Life With The General (Foods), Part One

How well, I remember as a teenager hitch hiking north on Ontario Street in Cobourg after high school, wondering what that long low brick building was with the strange odour emanating from its roof top. A couple of years later I was actually working there. Seems like at most places, its not what you know but who you know. Only the first names of those in this post are used to protect the privacy of the innocent (and not so innocent). After a particularly snowy winter in 1965 pulling my neighbour Jacques car out of the ditch several times near Toenail Hill with my dad’s Case, I got to know him well. Seems he was the Laboratory Manager at General Foods. A year later he asked it I would be interested in a General Foods job as a quality control technician, didn’t even know what that was, but what the heck. The first day there I was given a ‘sanity’ test’, a resume to most of our readers. I had only a grade eleven education with no particular skills. I do remember one question asked, “check the box to indicate the time of day: pm versus am” Of course, I checked pm (pre-morning)as the morning and am as the evening (after morning). Wrong!

My mother was particularly proud of her youngest son when told about my new job where I wore a white coat not a ‘straight jacket’ and was salaried at $50 a week, not an hourly employee. I think she thought I was a food scientist. First day on the job, I finally found my way to the Gaines Pet Food laboratory where I had spent my orientation to lab work. Don, the senior technician looked at this stranger asking who I was, after explaining, “Oh you are supposed to be in the Cereal lab where you will be working”. Needing a professional ‘Sherpa’ guide to find this place in a massive and multi story building I started my first day of training for two weeks with a mentor, John, and finally graduated to working on my own. Starting my first week of rotating three shifts work, the 11pm to 7am (finally got the am/ pm thing right)! This was a new experience for this country boy. At breaks the crew would meet in the lunch room and gossip about the other shift crews. When asked if I was smoker, they guaranteed me I soon would be working this shift, they were right! This was a great place if you liked heat, dust, noise, humidity, Post Honey Combs, Alphabits, Bran Flakes and Minute Rice. This rather routine job consisted of hourly moisture checks, next hour reporting results on a blackboard for the operators, and collecting regular finished product samples for the Microbiology Lab and filing retention samples of each.

Some of the tasks here involved determining moisture content of process and finished products using a ‘Cenco’ heat lamp, weighing product before and after time under the lamp, the difference equaled % moisture. Granulation tests were performed on a series of interlocking screens of different mesh sizes on a ‘shaker’ and again weighing the difference of each pan for the % of each. Minute Rice was one of the more interesting jobs. Raw rice after being steamed on a continuous belt, dried and packaged, would take be prepared in the lab just as the consumer would. A sample of this was then put through a ‘shear press’ literally measuring the texture of the product. For a taste treat at lunch break we would substitute Tang from the Beverage department instead of water. Tang was developed by General Foods Research for the first manned trip to the moon!

Work at the ‘General’ as we called it was occasionally interrupted by special social times courtesy of a Recreational Club. For a few dollars a month this Club organized regular plant wide activities for occasions like Valentines, BBQ’s, sports tournaments and Christmas parties. Christmas was the one not to miss, the beach pavilion (the Pav) was rented, highlighted by a turkey and ham buffet and bar. This was a special place to all, a great meal and maybe a drink or two, live music for dancing and the winter snow blowing under the back door from the lake. Back in 1970, the Christmas party turned out to be a near disaster! A short time later many employee’s became seriously ill and were quarantined at home for a week, some more serious for months! Many like myself returned to work but were isolated from all product production areas as a precaution. I was very fortunate, cleared and soon returned to a normal work schedule. It was later identified that the turkey was the culprit and I was relieved to have eaten the baked ham but this was sadly the end of the large gatherings where food was served.

A year later, I was assigned to the Gaines Pet Food division of the General and this was the best decade of my working life. This area produced the famous Gaines Burgers and Top Choice intermediate moisture pet foods in one area and Gravy Train and Kibble dry food next door. The dog foods were made with real frozen meats like tripe, udders, tongue and liver. The raw frozen meat arrived at the loading dock in a large ‘reefer’ trailer in fifty pound boxes. If it was not completely frozen it would be rejected by the lab. One day the microbiology supervisor Barb, a bit of an Amazon lady, was assisting the Ranger inspecting the load. As I was checking the drivers papers, Barb was in the centre of that trailer, throwing those heavy boxes left and right like they were as light as a feather! I will never forget the stunned look on the drivers face! The meats were then put through a grinder in a large freezer and dropped to a cooking tank below. Mixed with other ingredients, the pet food was preserved in patties and was actually safe for human consumption, although I do know you can’t prove it by me!

Pet food production was isolated from other areas of the plant and kept cooler by air conditioning and flexible plastic doors. The first thing you’d notice here were the ‘foot baths’ (no my feet weren’t dirty). Large foam mats, soaked in sanitizers were on the floors of each entrance or exit, to prevent contamination by germs/bacteria to the rest of the plant. In fact, we were cautioned to remain in the area, only leaving when necessary. This created an atmosphere of family. We had a cafeteria with catered vending machines, a ‘new fangled thing’ called a microwave oven, change rooms, showers and lockers for our clothing. Our uniforms (no street clothes allowed in production areas) were laundered by the General. The lab tasks here were relatively routine. Moisture contents, and meat cooking temperature were absolutely critical to prevent mould and germ growth in our pet foods.

As the intermediate moisture lines ran 24 hours, 5 days a week, I actually preferred the midnight shift. With only one production foreman, the lab guys were on their own. The Friday afternoon shift was reserved for an eight hour clean up, leaving little need for a lab and we could leave a few hours early. If we could afford the lost pay. Another advantage of the midnight shift for the Ranger, it allowed some time to update my high school education. The Ontario Ministry of Education offered free correspondence courses, and if you’re at work anyway, have plenty of spare time while getting paid to be there, why not ? I also almost completed a mail order course in TV and Radio Servicing (I had to pay for this one myself). Wouldn’t you know it, this old “vacuum tube technology” was replaced by electronics, which is way beyond the average person’s skills. The first time I met the ‘comic’ Stan, a cook operator, he asked that when he yelled from behind a large mixer, could I turn on a water valve nearby. Turns out this valve had been loosened, and when I cranked it on, water gushed out like Niagara Falls. The only memory more haunting even today is that prank and his continuous singing “take the last train to Clarkesville” an early Monkees hit song and burgers flying through the air. It was all in good clean fun.

The Gaines division was eventually moved to a new building some distance away from the General to assure a complete separation from human and animal food. This plant was eventually closed leaving most of the labourers without a job.

Stay tuned for Part Two, Other Laboratory Musings.

Regards, Ranger.

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