking to Iowa governor Terry Branstad and Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds while Noel Thompson, turkey farmer and president of Iowa Turkey Federation, looks on.
West Liberty Foods has grown exponentially since that time. With processing facilities in West Liberty and Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, Tremonton, Utah and Bolingbrook, Illinois, the company now has the capacity to produce 300 million pounds of slicing, individually quick frozen and water cooked products annually, and employs 1,900. “Early on, I visited West Liberty when the plant there was just opened, but you’ve grown tremendously and it’s great to be here,” remarked the governor.
The Mt. Pleasant facility, which slices and packages cooked proteins, employs over 500 people in southeast Iowa. It is home to a state of the art High Pressure Pasteurization unit, which provides food quality extension and longer shelf life while reducing dependence on preservatives.
The company’s dedication to food safety was evident throughout the governor and lieutenant governor’s tour. Employees all complete a four day food safety training upon hiring, and visitors (even the governor and lieutenant governor) are required to complete an abbreviated version of the training before entering the processing area. Tour participants were given their own personal protective equipment, boots and jackets and were able to view processing line activity through large windows. Each of the 20 processing lines has separate air handling systems, drain systems, supplies and tools,.
Thompson reiterated the role Governor Branstad had in laying the groundwork for the Iowa Turkey Grower’s Cooperative to form and buy the West Liberty, Iowa plant. “At that time, Governor Branstad was pushing through the legislature a bill that would allow small farmers like us to create closed co-ops…in other words, closely held co-ops…by pushing that legislation and then signing that legislation, the governor gave us a tool by which we could form this entity so that we could actually put this whole thing together and finance this thing. We owe a lot to Governor Branstad. He is certainly partly responsible today for our success because he allowed us to be here.”
Three of West Liberty Foods’ four facilities are verified “landfill free” by NSF International Strategic Registrations. This means that less than 1% of the facilities’ waste is sent to a landfill.
Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds, was impressed by the facilities. “It’s so wonderful to come back to the community and see its continued success,” remarked Reynolds, who lived in Mt. Pleasant for several years. “The technology is phenomenal.”
West Liberty Foods supplies over 80% of Subway’s meat nationally, and Governor Branstad is doing his part to support this Iowa company. “I’m…a big customer of the 6-inch turkey sandwich at Subway. My goal is to go to every Subway in Iowa, and there are a lot of them.”