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 fame.
“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 this facility.”
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 product.
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 information.
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 others.”
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.
Family Chores
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 official cheese.
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 cheese.