A Cut Above
by James Dudlicek
Sargento’s Plymouth, Wis., plant turns
ordinary cheese into extraordinary value-added products.
The street address of
Sargento Foods says it all — this is One Persnickety Place. From the
high standards used to select only the finest natural cheeses to the
innovative processes used to transform them into a multitude of formats,
the folks at Sargento know exactly how they want things done.
They may be a little more guarded than most about just
what details of their operation they want to reveal, but who wouldn’t
be, with better than a half century of innovation and success in their
corner, and primed for more.
The 550 employees at Sargento’s main facility in
Plymouth, Wis., work around the clock five days a week (six if needed) on
staggered production and sanitation shifts. And as management never fails
to mention, the passion of this extended Sargento Foods family is cheese.
Grading to Grating
Those not closely associated with Sargento might be
surprised to learn that the company doesn’t actually make its own
cheese, but it’s what Sargento does with it that is its claim to
“We have the ability to find the best suppliers
who make it the way we want it,” says plant manager Bill Bartnik.
“To make 80 different cheese types ourselves the way we want it would
be next to impossible.”
Sargento gets most of its natural cheese from
suppliers within the state of Wisconsin, but does procure some from other
areas of the country as needed. “Many of our specifications are
tighter than the standards of identity for cheese,” notes Barbara
Gannon, vice president of corporate and marketing communications.
The receiving area at the Plymouth plant, where bulk
cheese and other ingredients arrive daily, is home to the grading room,
staffed by three state-certified graders with more than 80 years of
combined experience. “They check product — taste it, smell
it,” explains Lee McCollum, vice president of manufacturing.
“Everything could be right from a standard of identity and not be
what we’re looking for.”
McCollum declines to reveal just how much cheese
Sargento receives each day. But knowing the company’s broad spectrum
of products and its national reach, suffice it to say it’s “a
lot,” he says.
The graders’ work begins soon after the cheese
arrives. First, they check for any off odors when the pallets are
unwrapped. Temperature of the block is taken with a digital probe
thermometer. Then, using a tool that’s sanitized on the spot with a
propane torch, graders take a core sample of the cheese. The sample is
sniffed, bent, twisted, tasted and judged on general appearance.
“We want it to break at the right time so
it’s sliceable and shreddable,” Bartnik says of the samples.
Cheese arrives at the plant in various quantities,
including 40-pound blocks and Swiss logs, with multiple varieties often
coming from each supplier. But most cheese tends to arrive as 640-pound
blocks, known as 640s. So called because they’re supposed to be the
equivalent of 16 40-pound blocks, Bartnik explains, many 640s actually
weigh closer to 690 pounds. The exact quantity ordered “depends
on how we want to use it,” he says.
From the receiving area, blocks of cheese are moved to
the cooler, where it doesn’t stay long. “When we bring cheese
here, we plan to use it,” Bartnik says. “We don’t age at
Some shipments of cheese come wrapped in plastic,
while others are delivered in wooden crates. Those in crates usually come
from suppliers in California, Bartnik says, because they need the added
protection for their cross-country rail journey.
Computer-generated work orders include data for each
job, clearly outlining what cheese from which shipment is destined to
become Sargento-branded slices, shreds or shapes.
Slicing and Dicing
Brought from the cooler to the cutting floor, giant
blocks of cheese begin the next phase of their journey on the 640 cutter. A
plant operator hoists the huge blocks with a crane onto the cutter.
Each new block entering the cutter pushes the previous
ones through to complete the cutting process, ensuring that human hands
never come in contact with the cutting wires. The blocks are cut to various
sizes as needed with a variety of wire harps.
Meanwhile, smaller quantities such as 40-pound blocks
and Swiss logs are cut on other machines to sizes that make them easier to
handle when being converted from bulk cheese to value-added finished
For example, Swiss cheese is cut to size and sent up a
conveyor to the slicer. Each batch is sliced differently depending on
whether the end use is retail sales, foodservice or other purpose.
The logs of cheese enter slicer in pairs. The conveyor
rises at a steep angle to feed the logs down through the cutting blades.
Cheese emerges on the other side as stacks of slices.
The stacks pass over a checkweigher and are diverted
into four rows; three rows are for product staging, while the fourth is for
stacks that don’t pass the weight check. A line operator increases or
decreases the number of slices as needed and sends the adjusted stacks back
to the line.
Stacks then move in a single line to be wrapped. The
stacked cheese moves onto a sheet of plastic packaging stock, which is
sealed around each stack and cut apart into individual packages.
Completed packages are taken from the line at random
for a water test, Bartnik says, in which they’re placed into a tank
of water to check for leaks due to improper sealing.
Other slices are packaged in flat pouches with
zippered closures, which Sargento pioneered for cheese products. The pouch
material and zip-closure stock are separate components that are put
together on the line during the packaging process.
All finished sliced cheese goes through a metal
detector before it’s robotically packed in cardboard boxes, which are
sealed and imprinted with the date, batch number and other tracking
Evidence of Shreds
Among Sargento’s vast offerings is a broad
selection of shredded cheese, in a multitude of varieties, blends and
consistencies. Among the latest offerings made here are a blend of
mozzarella and provolone, as well as Bistro Blends, which combine cheeses
with herbs and seasonings.
On a typical shredding line, blocks of cheese are fed
into a cutter that creates smaller blocks and cubes for ease of shredding.
The downsized chunks travel up a conveyor belt and down through a hopper
into the shredders.
Exiting the shredder, the cheese is dusted with an
anti-caking agent before moving into a cylinder that tosses the mix for a
more even distribution. The cheese then moves along another conveyor to be
filled into retail pouches or bulk boxes.
McCollum explains that shredded cheese blends are
created in simple proportions for ease of production. “Some cheeses
have so much flavor they’re overwhelming,” he says. “Some
blends are 50 percent one cheese and 25 percent each of two
Different cheeses for blended products are cut
simultaneously and are tossed together in a tumbler for even mixing.
Finished shreds travel up to a multi-compartmented
weighing filler that’s programmed to open hoppers based on packaging
need into pouches or boxes below.
Demonstrating manufacturing versatility, all lines can
run various grades of shredded and cubed cheeses depending on the type of
portable equipment set up at the head end, McCollum says.
Packaged shreds move into the next room, through a
metal detector and are hand-packed into boxes. Bartnik says most of the
shredded lines have human packers; the sliced-cheese lines can move faster
so robot packers work better on them.
Cases of shredded cheese move past an inkjet printer
for coding and tracking info before heading off, with all other finished
product at the plant, to the warehouse to await shipment across the country
in Sargento’s own trucks or by contract haulers.
“Everything’s computerized, so when they
put it in a rack, they can find it again,” McCollum says.
“It’s first in, first out.”
Quality and Safety
A company as persnickety about how its products are
created as Sargento is just as demanding when it comes to the quality of
what it makes and the safety of the people who make it.
Sargento employs a supplier certification program and
has an internal auditing process covering three key areas: product audits
(including finished goods, incoming materials and ingredient declarations),
process audits (such as SOP, GMP and HACCP prerequisites) and systems
audits (for HACCP and laboratory quality).
The company’s pathogen prevention and control
program assures finished product wholesomeness throughout the supply chain,
Gannon says. “It begins with our supplier selection and qualification
process, and continues with programs we have in place for safe delivery and
storage of materials,” she says. “Internally we have
implemented a variety of programs to assure safety. These include
environmental monitoring, equipment monitoring, temperature control, GMP
audits and HACCP.
Because the safety and health of each employee is of
great importance and concern, Sargento encourages and maintains safe work
attitudes and conditions in a number of ways, Gannon notes. The
company has a Safety and Health Policy Statement, and is pro-active in
pursuit of a safe work environment.
“There are five sets of responsibilities in
relation to every employee’s safety at Sargento,” Gannon says.
“The five sets of responsibilities apply to the safety committee, the
safety and technical training coordinator, management, supervisors and,
last but not least, the individual employee.”
Proactive in pursuit of a safe work environment,
Sargento has an active safety awareness campaign that has resulted in a
number of ergonomic improvements at the company’s manufacturing
facilities in Plymouth, Kiel and Hilbert.
For example, at the Hilbert plant, the installation of
column dumpers has eliminated the strain of lifting cheese over the
employee’s head. Additionally, the use of solid shortening has been
replaced with liquid shortening to eliminate a fall risk factor, and
automated labelers have eliminated repetitive wrist motions.
Furthermore, Sargento has written programs in place
covering numerous areas of employee and food safety, including the
following: biosecurity, confined-space entry, electrical safety, fall
prevention, fire safety program, first aid responders, hazard
communication, Hazwopper (ammonia training and response), hearing
conservation, personal protective equipment and respiratory protection.
Plus, an emergency action plan covers areas including
fire, chemical release, severe weather, bomb threat, medical emergencies
and power outages.
In all, Sargento has gone to great lengths to make its
manufacturing operations a desirable place to work. Beyond the
company’s concern for safety and wellness, some creature comforts are
addressed as well.
A large, bright employee lunchroom offers a
comfortable break area stocked with Sargento products. Plus, each of the
company’s manufacturing facilities features a company store, where
employees can purchase not only Sargento food products, but sausages and
other regional treats, as well as company souvenirs including the renowned
cheese-wedge hat so popular with fans at Lambeau Field for Green Bay
Packers games — appropriate, since Sargento is the stadium’s
And Packers fans certainly have their choice from the
wide variety of products made at the Plymouth plant, where a modern and
efficient operation is reflective of this family’s passion for
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