Processing and Packaging 240 million pounds of vegetables stretches my imagination. National Frozen Foods tackles this much annually helping to keep peas, corn and carrots available throughout the year in the freezer section of many grocery stores and restaurants around the country. The vegetables also end up in other countries such as Japan and China. That little green pea or baby carrot took quite an adventure before ending up on your dinner plate.
Pat Sauter, long time Lewis County resident, is the General Manager. He’s in his 38th year of working with National Frozen Foods, having started when he was in high school. He began handling produce even before that time, at age 12, by picking berries for a local farmer.
Sauter and the business have learned and evolved by leaps and bound since then. For example, formerly there were no computers to tally inventory and track production. Everything was done by hand with paper. Now technology permeates all aspects of the business from automation to tracking. Additionally, Sauter’s head is filled with operational procedures, mechanical designs, and the innumerable government rules and regulations.
Where do the vegetables come from? National Frozen Foods has 45,000 acres of land under contracts with growers around Washington, primarily in the eastern half of the state. Growers agree to the use of their land and comply with the planting schedules dictated by National Frozen Foods.
Controlling the harvest is also critical. All produce is grown to USDA Grade A standards which assess size, color, tenderness and other characteristics. Fields are managed with timelines to create consistent harvest levels throughout processing. Inspectors make sure growing is on track and farmers are tending to the fields. When the corn, peas and carrots are ripe, the processing plant goes “full open,” running virtually non-stop for 100 days.
As the vegetables are harvested, they make their way on trucks to the processing plant, where they are cleaned, washed, and blanched to kill the enzymes and then frozen. This is a dry process so they don’t clump together. After, the veggies are frozen for packaging. National Frozen Foods has 150 different labels which means they package individually for business like Safeway, Kroger and Sysco. The spectrum of vegetables includes cut and cob corn, peas, sliced, diced and baby carrots, green beans and lima beans. All seeds that are used are non-GMO. There are also fields of organics.
People may be concerned about frozen vegetables after the recall by CRF Frozen Food in Pasco. The concern was with listeria. National Frozen Foods goes to great lengths to assure the quality and safety of all their food. They are vigilantly cleaning and testing. Sauter emphasizes, “The plants are very, very clean.” The business keeps in compliance with many federal agencies, including the FDA, USDA, EPA and the DOT. He also noted that consumers are advised to follow the cooking instructions on the package. In the case of frozen vegetables, that involves cooking. “Food safety is very important. Always,” says Sauter.
Brandy McNeill has also made a career at National Frozen Foods. She started at the age of 16 and worked her way up the ladder to her current position of Human Resources Manager. It’s an “awesome company,” as she has appreciated her opportunities and the ability to work with a great team. She said that there are many job opportunities for people looking for summer employment. These positions, such as quality inspection, forklift driving and sanitation, are done by students and teachers on break from school, and truck drivers looking for seasonal work.
National Frozen Foods has been a steady Lewis County community member and one of the largest employers since 1927. “We have some of the best people in the industry,” Sauter adds with pride. “We are fantastic at what we do.” There are currently 225 full-time employees.
Interestingly, National Frozen Foods is one of the biggest, privately held vegetable processor/packager in the U.S. It was originally a fruit cannery, which explains why locals still refer to “The Cannery.” However, they have been out of the canning business since 1960. National Frozen Foods makes regular donations to Northwest Harvest by delivering frozen product that they can repackage. They also provide scholastic scholarships for employees.
It’s a big concept – millions of pounds of vegetables being process every day right downtown Chehalis. Next time you push your cart by the frozen vegetables, take a moment to appreciate all the people who helped make that happen. Many of them are your neighbors.