Take a walk through the Turlock and Plymouth Plants.

Plant 1: At Your Service

Visit most any cheese manufacturer and you’ll usually find one brand coming off the line – sometimes two, and maybe a couple of private labels.

Walk into Dairy Farmers of America’s facility in Turlock, Calif., and several dozen brands of Italian-style cheese are being made, for a lengthy list of customers that includes major national foodservice brokers and restaurant chains. The output – pushing 47 million pounds last year – reflects a change in mix of customers that DFA serves.

The plant, in the Golden State’s dairy-centric San Joaquin Valley, used to serve mostly industrial clients, customers that would purchase bulk cheese for further processing like shredding and slicing. But the often sporadic demand from such a client base kept the plant from maximizing its resources and its abilities, says plant manager Tom Baker. “It gives us a more consistent sales base,” Baker says, “and our ability to change the cheese based on what the customer wants adds value.”

Turlock still has some industrial accounts, but the increased movement toward the foodservice business “just makes sense” to maximize the investment of the company’s member-owners, says Janine Smiley, director of industry communications. “That’s where our assets come into play – our quality and our ability to serve our customers.”

Blocks of mozzarella and provolone coming out of the Turlock plant bear the labels of a colorful assortment of brands. Front and center, however, is California Gold, DFA’s “house brand” and one that’s in great demand from key national foodservice distributors, Baker says.

And it isn’t the same cheese with a dozen different labels. Every cheese is made to order, following exact customer specifications.

Professional curd to see

Being part of a huge national dairy cooperative means never being short of milk to make cheese. Tankers carrying milk from about 50 DFA member farms in the northern Central Valley arrive at the Turlock plant on an average of one per hour every day, though deliveries tend to be concentrated during business hours. The plant’s dual receiving bays take in milk 365 days a year.

Samples are taken to the lab for antibiotic, water, odor and titratable acidity tests. With a green light from the lab techs, milk is offloaded into three raw silos. “Our capacity is set, so we use our milk in 24 hours,” Baker says. “Our milk is always very fresh.”

Raw milk passes through one HTST pasteurization systems; treated milk is then separated to standardize the fat levels required for various types of cheese. The surplus pasteurized cream is sold; separated cream is heat-treated and sold.

The plant’s four cheese vats are computer controlled. Rennet is added to the milk, and the cheese-making process begins in earnest. After curds develop and the vat contents are at the proper temperature and pH, they’re pumped down to the five curd tables, where the mixture is further stirred. When the pH reaches the magic number, whey is drained off, the curd is rinsed and salt is added by hand.

“One thing we do differently from most other plants is we use curd tables. It gives us more flexibility,” Baker says. “How much salt we add depends on what the customer asks for. Everything is made to customer order. The rest [of the salt] will be absorbed in the brine tank.”

An auger moves the curd from the tables to the Johnson Nelles cooker, where the pasta filata process takes place. The stretched cheese oozes out into a hopper and is fed from the bottom into the block forms – square for mozzarella, round for provolone. Many forms are kept nearby on the plant floor to serve various production needs, including 6- and 20-pound blocks for mozzarella, and 8- and 12-pound provolone logs.

The mold units are mounted on the rotary motor chiller that Baker says was the first one made by Johnson Nelles. Cold water circulates inside the molds so the cheese firms up to its shape. Formed cheese is released from the molds and dropped into a brine flume containing 90 percent saturated saltwater brine.

Cheese blocks float down the flume and enter the multiple shelves in the brine cages. The cages are lowered into brine for six hours. Each cage rack holds 5,000 pounds of cheese, or one vat’s production, Baker says.

Emerging from its brine bath, cheese is tested for salt, moisture and pH. If the results are within customer specifications, the cheese moves on to the packaging lines. Type of packaging depends on cheese type and customer requirements. Baker says all provolone is packaged on the Cryovac line, while mozzarella is done on both the Cryovac and Multivac lines (the Multivac line was installed last December). There are different lines for various sizes, including a bulk machine that puts six 20-pound blocks in one bag. By the packaging stage, cheese is about 10 hours old.

Wrapped cheese is then packed in boxes. Baker explains the plant offers an array of configurations, again based on customers’ needs. For mozzarella, he says, the 6-pound block is the most popular size; they can be packaged in units of two, six or eight. Cheese can also be boxed in various multiples of each size, all the way up to cases of 60 20-pound blocks, a unit that exceeds a half ton. The 20-pound blocks are sold to industrial customers that further process the cheese by shredding or blending. 

Boxes are palleted, then moved to cold storage by forklift trucks. The cold box capacity is 2 million pounds, but it rarely if ever gets full. “In the 12 years I’ve been here, we’ve never filled it up. But we don’t want to fill it up,” Baker quips, stressing that rapid turnover means freshness. “We only hold our cheese for six or seven days and it’s shipped. That’s enough time to clear all the testing we do.”

The plant conducts daily tests for melting and stretching, so the aroma of fresh pizza frequently permeates the air near the lab. “We’ll do three pizza melts a day, just randomly pick cheese,” Baker says.

Samples are tested at four days for body and texture, at 14 days for melting and 30 days for texture and melting, with additional tests sometimes conducted after 45 days. Various tests are performed at each stage of the manufacturing process. “We check it every step of the way,” Baker says. “It’s critical with cheese and it’s a challenge because you’re working with live bacteria.”

As a result of such attention to the process, returns from customers are at an absolute minimum of total orders, Baker says. “We check it very thoroughly. If there’s any doubt whatsoever, we don’t send it,” he says.

Whey from the cheese-making process is pumped over to the whey plant, where it’s clarified to remove cheese fines, then separated to reclaim any fat. The resulting liquid is pasteurized, then ultrafiltered to create a 65% protein whey protein concentrate; the plant expanded its whey processing from 34% to 65% WPC a year ago. “We sell that in tanker-load quantities” as a food ingredient, Baker says.

The permeate from the ultrafiltered (deproteinized) whey goes through a reverse osmosis system, yielding 22.5% solids. Water that comes off is “polished” to create a useful, environmentally friendly byproduct. “It comes out so clean you can wash with it,” Baker explains. “We use it for all CIP in the plant. We don’t waste anything. We’re taking hardly any city water. This reduces the sewer flow.”

DFA is studying the economics of further processing its current whey stream to take advantage of the byproduct’s increasing value, Baker says. “We’re looking at ways to process it further for a better return on our investment,” he says, “process it differently to make products with more value.”

Getting it right

A lot goes into making cheese that’s in such high demand, encompassing all aspects of plant operations. One safeguard to quality is the battery of audits the plant undergoes from all corners – federal, state, corporate and customer. “The toughest we have are our own company,” Baker says. “They have very high expectations.”

Quality audits include monthly in-plant audits, annual DFA corporate audits, customer audits, third-party audits and government regulatory audits. In addition, DFA has a corporate vendor/supplier approval program.

DFA has a food-safety program that meets – or usually exceeds – any government food safety regulation or guideline. The Turlock plant starts testing and monitoring quality with milk receiving and throughout the cheese-making process. All cheese is pathogen-tested before shipment. Further, DFA has a very complete environmental testing and monitoring program.

But perhaps a better clue to quality is something more basic. “One of the keys to making our cheese so good consistently is because of our maintenance,” Baker says of the crew that keeps equipment running smoothly. “Consistency makes a better cheese.”

Maintaining that consistency has been one of the challenges the Turlock plant has successfully handled, as annual output has risen from 23 million pounds of cheese in 1996, when Baker came on the job, to more than 46 million pounds in 2007. “We make sure all of our equipment and controls are working correctly and accurately. That will keep most of the variables that affect the cultures the same from vat to vat,” he says. “We stress good cheese-making procedures and techniques. We have a stable, experienced work force.”

DFA provides that work force with training for quality, safety and good manufacturing practices. The safety program includes monthly safety inspections, monthly safety meetings, annual safety training, DFA corporate safety audits and supervisor/foreman safety observation cards. “We concentrate on recognizing and rewarding good safety behavior,” Baker says.

In fact, DFA offers an extensive award program for meeting and exceeding goals for every facet of operations. “Every month they’re measured by the goals,” Baker explains, noting that employees are issued quarterly bonuses for meeting those benchmarks. “It’s win-win for the employees and the plant.”

On February 5, the Turlock plant celebrated one year without a lost-time accident. “As the record gets better, we reward them along the way,” Baker says.

Smiley adds: “That really describes the belief that we subscribe to at DFA – don’t wait until the end of the year; we incent performance regularly. It ensures good performance through the year.”

The company also recognizes employee suggestions on a monthly basis, with more lucrative rewards presented if the suggestion is implemented and results in plant improvement. “We want to make sure that open communication is part of our culture,” Smiley says of management’s openness with employees. “We place a stronger emphasis on it because it helps the employees and they have good ideas.”

AT a glance

Dairy Farmers of America Inc.
Location: Turlock, Calif.
Year opened: 1988; cheese plant and warehouse expansion 1993, whey plant 1998.
Size: 53,000 square feet on 4.5-acre site.
Number of employees: 86 on three shifts.
Products made: Mozzarella and provolone cheese, cream, 65% WPC, 23% DPW.
Total processing capacity: 47 million pounds of cheese annually.
Pasteurization: Milk HTST, 60,000 pounds per hour; whey HTST, 70,000 pounds per hour.
Packaging lines: One Cryovac, two Multivacs, one tote bulk machine.
Storage capacity: 945,000 pounds raw milk; 2 million pounds finished cheese.

Plant 2: Plymouth Rocks

Elsie the Cow makes the rounds across the country to promote the goodness of the Borden brand, but folks in Plymouth, Wis., might say their town is where Elsie calls home. After all, it’s where Dairy Farmers of America makes its Borden cheese.

DFA’s Plymouth plant has a broad range of capabilities and produces many different types of products – shreds, chunks, snack cheeses and slices, both natural and processed – with all types offered in a variety of sizes.

Plant manager Gary Kerrigan says continuous improvements and gaining efficiencies to remain competitive is one of the facility’s primary goals.

Kerrigan’s team is working toward a 2008 budgeted production volume of more than 178 million pounds, including 120 million pounds of individually wrapped slices, processed slice on slice and block totalling nearly 10 million pounds, and shreds and chucks approaching another 50 million pounds.

DFA’s Plymouth plant cuts, wraps and shreds natural cheeses and produces individually wrapped processed cheeses including Swiss, yellow and white American and sharp cheese, all of which are produced in premium, regular, low-fat and fat-free varieties. The plant receives shipments from many of the top regional cheese manufacturers, using those ingredients to create numerous formats of processed cheese, as well as cut and shred natural cheese to be packaged for snacking, cooking and other uses.

Plymouth’s Naturals packaging department reflects the latest technology in natural cheese packaging. The chunk line utilizes a Holly portioning machine – the only one in existence – that automatically cuts a 640-pound block of cheese down to as little as an 8-ounce portion without being touched by human hands. 

Automatic film-splicing capability has been added to a natural shred line to increase efficiencies and reduce down time needed for cutting and slicing film at roll changes and changeovers. Robotic case erectors and packers are in use on all three shredded lines. 

The automatic case-packing system installed on the individually wrapped process slice line counts from 12 packages to 48-count displays. Installation of updated checkweighing equipment improves weight control and collects real-time data on giveaway.

A powder-auguring dump station and dust collections have improved the working environment for plant personnel. HVAC installations on the fourth floor and a new process cook room have further enhanced the working environment.

Projects under review for 2008 include a robotic palletizer to improve case handling, a packaging collation system to resolve ergonomic issues for slice on slice production and vision inspection systems for 100% inspection of package attributes.

Technology is utilized in every aspect of operations at Plymouth. In order to adhere to Wisconsin Department of Agriculture regulations and ensure quality products, DFA validates its processes to ensure food safety. These include automatic temperature control at the steam cookers and metered water additions. Plant processes are defined by centerline settings for repeatability and, where applicable, hard-coded recipes all the associates to select set points by name or size.

Into 2008, the Plymouth plant is expanding its continuous improvement efforts. A formal transition to lean manufacturing will allow the company to tap the talents and skills of its employees to improve current processes and define future automation.

Safe and secure

The plant’s safety slogan – Work as Links to Build a Strong Chain – defines its safety program.   “We recognize our associates are our greatest assets, and we protect that asset,” Kerrigan says. “No issue takes a greater priority than the safety of our employees.” 

New hires are not allowed on the plant floor prior to completing company safety programs. The safety aspect of training continues as part of qualification into new positions. Employee involvement includes ongoing inspections, on a daily, weekly and monthly basis; toolbox meetings; safety contacts; and safety committee membership.

“Personal involvement and great attitudes about safety keep all of us on track,” Kerrigan says.  “These programs have led to an improvement in our injury rates of about 70% over the last six years.”

Ergonomics upgrades have been a driver for a large reduction in workplace injuries. Available resources, such as an on-site physical/occupational therapist, expedites identification of strains, sprains and cumulative trauma disorders early on and allows for treatment.  The therapists also help with the redesign of work stations to help reduce the likelihood of injury. Job rotation and an active cross-training program reduce the likelihood of injury by reducing exposure to hazardous job tasks. Attention to detail in all job hazard areas allows for continuing improvement in the reduction of injuries and provides for a more productive work environment. 

The auditing programs at American Dairy Brands include the Silliker good manufacturing practices and food safety systems audit performed once per year as requested by some DFA customers. The plant is subject to regulatory inspections by WDA, USDA, FDA and the U.S. Army, along with internal audits by corporate quality assurance to ensure compliance to GMPs and food safety practices. 

Other in-house auditing programs are based on GMP and USDA guidelines, food safety concerns and requirements by customers as well as DFA. Team members from various departments such as production, maintenance, sanitation and QA conduct these self-audits. Daily GMP audits are conducted by all managers, along with a GMP/food safety audit PowerPoint presentation conducted by corporate and plant QA managers with photos taken out in the plant on non-compliance observations. “This creates greater awareness to all employees in the plant as a training tool or refresher and to provide corrective actions,” Kerrigan says.

The auditing program for suppliers is conducted by the corporate QA department. The certification program includes a vendor information packet provided to each supplier of raw ingredients, packaging materials and the like, to complete in regard to their HACCP plan, emergency contact information, letter of guarantee, third-party audits, allergen statements, material safety data sheets, each supplier’s profile, capabilities and quality assurance.

Inbound and outbound shipments are checked via a trailer inspection log for criteria including quality, temperature, cleanliness and smell. All outbound trailers must be clean and have no odors. All shipments are staged, shrink-wrapped and loaded, reefer temperatures checked and doors sealed.

The plant employs an operational risk management procedure for food security risk assessment to minimize risks of products being subjected to tampering or criminal or terrorist actions. Recall procedures are verified with mock recalls twice per year.  

“We have food-safety measures in place at American Dairy Brands where each incoming and outgoing carriers are inspected and documented,” Kerrigan explains. For every outbound load dispatched, the driver must have the order number or purchase order number and a valid driver’s license. Bulk receiving ports are locked and secured. Tanker inspections are received with each shipment on the bill of lading. All incoming ingredients and packaging materials are thoroughly inspected, with any suspect loads rejected and sent back to the vendor. All outbound trailers are sealed or locked, including all dropped trailers that are loaded on premises and moved away from shipping doors. 

The plant’s HACCP program consists of flow and hazard analysis charts for each specific product on a particular line. The analysis includes the product description, ingredient/packaging assessment, processing step evaluation, allergen assessment, ingredient/process hazard evaluation summary and critical control point description.  The plan is verified by an outside food consultant, with an annual review of the plan by the HACCP team. Members include representatives from each department – production, maintenance, sanitation and QA. An annual HACCP refresher is conducted to all employees, and the HACCP team meets every other month as part of the plan to ensure product protection and food safety.

Shelf-life testing to determine food safety and quality is done on all products for the duration of the declared shelf life in all anticipated storage conditions. In addition, samples are retained and stored from each production date and evaluated as needed.

Beyond the hurdles of safety and security, commodity market variability also presents a challenge to production at the Plymouth plant. “We are directly affected by the cheese/milk market for ingredients and cheese to produce our products, but to sell we are in competition with very large companies,” Kerrigan says. “The upside of this challenge is we are forced to work smarter. This drive has allowed us to validate our processes to run extended-run production and maintain and/or improve our product lines.”

AT a glance

Dairy Farmers of America Inc.
Location: Plymouth, Wis.
Year opened: 1954
Size: 401,600 square feet
Employees: 375
Products made: Natural and processed cheese (shreds, chunks, snack cheeses and slices) totaling 1,260 total UPCs.
Processing capacity: 300 million pounds annually.
Lines: 14, including 2-pound loaf line, one slice-on-slice line, seven single-wrap slice lines, three shred lines and one chunk line. 
Storage capacity: 128,000 square feet cooler, 37,700 square feet dry storage.