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Fish plant tackles odors as full rollout continues

    GRAFTON — Their swim has often been against the current the last three years, but a group of local partners this month hopes to finally flip the switch on a $4 million Asian carp processing plant.
    Success is in the wind  — almost literally.
    American Heartland Fish Products LLC has called in several experts in an attempt to get to the bottom of odor detected by neighbors outside the plant. Organic compounds are being added to the fish processing in an attempt to neutralize any smell, but testing so far has not quelled concerns, which some residents have taken to the Grafton City Council.
    CEO Gray “Butch” Magee Jr. said experts have been visiting the site at 20201 State Highway 3 since May 16.
    During early testing, there were some equipment malfunctions, but those problems were quickly corrected, he said.
    “The instructions we received reduced the amount of odor to some extent, but there still remains an unacceptable malodorous smell. Although the degree has been reduced it is still not acceptable,” Magee said, in a letter to Grafton Mayor Tom Thompson, which was copied to the Illinois Business Journal.
    Multiple reasons for the odors are being looked at, including whether the smell is being caused by processing of the entire fish, rather than parts of it.
    The solution will rest with testing a variety of natural compounds, or perhaps addition of scrubbing equipment, inventor Ken Mosley said.
    “Whatever it takes, we’re going to do it,” he said. “We’re trying to be proactive about this and a good neighbor.”
    Mosley noted that the same problem surfaced with the launch of a similar plant in Greensboro, Ala., and was eventually worked out.
    “These are people not used to a plant startup. We went through this in Greensboro. There’s nothing unusual about it; it just takes time,” he said.
    At stake is potentially millions in revenue and a stream of steady income for fishermen throughout Southwestern Illinois. A net of interest has been cast far and wide in the success of the project, in part because the effort could help tackle a growing invasive species problem.
    After a month of trials, American Heartland expects to go live this month operating on a 2-acre site. It’s part of a 13-acre industrial park controlled by the group.
    Principal partners are Magee, Ben Allen and Bryon LeBeau. They needed only an old, but solidly built, 13,000-square-foot apple storage facility for a location. The operational intricacies were a bit more complicated and required installation of specialized equipment as well as input from Auburn (Ala.) University and others.

    Through a mix of grinders, conveyors, dryers and presses, the fish are pulverized and converted from whole fish to fine powder and oil — with those two byproducts going primarily to pet food and cosmetic markets. Customers were lined up before the plant was even operational, Allen said.
    Mosley who is from Trussville, Ala,, was one of three inventors of the patented process. He walked a reporter through the works, proudly displaying a technology that he says is the first of its kind. Mosley is CEO of Falcon Protein Products Inc.
    The operation in Grafton is patterned upon the catfish plant that Mosley and others built in Greensboro, featuring the same process. The Grafton  operation was built to specs, designed and constructed down South before it was disassembled, trucked north and reassembled in Grafton.
    Falcon holds the exclusive licensing rights to the process, granted to it by Auburn University, which owns the patent.
    “Rick (Renninger) and I invented the process at Auburn, with a grant from Auburn while working on Auburn’s campus. When we entered into this, we agreed to assign the patent to Auburn if we were successful in getting the patent. Auburn put it into a C corporation, which we got shares of. That’s how we got compensated for our invention,” Mosley said.
    Falcon hold the exclusive rights to sublicenses, and has granted two of those licenses so far, the one for catfish in Greensboro, the other for carp in Grafton.
    Falcon, in turn, is a 25 percent partner in the Grafton operation. American Heartland holds the exclusive U.S. rights to the Asian carp processing license.
    “Instead of paying us a gross amount of money, we wanted to be a partner and have skin in the game, to help them be successful,” Mosley said.
    Three years ago, when the principals of American Heartland and Falcon Products first met, the Grafton contingent was floating the idea of processing carp for human consumption, mainly in the Chinese market. Eventually it was determined not to be practical, from either a processing or logistical standpoint.
    After Auburn experts  told them that they had better markets if they processed the entire fish, rather than only edible parts, the partners changed their business strategy.
    “The two main products we’ll produce, the oil and the meal, are already international commodities, sold on the commodities exchanges,” Allen said. “We have all of our product in effect basically presold. With that part of the business equation out of the way (it is more a question of) can we sell it at a price that works favorably with the cost associated with producing it? And we feel that it can.”
    Allen said Magee, the CEO, has estimated the plant can generate about $4 million in gross sales a year with a single shift.
    Mosley said Grafton’s operation could pave the way for similar efforts elsewhere.
    “What a plant like this does is confirm that our process is successful in full-scale production,” Mosley said. “That’s important. Now, if somebody’s interested in doing cattle or pork or some other species, they can come to this plant and see that it works. Because if it works on fish, it will work on chickens and if works on chickens it will work on pigs. Offal is offal. Animal parts are animal parts.”

How it all works

    Fisherman pull up to the plant and offload their catch directly into mobile “totes” that can be moved by forklift and dumped into a hopper to launch the process. If the machinery happens to be off line, the plant has the ability to put the fish into cold storage. Otherwise the fish can be moved through a conversion process that takes about 10 minutes, start to finish.
    The hopper is hydraulically lifted onto a sealed conveyor where fish are transported to a breaker, the first step in the pulverizing process. Then, it’s on to a grinder that converts the fish into something that looks like raw hamburger.
    From there it goes to a mixer, where a reagent and some dry, finished fish meal product are added to the wet mush to dry it enough so it can be transported through the rest of the system in a non-sticky way.
    A computer is used to determine the right amount of fish to be run through the next part of the process,  which is a drying unit where most of the moisture is removed. At that point, conveyance takes place through high-velocity air transport.
    A cyclone is then used to separate the dry material out of the air. The steam is removed via a large exhaust fan through a stack outside the building.
    “Right now we are moving everything by air, Mosley said. “The steam is  all the water coming off the fish. In a conventional process when you look at a diagram you’ll see wastewater. You’ll see condensers. In a conventional cooking plant all the moisture would be condensed back out as a high-strength wastewater stream. That’s the reason we do it this way, to eliminate handling of wastewater. It’s very costly.”
    Mosley added: “It’s clean steam, just as you’d be drying clothes in a clothes dryer.”
    At this point in the process, the material appears dry, but it still contains about 6 percent moisture and approximately 20 percent fat.
    “We take this product and go through a conventional screw press that uses thousands of foot-pounds of pressure to squeeze the oil out of the material,” Mosley said.
    The oil comes out one end of the press and is pumped to storage tanks to await truck transport.
    “When we process 50,000 pounds of fish in one day, we might get 15,000 pounds of finished product. Of that we might have 1,000 or 1,500 pounds of fat (oil),” he said.
    The meal comes out another end of the press and is ready for screening into a holding bin. Material that doesn’t make it through screening is routed back to a hammermill for further reducing, and continues that loop until it falls through the screen.
    “Eventually it all goes through,” Mosley said.
    Some of the finished product, sans oil, is routed back for the early stage of dry mixing, but the rest is ready to be bagged or trucked out.
    “The people who are buying it from us currently want it bagged for biosecurity. Flies can’t get into it, birds can’t get in it, salmonella can’t get into it,” Mosley said.  
    Most of the conversion process is sealed, which prevents contamination and cuts down on odors. There is virtually no waste and any wastewater that spills onto the floor can easily be washed off into drains.
    “In simple terms, what this plant is designed to do is remove moisture. We don’t create matter and we don’t destroy matter. We’re a drying plant. If we take in 1,000 pounds of fish, and those fish have 700 pounds of water, we drive off 700 pounds of water, roughly. We leave a little bit of moisture in the product,” Mosley said.
    A camera surveillance system and a computer connection will allow him to monitor the process when he returns to Birmingham, Ala.
    An electrical engineer in Birmingham could also work long distance to implement changes to clear up system problems in Grafton, he said.
    The size of the operation likely makes it the largest electrical and natural gas user in Grafton, Allen and Mosley said.
    If an ember were to emerge during the heat stage, the crew has the ability to shut off oxygen to the system, which effectively would kill any fire. There is also a means of triggering a water valve to flood the system if necessary, Mosley said. Several safety factors are built in.
    For all of the work thus far, American Heartland has needed only a permit for construction. Because operators use a gas furnace and not a boiler, they’ve avoided the need for some permitting. Other permits will become necessary as production grows.
    The plant, located near the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, is starting out with the equivalent of 6.5 employees and a single shift. Full production is expected to begin this month, even as testing continues.
    A handful of fishermen are using the facility so far, but a long list have made their desires know, and each of them is capable of bringing in thousands of pounds of fish in a day. A single carp can weigh up to 100 pounds, though most of the ones spotted during a recent visit were in the 5- to 10-pound range.
    “The word is spreading. We are very confident now the fishermen are interested and happy and will be getting paid for their fish (10 cents a pound),” Allen said.
    When pulling up their nets, most local fishermen are catching more carp than they are edible fish, like catfish and buffalo.
    American Heartland’s primary customer list is short, with most of the product processed thus far being sold to Scoular International, which has a large warehouse in St. Louis.
    Eventually, the Grafton plant will get both United States Department of Agriculture and EU certification, which will allow for national and international sales of products, Allen said, adding that the company has been slow to go after too much business before going fully operational.
    Mosley says the future is bright for the Grafton facility, with the nucleus that’s in place. For example, he said, partners might want to add to the plant to make pet treats. Or “enhance” the materials during the process to come up with new products.
    “There’s a lot of opportunity here. We have some really good ideas, and fortunately being connected with a university we’re tied in with a lot of smart guys who can help us develop some of this stuff,” he said.

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