Toll services: the term connotes a stripped down, in-and-out process performed at a remote location.
Traditionally, that’s been the case in the food industry. Companies essentially rented time on a machine and picked up or arranged delivery from the toller’s location to the product’s next destination. That scenario still exists, but the tolling trend is toward more value-added services and enhancements up to and including full-blown partnerships.
Several factors are at play in tollers’ reinvention. One is the changing nature of food companies themselves: Many of today’s start-ups and early-stage firms are focused on creating and marketing brands that appeal to people who want clean labels, organic and natural foods or free-from products. Manufacturing capabilities are non-existent. Tollers who can perform multiple services make their lives easier.
Another factor is the globalization of food. U.S. poultry producers exported almost 8.2 billion lbs. of poultry products in 2015, more than 20 percent of all U.S. poultry production, according to the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council. Producing and packing all that product is daunting enough without the added headache of post-production work. Fortunately, the downstream supply chain is stepping in with enhanced services.
Agro Merchants Group provides an example. Since acquiring Nordic Cold Storage in late 2015, Agro has expanded and enhanced services and capacities at Nordic’s operations at the Port of Savannah. In December, Nordic took receipt of its first shipment of fresh produce at the port, handling the customs paperwork and arranging logistics while the Peruvian grapes were held in a 400,000-sq.-ft. refrigerated space. Importing complements already robust work on export services, which include a high-volume blast freezing operation that handles more than 2 million lbs. of poultry a day.
Industry focus on food safety plays a role in tolling’s metamorphosis. American Pasteurization Co. in Milwaukee established itself as the nation’s first contract supplier of high-pressure pasteurization (HPP) services in the early 2000s. From the outset, it defined itself as a toller, although services necessarily extended to refrigerated storage, product development and package selection assistance for the new technology.
Bioactive Resources LLC in South Plainfield, N.J., stumbled into tolling. After FDA banned irradiation of products labeled as organic in 2009, owner Mayur Desai searched for alternative sterilization technology to treat his natural nutraceuticals, settling on a dry steam technology. Drawing on his engineering training, Desai modified the equipment to sterilize powders as well as the spices for which it was designed.
“The beauty,” he explains, “is that every single particle gets subjected to the exact same time and temperature treatment for a 6 log reduction. Other machines we evaluated created hot spots.”
The only downside was excess capacity: Bioactive’s throughput only required a fifth of the machine’s available time. Like legions before him, Desai opened his doors to other food companies in need of sterilization and blending services. His Safe Sterilization USA division (www.safesterilization.com) now runs two shifts, five days a week, and recently opened a second facility in Reno, Nev., to serve companies on the opposite coast.
Service scope at Safe Sterilization is gradually expanding, mimicking a trend occurring in HPP tolling. It’s a reflection both of client need and competitive position. With HPP capacity exploding and new tollers entering the market, service providers are seeking ways to distinguish themselves by adding value.
South Hackensack, N.J.-based Dora’s Naturals Inc. (www.dorasnaturals.com) exemplifies the new wave. The warehousing and DSD arm of a group that includes Steuben Foods, an aseptic dairy powerhouse, and Mountainside Farms dairy, Dora’s began offering HPP tolling two years ago with a press from Hiperbaric USA (www.hiperbaric.com).
That 55-liter machine has a rated capacity of 550 lbs. an hour, according to Hiperbaric director Jaime Nicolas-Correa, but Dora’s new 525-liter line is rated at 6,500 lbs. an hour. Processing cost, including machine depreciation, is a fraction of that of the smaller unit, allowing Dora’s to offer more competitive service fees. As a consequence, production schedules are filling up, according to David Scheingold, director-supply chain and logistics.
“Tolling is a fee-for-service business, and we want to be doing more than that,” says Scheingold. “Ultimately, we’ll do everything except sales and marketing for our customers.” Bottle blowmolding soon will be added to Dora’s packaging services. DSD routes reach 4,000 stores and restaurants.
Texas Food Solutions (TFS) in suburban Houston is another new toller. TFS (www.texasfoodsolutions.com) is under common ownership with Perfect Fit Meals, a processor of clean-label refrigerated entrees. Perfect Fit was a customer of an HPP toller until TFS commissioned a line from Thyssen Krupp and Multivac in late 2015, quickly adding a second machine from Avure Technologies Inc. in 2016.