Life With The General (Foods), Part Two

Where else could I have worked in a food production plant and met the RCMP, a bomb squad and a police investigator … have your attention yet? Keep reading to find out more details. Phase three of my life with the General found me working in the Desserts & Beverage Laboratory, the largest of many labs within the sprawling Cobourg food plant. The picture below was the Environment Lab.

This was quite a change from working with Post cereal and Gaines pet foods. My job now was a raw material technician. This was a two person operation working two shifts, technician working the day shift was responsible for sampling all raw materials arriving at the receiving docks. Day one found the Ranger sampling a large shipment of powdered flavors, on opening a large drum of strawberry, it smelled so good, I couldn’t resist a small taste of this product … big mistake! Flavors are so concentrated that less than a pound was required to flavor a finished product production mixer (800-1800 lbs). This was sort of like swallowing a mouthful of Drano! A few Jell-o flavors test marketed for a few months were: Bubblegum, Candy Floss, Tomato Aspic, Pumpkin and Pink Lemonade. To say these products failed badly was an understatement, it was said we recalled more product than we had shipped out! LOL.

A memory of the raw material job was being recruited to travel on an overnight excursion to Ingersol to take multiple samples of powdered milk during their production run for our microbiology labs testing. Milk powder was the main and a critical ingredient used in Minute Breakfast. I think our lab manager Ray used this used this trip as a holiday for him and his family in the Holiday Inn in London. The only time I saw him while taking samples every fifteen minutes off the line was for an occasional short break. On another trip, I was assisting our microbiologist Greg doing the same job and we travelled in his new Mustang, no station wagon this time! A trip to Toronto in the company wagon to experience the gelatin process at the Canada Packers plant was an experience. I had never travelled in the big city and after getting lost several times, management must have wondered why the excursion put so many miles on the car! A trip later was an invitation to the Dyeco plant in Kingston to acquire knowledge of food color production. This trip was with my supervisor Lawrence. Most of this day was spent exploring sports equipment outlets.

The afternoon tech’s job was to perform all raw material testing analysis to confirm they met specifications by suppliers. This was a great great shift (accept Friday evenings) which was negated somewhat by the fact you would start at 12:30 pm and leave early. The two techs, Sue and myself would then then visit an off-site warehouse across town to sample raw material there. A job benefit, we would have a nice lunch at the Northum Restaurant and on the way out pick up free magazines from a local magazine distributer’s bins of unsold product (lots of crossword and car magazines for slow times at work). Sue detested the afternoon shift and I didn’t care for the day shi*…I mean shift, so I often worked her afternoon shift, we were both happy! This was about the time of another job performance review, my supervisor Lidianne nailed it: “Rather shy, less productive in group endeavors, works best alone”. I always admired this lady. At one time I asked her why she always came to me for extra duties instead of the new tech on my job, Al. Seemed she was picking on the Rebel (now the Ranger). This is where I learned “you go to the person you know will complete the assignment asked”. Later because of the new tech Al (Perv), the nickname I can’t go into here, I can only say this is the first time I was ever summoned to the main office as a witness in regards to a serious police criminal investigation of a coworker that shook the County to it’s core! The picture below was the Cool Whip building.

Raw Material analysis involved working with many hazardous chemicals like chromic, sulfuric, and hydrochloric acids and acetone. The most dangerous by far was Ether! Anyone older than fifty may remember (I certainly do!) the hospital anesthesiologist placing a cloth of it over my face to knock you out for an operation. Ether is defined as “a pleasant smelling liquid that is highly flammable as an industrial solvent” Pleasant smelling?…on what planet? We actually had to boil this stuff on a fat extraction unit, inside a fume hood! Some years after my term in chemical testing, a single can of Ether was discovered during lab renovations. This prompted the evacuation of the lab while the Bomb Squad very carefully removed it. It said that this ageing can of Ether could have blown up the entire lab! Another time, the Ranger was cleaning the lab “Still” that was used for distilling water used in all testing. Of course I cracked the bowl and damaged the condenser. By this time you might have thought that I had learned “it takes less time to do things right then to explain why you did it wrong” but I did get to meet the RCMP who had to be called in with a big hammer to witness my complete destruction of the condenser. How many times do you get to commit an act of vandalism on orders from the law? Management: “With the money we save by shutting down Quality Control, we can make some spectacular apologies” I say: being a Quality Control Technician taught me patience and a lot of swear words”

A few years later I had bid on a day shift job in the Jell-o lab to replace a retiring gal, Betty. This lady was an expert on all things gelatin and starch, large shoes to fill! A question often asked, “why is a box of Jell-o always substantially larger than the contents within? …you need to allow for wiggle room! Some other original technicians in the “main lab” at this time were Centa, the flour ace for Swans Down Cake Mix and LaFrance Bluing Laundry Powder, Ross (Mr. Certo) expert and Greg and John, Microbiologists. It was here that I was the first to volunteer to become an Allergen Inspector. This extra duty required Allergy Training to seek out any allergens that might have been missed by cleaning crews of mixers and holding tanks for all production with any allergens in them before they could be used for non- allergen products. Some Shake N’ Bake (sesame seeds and soy) and Instant Puddings (pecans and pistachios) and any others that could literally cause sickness or even death to any consumers with allergies unknowingly ingesting them. A high risk job, but we were free from lawsuits only if we did our job to the best of our ability and kept immaculate records of such. Like mixer ‘lock-outs’ so no operator could mix any product until QC, the only ones with a key, was satisfied the mixer was clean and all product tote bins were posted with a large red “HOLD” only to be removed by QC.

The D&B lab had a couple of unusual traditions, one was any birthday person had to supply donuts from Tim’s for all. Does that sound fair? Another was our annual potluck Christmas lunch, everyone brought their favorite which we shared with the other lab personnel and created many great memories. Even today after the plant has shut down, a few of us get together a few times a year for a ‘lab lunch’ and reminisce about the ‘good old days’ and catch up on the gossip of today. In the 1970’s decade I had the privilege of meeting and working with our ‘blind taste panel’ hired through the CNIB for flavor evaluations of incoming and and finished product flavors. This was a great opportunity to witness a six hour commercial shoot, shot on location in the General’s lab for a sixty second TV commercial for the CNIB. (See post: Blind Friends)

Another ‘tasteful’ job was a short stint here and there in the Cool Whip department. This was a very simple job requiring a regular collection of Cool Whip from the line to check for proper viscosity and taste, monitoring the ‘tower freezer’ for temperature etc. when Cool Whip production was slow Jell-o Pudding Pops (frozen pudding on a stick) were produced here for a short time. A job here and there in the Microbiology Lab was rather like going back to high school again. I was bored to death preparing samples, plating them, and a few days later counting the growing bacteria colonies. The same feeling was felt during cross-training in the Packaging Lab, sampling many cardboard containers from the warehouse, recording their thickness, color reproduction and the mind boggling Slip Test…cutting a small sample, placing a heavy metal block on it and recording the seconds it took to slide down a small stainless steel ramp! Testing was to ensure proper performance on high speed packaging lines. Another task here (almost as boring but I really a got a bang out of it) was inflating a specified number of Shake’n’Bake plastic shaker bags on a machine that registered the air pressure before the bag seam burst. This job did get me an opportunity to visit a cardboard production plant to learn of the amazing things that can me accomplished with this product. The picture below shows the Microbiology lab.

Retirement in 2005, divorce in 2010, anyone see the connection here? There were many highlights of working for the General. After working there for one year you had the option to join a retirement plan. This seemed like a long way in the future when you could use the money now. Thank goodness I made the right decision here! The establishment of an in-house Credit Union with weekly deductions and the ability to arrange a loan on your coffee break was another convenience. Speaking of coffee, we never had to pay for one thanks to a sister plant, Maxwell House in Montreal and taste testing General Foods International Coffee (GFIC), my favorite Irish Cream. Back in the day, two of these GFIC’s actually contained a miniscule amount of real liquor. After measuring a few mils into a dry powdered ‘premix’ to go into an 1800 pound production mixer, only one tech was authorized to do this job and when the bottles were empty he would tip them upside down into a beaker overnight and we would all share a little sip for the next special occasion. Meeting a Food Scientist from our Research facility taught me an important life lesson, (and to keep my computer operational even today) “always thank someone for helping you in life, they are much more likely to reciprocate the favor”. My coworkers were more likely to snub Research personnel (Union Rules) but I usually cooperated with them and it made for several good friends. One such friend, a gal from Research and working in Quality Control is still a lifelong friend. Turns out this coworker was married to that food scientist mentioned earlier. Our readers may know him better as a great photographer, comedian and a computer ace who goes by the name of the “Bushwhacker”!

Regards, Ranger.

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