These days, there’s no such thing as making up for lost time at the Foremost Farms USA cheese and whey manufacturing facility in Appleton, Wis.
In fact, the plant is closing in on a million work hours without a lost-time accident, according to plant leaders who say they’re on target to hit that milestone later this year. “Currently we’re four years with no lost time,” plant manager Tom Blauert says, recounting the Appleton facility’s journey from a so-so to sensational safety record over the past several years.
There was a time, Blauert recalls, when “it was hard to go three months without a lost-time accident,” before the plant launched a full-scale review of its safety practices. The result was a 180-degree turn that grabbed the attention of upper management down in Baraboo.
“They recognized Appleton’s accident rate was decreasing, and they wanted to learn what we were doing specifically to improve our accident rate,” Blauert says. “It wasn’t one or two large items, but 50 or 60 small ones.”
To get the rank and file more involved, Appleton plant management created SCORE, or Safety Committee Of Responsible Employees, to call attention to major safety issues as well as the basics, like ladder inspections and hoist inspections, and making sure things like personal protection equipment is readily available.
“One big success story here is our safety glass policy,” explains Dave Veeser, production supervisor and safety coordinator. In 2002, Veeser recalls, chemical eye splashed were the leading cause of incidents, so the wearing of safety glasses was made mandatory on the plant floor. “Since April 2003, we’ve had zero incidents,” he says.
Further, the plant has improved the management of the incidents themselves, “doing a good job of investigating them right away,” Veeser says, and maintaining close contact between the employee and his or her medical and insurance providers. “We’re very hands-on with that.”
As safety conditions improved, employees at the Appleton plant began to “feed off the success,” Blauert says. “Three months [without a lost-time incident] became six, [then] our first year without lost time. We really celebrate these events. If we stay that way through the year, we’ll have a million hours.”
Run DMCA million pounds of milk pass through the plant’s seven intake bays every day, coming mostly from Foremost Farms members and supplemented with limited supplies of outside milk. Two employees run the raw receiving area on a 12-hour intake shift, unloading whole milk and condensed skim (and shipping out whey protein concentrate).
Incoming milk must pass a battery of lab tests “all done before hooking up the hose,” Blauert says. Then it’s offloaded to seven raw storage tanks totaling 2 million pounds. “All our silos are switched automatically,” Blauert says, noting that pressure sensors gauge each silo’s volume.
Computer terminals on the catwalk in the receiving area allow input of all pertinent data for tracking purposes; empty tankers are then washed and hooked back up to their tractors for a run back to the farm.
All cheese milk is standardized to low moisture/part skim, with four silos and a cooling press set up for this purpose, Blauert explains. “We use nonfat dry milk to formulate the proper ratio,” he says. “We typically use about 200,000 pounds a day. What we make today, we use tomorrow.”
Totes of NFDM, which arrive by rail, are suspended over a hopper, emptied into a blender and mixed with water. The liquid ingredients are then pumped upstairs to the cheese make room. After pasteurization, starter is added in four, 600-gallon culture tanks.
Blauert says cheesemaking runs 23 hours a day, seven days a week, starting each day at 5 a.m. The system runs automatically. “It’s very hands off,” he says.
Each of the six 31,000-pound cheese vats fills in about 25 minutes, and the plant aims to make 40 batches a day, Blauert says. From the cheese vats, the curds are pumped into the draining and matting conveyor. It takes three vats to fill the DMC, which takes about 90 minutes to make 12,000 pounds of cheese.
Strategically placed touch screens allow line operators to monitor different parts of the plant and the cheesemaking process, including times, temperatures, cooking status and flow rates.
Cheese from the DMC gets pumped downstairs, where it’s stretched and formed into blocks. Using different molds, the block former can make 6-, 10- and 20-pound blocks. Finished blocks are pushed out of the vertical molds from the top down into an enclosed brine flume. Cheese blocks are herded down the brine channel and held for eight hours.
There are 20 channels of brine flume on three levels, the lower two for block cheese and the top channel for cubes made for Appleton’s shredding operation. “We fill this whole room about twice a day,” Blauert says, noting there’s up to 90,000 pounds of cheese in the brine at any given time.
Emerging from the brine, cheese blocks are rinsed and conveyed to the bulk packaging room, where they’re shrink-wrapped, passed through a metal detector and packed in cardboard boxes for shipment.
Finished product awaits final shipment in the cold warehouse, which can hold up to 2.1 million pounds of cheese. “We also assemble products from sister plants here and ship them out. We’re getting close to being a distribution center,” Blauert says. “We try to stage rows by order.”
The shipping area, featuring two load-out bays, can be a challenge to coordinate, Blauert says. “Our employees work in tandem and partner well together,” he says.
Shreds and wheyForemost Farms added a shredding operation at the Appleton plant nearly a decade ago. “We saw an opportunity for growth and development in foodservice. Shredded cheese is about 50% of our production,” Blauert explains. “We do a direct shred. Silo to a finished bag is a five-hour process. Instead of loaves, we make very small cubes, brine it and shred it immediately.”
The cubes are held in the brine flume until they’re properly chilled, then conveyed to the shredding line. Six shredders operate three to four days a week. “Typically we feather cut,” Blauert says. “We can shred cheddars so we can do Italian and some cheddar blends.”
After anti-caking powder and mold inhibitor are added, shredded cheese is conveyed up to two 14-compartment Yamato scales. Shreds are portioned and drop into gas-flushed plastic bags, typically 5 pounds each, formed from rollstock. Bags of cheese are metal detected, cased, inkjet labeled and palletized.
Blauert says the Appleton plant produces some 200 SKUs. “We have such a multitude of products for customers,” he says. “Our packaging and scheduling people are keen to orders coming in and keep it all straight.”
Case-packing is automated on the shredding line. “When we started, we were only doing a couple days a week,” he says. “Typically six people run this department per shift.”
The Appleton plant even makes some of the renowned 1950-127 Brand, the line of white cheddar and mozzarella historically in great demand by pizza restaurants on the East Coast. It’s named for the plant that originally started making the brand, Plant 1950 in Marshfield, Wis., which now shares the honor with the Appleton facility.
In Appleton’s whey processing operation, raw whey is clarified, separated and pasteurized; the permeate is sent to a sister plant for drying.
The quality assurance lab tests samples from every vat of cheese as well as incoming raw milk. Samples of shreds, as well as block cheese, are held for pizza bakes to make sure it’s doing what the customer needs it to do. “We monitor the functionality of our cheese, in terms of stretch, browning and other customer specifications,” says QA supervisor Fred Ladenburger.
With a firm grip on employee safety, the Appleton plant maintains strict standards for food safety as well. It revolves around a HACCP team that meets quarterly.
“HACCP is an integral part of our QA program,” Ladenburger says, adding that the corporate QA manual – available online for easy access to ensure compliance – includes the company’s supplier approval process. “It makes sure COAs are consistent with our standards.”
In addition to monthly in-house GMP audits, the plant is subject to “intense” internal corporate audits, Ladenburger says, explaining they take three days to cover some 350 inspection points, from facility conditions to quality programs. Traceability is a section of the audit as well, he notes. “We go through mock recalls at least twice a year, forward and backward.”
The attention to detail on all fronts has meant success for the Appleton team. On display in the plant’s conference room is an array of cheesemaking awards from the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, World Dairy Expo, the Wisconsin State Fair, National Milk Producers Federation and other competitions. The fact that plant manager Blauert himself is a WCMA-certified master cheesemaker shows a firm grasp of the task at hand, from the top down.
Diligence on safety and quality should keep standards high. “Continuous improvement,” Ladenburger says, “is an important part of the process.”
At A GlanceForemost Farms USA
Location: Appleton, Wis.
History: Built 1940s, renovated for mozzarella production 1987, expanded 1996, shredding operation added 2000.
Size: 115,000 square feet cheese, 33,000 square feet whey.
Products made: Mozzarella and provolone cheese (block and shreds), WPC, dried permeate.
Processing capacity: 1.25 million pounds of milk daily.
Pasteurization: HTST, 79,000 pounds per hour.
Lines: Four culture tanks, six cheese make tanks, DMC, stretcher, block former; shredding line with two Yamato scales.
Storage capacity: 2 million pounds raw milk, 2.1 million pounds finished cheese.
The following companies are among Foremost Farms’ key suppliers:
Key Vibratory Equipment
Vision Packaging Systems