MORE than 600 million potatoes will come through the gate at McCain Foods this year.
On some days, more than 130 million fries (or chips) will leave the site.
Just under half the commercially produced fries sold in Australia are manufactured in Ballarat, including many of those sold at some of the most recognisable quick-service restaurant chains.
McCain Ballarat site manager Gavin Lett is the man who oversees the fry factory, which can receive up to 3000 tonnes of potatoes in a day, from Ballarat, Penola and, during the early harvest period, from north of the Murray River.
“That’s during our peak time, between mid-March and mid-May. Today we are receiving between 500 and 600 tonnes,” Mr Lett said.
“There is a range of varieties. The main ones are Russet Burbank and Innovator.”
While some spuds are put into long-term storage, a proportion passes straight into the plant.
Within the walls is the whiff of cooked chips, and plenty of stainless steel machines and concrete. It is certainly a clean environment – an impression re-emphasised every time you have to wash your hands, which is each time you enter a room.
The first stage for most potatoes is the peeler. Each time 200kg of potatoes are loaded into a vessel and subjected to 20 bar of super-heated steam. There is a loud “whoosh” and the peel is simply flashed away.
The potatoes lose their skin but they still have the eyes and other marks. In the past, workers used to trim those black bits off by hand but it is now a fully mechanised process.
A conveyer belt takes the potatoes at 80km/h through a cutter and then another sensor detects any fries with impurities which are hived off for a second round of treatment. The black bits are cut off and become cattle feed.
The start of the cooking process is the blancher. The fries effectively simmer at 80 degrees in water to give them that soft texture inside.
“We are a higher water-usage plant but we have made gains,” Mr Lett said.
The beer-battered fries are made with genuine beer – Tooheys Blue Ice – which arrives in slabs of cans
“When there was the drought, we were more aware of that, so we introduced what we call ‘Oz-mode’ blanching here.
“Without giving away our secrets, we reduced our water usage. We save about 10 per cent of the volume of Lake Wendouree every year.
“We broadcast Oz-mode to the rest of the McCain world and now all our plants use it to a degree.”
The fries are then passed through a drier and then on to the fryer.
Another conveyor belt passes the fries through 12 tonnes of canola oil at 190 degrees. The oil never becomes old because it is constantly replenished during the process. Meanwhile, the burned bits are extracted and removed, along with the rest of the waste.
There are seven bagging machines in the packing room which collect and seal a variety of different products, from standard McCain fries, to those produced for fast food outlets, wedges and even beer battered fries. It takes a potato one and half hours to go in one end of the process and out the other as packaged chips.
And yes, the beer-battered fries are made with genuine beer – Tooheys Blue Ice – which arrives in slabs of cans.
“Cans are good because they come in pre-measured quantities,” Mr Lett explained. “We have very strict auditing systems, so cans never go missing.”