Fage USA’s Johnstown, N.Y., plant is equipped with all the bells and whistles to stay ahead of the game.


Marina Mayer  Executive Editor

For years, yogurt has been marketed as the mainstay companion to a healthy breakfast. Pair it with fruit, oatmeal or a heartier dish such as eggs and consumers are sure to stick to their diets. But some recent ingredient and equipment innovations have enabled shoppers to turn to yogurt as more than just a lower-calorie treat.

That’s why the folks at Fage USA Dairy Industry, Inc., a subsidiary of Fage (pronounced fa-yeh), based in Greece, built their 145,000-square-foot Johnstown, N.Y., plant, which has since been upgraded to withstand the ever-changing demands of Greek yogurt lovers.

The plant, which became operational in April 2008, produces 85,000 tons, or 187.4 million pounds, of yogurt a year, and consists of four current filling lines, which are supported by corrugated material packaging and palletizing machinery, according to Bernard McConaghy, production manager.

What’s truly unique about this plant is the absence of manual operation (except for the uncartoning of cups and trays, maintenance and some material handling), McConaghy says. From the time hormone-free milk arrives in tank trucks to the time finished yogurt is put in refrigerated storage, product is rarely visible to the human eye.

Farms and cooperatives in the Northeast supply Fage’s milk, which comes in by trucks via an enclosed bay with three receiving lines. After lab operators test the incoming milk on-site for bacteria, pH, solids, color and odors, it’s automatically pumped to one of the multiple milk storage silos. Flowmeters verify volumetric and weight information obtained from the truck weigh scales.

Raw milk is then separated into skim milk and cream, and then pasteurized in dedicated HTST pasteurizers. The skim milk is directly added to an incubation tank, which is dosed with culture to produce yogurt curd with whey. The curd is separated from whey and then stored in a sterile holding tank, where it is blended with cream and then sent to the filling machines.

After filling, packaging lines (consisting of tray lid applicators, integrated x-ray foreign object detectors and tray counters/labelers) complete the labeling and packaging tasks, thus handing off product to a robotics handling and palletizing system.

Once palletized, two floor-guided shuttles and one automated cooling tunnel provide conveyance into a high-density automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) in the refrigerated warehouse.

“We basically are a paperless plant,” says McConaghy. “Certainly we have documentation that we use and rely on that is paper-based, but all the critical plant information is electronic-based. The interconnection of all these systems is critical to the plant operating well. It enables us to capture all pertinent data and to rely on that data to optimize plant operations.”

The plant also is home to more than 400,000 gallons of unpasteurized milk storage, more than 19,000 gallons of pasteurized cream storage and 10,000 pallets of finished goods.

Staying on target

Within the past six months, Fage introduced five non-fat product SKUs to the marketplace. To accommodate the ability to increase productivity, McConaghy says, Fage has made several equipment expansions, including milk reception and storage, pasteurization, separation and cup production.

“Production demand has doubled in the past year,” he adds. “Employee headcount has gone up about 50%, the production capacity has increased with additional milk, cream and incubation tank processing. Additionally, a fifth packaging line is planned for installation during the summer of 2011. These changes have enabled a significant increase in production output to 85,000 tons of yogurt annually,” he says.

Product consistency, McConaghy says, is a result of the combination of culture, pasteurization process and the separating process. “We separate a large majority of the whey we obtain after the fermentation process. It takes approximately four pounds of milk to produce one pound of yogurt,” he adds.

Fage also performs critical monitoring of the product from reception (typically 15-20 tank trucks of milk per day) through fermentation. “We don’t necessarily validate process data for regulatory compliance issues; we monitor analytical process data to ensure there are no surprises - a fermentation batch does not behave as expected,” McConaghy explains.

The plant runs primarily on distributed control systems, which not only control the process, but also control the plant’s automated clean-in-place systems. The control room monitors every process detail, allowing operators to watch pumps, speeds, valves, pressures, flow, level and more in real time. Depending on the product, a batch process can take anywhere from several hours to a few shifts. Analytical instrumentation also provides the operators and control system with vital information on process variables. Lab staff then collect and analyze samples off the control room on a regular basis.

The control room also provides access to a building management system that monitors the central plant utilities, HVAC equipment, boilers, chillers and the perimeter monitoring system, which includes 40 cameras mounted in strategic areas of the plant and controlled gates.

Additionally, all items produced by Fage are made to order. “This is projected over several months and is converted into real orders that provide product to retailers three weeks after an order is placed,” McConaghy adds. “Fage uses the freshest materials and highest quality manufacturing standards. No preservatives are used, so this process ensures Fage product is received by retailers with at least 28 days to expiration.”

Aiming for the top

Because Fage is committed to providing products that it would only serve its families, the U.S. plant follows Good Manufacturing Practices, maintains an exemplary record in quality system audits and in February, scored a 99% achievement rating for HACCP compliance. The plant is also regularly audited by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets for compliance to the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO).

“Fage challenges its suppliers to deliver high-quality, on-time materials,” says McConaghy. “Changes in suppliers are triggered by enhanced quality requirements and capacity requirements. As Fage production demands have increased, the need for additional high-quality supplier services has also. Supplier performance is constantly evaluated.”

Fage also places a strong emphasis on safety training. That’s why it conducts continuous and ongoing safety programs that are driven by the plant safety committee. “Fage has a unique manufacturing system that has created a superior quality product,” McConaghy adds. “As a result, increased demand for this product has spawned greater competition in the Greek yogurt market.”

Regardless of the ever-changing demands from consumers, Fage keeps its eye on the target and continues to fire out quality, authentic products.  

Editor’s Note: Parts of this article were written and published in the December 2009 issue of Food Engineering, a sister publication of Dairy Foods.

AT a glance

Fage USA Dairy Industry, Inc.

Location: Johnstown, N.Y.

Interstate Milk Shipper Plant: No. 0129

Interstate Milk Shipper Ratings (April 1, 2011): Raw milk 90%, Enforcement rating 97%

Year Opened: April 2008

Size: 145,000 square feet

Employees: More than 170

Products: Greek yogurt

Processing capacity: Four current filling lines help produce 85,000 tons, or 187.4 million pounds, of yogurt a year. The plant also is home to more than 400,000 gallons of unpasteurized milk storage, more than 19,000 gallons of pasteurized cream storage and 10,000 pallets of finished goods.

Packaging: Four packaging lines; a fifth is planned for installation during the summer of 2011.