Noble Foods has invested £3m over the past 18 months to create the world’s largest non-intensive egg packing centre.

In Lincolnshire and just six miles off the A1, the company believes its plant brings significant advantages to its rapidly growing supplier base.

The site at North Scarle grades and packs about 31m eggs a week. Its advanced computerised systems and packing teams grade and pack more than 150 different combinations of pack sizes and brands for retailer customers.

Brian White, Noble’s commercial director, is quick to add that the site does a great deal more than grading and packing eggs.

egg packing robot

“The whole operation is highly mechanised and computerised to ensure supply meets retailer demand as efficiently as possible. We have invested in some of the most advanced packing technology available.”

The whole planning operation starts on the farm and major investment has been made in computerisation of collections and in packaging.

Palm-held system

“By midsummer all our drivers will use a palm-held computer to provide a producer receipt at the farm,” adds Mr White. “The information is downloaded at the packing centre via a docking system, removing the need for manual input.

“This collection ticket also has a barcode that can then be scanned on arrival at North Scarle and is fed into the grader computers to update stocks. We grade and pack to order, so it’s crucial that we have details on the eggs in stock at any point.”

At the same time, the barcode information gives each batch of eggs an identity so the producer can be tracked right through the system, on to the carton of eggs and into the consumer’s basket. “We take advantage of this if we have any problems. Occasionally a batch of eggs reaches the grader and is found to have too many seconds that should have been removed on farm or through our random but regular quality control tests. We can contact the producer through our fieldsmen without delay.”

Seeing blue

The introduction of blue plastic trays that can be washed and recycled has been a big investment for Noble Foods. They replace the traditional fibre trays. “It’s not just the trays that have been purchased, but also the dividers, pallets and washing equipment,” says Mr White.

“It has brought huge benefits and raised standards within the industry. Hygiene and product quality have improved and this is important as we work hard to minimise disease risks. The 2m trays now distributed among all Noble egg suppliers are recyclable, washable, stronger and guaranteed for seven years.

“Plastic has come a long way – they don’t become brittle and crack and, at the same time, they offer some cushioning to the eggs.”

Case packers

Investment in case packers, which pack egg boxes into cases, is under way at North Scarle. “The benefits are consistency in handling, while combating the repetitive strain issues facing all food-handling businesses,” says Mr White.

Perhaps the most eye-catching piece of equipment at North Scarle – and one that never fails to impress the groups of producers that visit the site – is the robot that lifts display cases and packed boxes on to the right delivery pallet. The robot was installed a year ago.

“It has paid for itself many times over through its ability to handle large quantities of a variety of shapes of boxes and pack them for the warehouse.”

With more than 30 years of experience in egg packing operations, Mr White has seen significant changes, but perhaps the past five years have been the most progressive.

“No two months are the same at the moment. Last month we started using an automatic leaflet inserter that allows us to put promotional information and recipe ideas into our branded packs, giving consumers even more added value. Very soon the case packers will all be in action,” he says.

Mr White knows that keeping up with developments in a rapidly developing industry is very important if the company is to maintain its lead and continue to offer its suppliers significant marketing advantages. “Our investments at North Scarle are all adding value to the eggs that reach the shelf and these benefit us as well as our suppliers and customers.”