In the House
by James Dudlicek
Modesto plant improvements give Foster Farms Dairy greater control over more of its product line.
Foster Farms Dairy has been a full-line processor for many years, offering its own brand of ice cream and various cultured products in addition to the fluid milk and butter made at its plants in Modesto and Fresno, Calif.
But the last five years have brought significant changes to the company’s Kansas Avenue plant in Modesto that allow in-house manufacturing of practically its entire line. Fluid milk, butter, ice cream, cottage cheese, sour cream — just about everything except yogurt is made under Foster Farms Dairy’s own roof.
Of course, since the improvements are recent, they include top-of-the-line equipment.
“The cottage cheese and ice cream operations use high-tech filling machines,” explains plant operations manager Larry Diggory. “We also went with tamper-evidence on all our packaging. We started with CO2 to extend our shelf life for our cottage cheese. In the ice cream department, we went with high-tech machines in pints and added a scround machine. We’re also doing our own 3-gallon and 5-quart containers in house; we used to do that outside. We upgraded all the computer systems. We just got done doing the drying and butter operation.”
Computer control of the processing systems allow recipes to be measured by product name or SKU rather than complex numeric formulas. With a product entered, the system measures all the ingredients needed and the blend rate.
“For ice cream, the fruit feeder and mixer are tied in with the freezer, so if they slow down or speed up, you’re still putting just the right amount of variegates in the product,” Diggory says. “We also went to a spiral freezer, versus the tray hardener. It gives us a better freeze on our product. Everything we run goes through there; before, we only quick-froze our half gallons.”
Beyond the advantage of closer control over the processes, the plant improvements are part of Foster Farms Dairy’s overall goal of increasing efficiency to keep costs in check. “Everything we’ve done is to improve efficiency, quality and cost — and flexibility,” Diggory says. “We have more flexibility to run our own pints, quarts and scrounds.”
Pressed to pick the plant’s most significant improvement, Diggory names the ice cream freezers and the cottage cheese operation. “It makes a more consistent cheese,” he says of the latter. “It’s night and day from what it was.”
That would also be an accurate description of the changes made at the Kansas Avenue site since Foster Farms Dairy purchased the former Knudsen facility in the early 1990s. Land was also acquired to expand the site.
“I don’t think there’s anything remaining from that plant,” says Dan Conrad, director of ice cream and new business opportunities. “Everything has been replaced or upgraded since it was acquired.”
A Plus B
Raw milk arrives at the plant’s main receiving area around the clock, seven days a week. Some of the 60 tanker trucks received each day originate at the company’s own farms; some 5,500 cows at six dairies provide about 10 percent of Foster Farms’ total volume.
The company has contracts with cooperatives in the Central Valley for the rest, with 25 shippers on call. “You talk about quality of product — the dairies are no more than 25 minutes from the plant, so you’re getting the freshest product possible, instead of having to truck it two hours to the Bay,” says company president Jeff Foster.
In fact, most drivers have only a 45-minute round trip from farm to plant with each load of milk. All milk comes from cows untreated with artificial growth hormones.
That steady flow is essential to maintain the plant’s output. The drying and evaporating operation runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week; butter runs four days, fluid 4 1/2 days, cottage cheese five days and ice cream four days (longer in peak season).
Trucks remain until milk passes lab testing before offloading. To ensure safety and security, drivers are not allowed inside manufacturing areas of the plant.
The plant is divided into two parts: the “A side,” for fluid milk and products requiring fluid raw material; and the “B side,” for dried and powder products. The A side has 150,000 gallons of raw storage, with 500,000 gallons on the B side, plus 100,000 for condensed milk and 125,000 for cream. Each side has its own HTST pasteurization system.
The evaporating and drying operation handles 10,000 gallons of milk per hour. Employees must ascend the spiral staircase to the top of the 99-foot drying tower once every hour to take samples for testing, notes Mike Zanos, drying plant manager.
Extra sanitation measures are employed on the powder-bagging line. Bags are short-filled until they’re weighed, then topped off at the scale and sealed. The plant produces 50- and 55-pound bags and 2,000-pound totes of nonfat, whole and buttermilk powder.
From the B side, only condensed milk and cream are actually used on site for other products. “What’s unique about this plant is it’s really self-contained,” Diggory says. “Many other plants rely on outside supplies of condensed and cream. We can control our prices that way.”
Lines Galore
All recipes start in the computerized control room. Everything from ice cream to cottage cheese is programmed by name, not by the tanks from which the ingredients flow. “All you’ve got to do is call it up and go,” Diggory says.
For example, blends for flavored milk or ice cream mix are created by combining the weighed ingredients and testing for butterfat and solids prior to pasteurization. The pasteurizing room features three HTST units, two for milk at 8,500 gallons each per hour, and a mix press at 5,000 gallons per hour.
While raw material is being processed for, say, fluid milk, bottles are being manufactured in the plant’s blow-molding operation. Located upstairs to allow gravity feed of bottles to the filling lines, the operation makes 7,500 gallon jugs per hour, Diggory says.
The plant fills an assortment of plastic and paperboard containers, in sizes including gallon, half gallon, quart, half pint, 10-ounce and 12-ounce. From the fillers come, among other products, 1.5 million paperboard gable-top cartons of school milk every week, along with 800,000 plastic milk bottles, from 8 ounces to gallon size.
In all, there are 10 filling lines for the various retail-oriented fluid products including juice and water, plus one line for 225-gallon totes. A lab located off the fill room conducts testing on finished products.
Meanwhile, the plant’s new pride and joy — its cottage cheese operation — gets a workout. Four vats (there’s room for three more as demand requires) each hold 5,000 gallons of skim milk, from which comes 10,500 pounds of cottage cheese.
After the cultures are through doing their thing, the whey is drained off the curd, which then goes to the “scrubbers” for cleaning and cooling, Diggory says. Then it’s on to the dressing vats, where a milk mixture (and fruit, for some varieties) is added to the required consistency. Samples are taken from the vats for testing.
Diggory explains that the temperature of the cheese at the dressing vat stage is crucial to product consistency, with 43 to 45 degrees F being optimum. A fresh container of cheese might be too soupy, but curds will have absorbed enough dressing by the time it reaches store shelves for the right consistency. “We have received first place for our cheese at all the fairs,” Diggory notes.
Finished cheese is sent to four filling lines where cups are filled in rows of four, topped with a film seal and lidded.
The plant’s butter operation produces salted and unsalted butter in 1-pound quarters, 1-pound solids and 55-pound bulk formats. Employees on the butter lines spend the fall and winter months in butter production, then pinch-hit in the ice cream department during the summer to help meet warm-weather demand for frozen treats, Diggory says.
Non-frozen finished products wind up in a warehouse that features 900 pallet spaces on a first-in/first-out rack system, all at a constant 35 degrees F.
Diggory says 80 percent of the orders assembled at the plant are custom picked. “We load out 45,000 cases in 10 hours,” he says.
Keeping It All Moving
Even with high-tech equipment, producing an extensive line of different dairy foods — of high quality and in a timely fashion — presents a challenge.
“It’s the logistics of dealing with a multitude of SKUs and product lines at a single location, and having the flexibility within our system to provide a wide breadth of products and get that out to our customers when they want it,” Foster says. “That has certainly been one of our biggest challenges. There’s only so many hours in the day.”
Among the solutions has been developing a cold-box system that will tie in with load-out and production so product can get to customers on time and in the manner they want it. “That has been one of our biggest challenges,” Foster says, “especially as we grow.”
But complexity is just the nature of the business, Conrad says. “When you walk through the plant, you see the raw product coming in today, orders coming in this morning. We’re deciding what to make,” he says. “Within 12 to 15 hours, the product’s made, it’s on a truck — 50, 60, 70 transports going out of the depot. It’s at the customer’s location within 24 hours. Just the complexity of managing that process is a huge task. The more systems and more tracking, the more sophisticated that we can get in modeling what we make, how we make it, how much we make, the better we’ll be.”
With complexity comes a need to make sure employees stay safe while executing their assigned tasks. “Safety has always been a high priority for us,” Foster says. “We want to continue to provide as safe a workplace as we possibly can. We recently hired a new corporate safety manager. She has helped us institute several different safety programs, including safety committees and safety slogans, to help us increase awareness.”
In fact, ensuring safety is on a par with improving manufacturing efficiencies, Foster says. “When any of our employees comes to work, safety is one of the first things they think about,” he says. “Secondary to that is improving efficiency and lowering cost.”
Employee training programs are being revamped to more closely parallel new safety initiatives. “Ralph [Matile, director of transportation and branch operations] has started tailgate meetings — impromptu 10-minute meetings the morning at his depot,” Foster says. “Before drivers go out on their routes, they have an opportunity to talk about safety, things to watch out for as they begin their day.”
Matile says the new safety initiatives are rooted in a genuine concern for employee welfare felt by the family-oriented management. “This company still has a family feel to it,” he says. “The caring still exists that you don’t see in larger companies.”
Safety for the food products themselves is also top of mind. “We have a HACCP program for all facilities, not only for milk but for juice,” Diggory says, noting that outside auditors review operations. “They do audits for HACCP and security. For food safety, we use as much tamper-evident packaging as we can — safety seals on the plastic bottles, a fresh cap on our paper cartons. Facility-wise, we have 24-hour guard service, and we have put in eight cameras that focus on eight critical areas.”
Raw ingredients and finished products undergo a battery of tests. “We do butterfat and solids for every product. We do a fresh coli APC; we do 18-hour stress tests, stressing the milk at room temperature; we run a seven-day test at 45 degrees,” Diggory says. “We do a flavor test at two days past code at 45 degrees. We also test the product periodically for shelf life at 45 degrees. Everything is tested from the day it runs to the day it goes out of code.”
Suppliers are scrutinized as well. “We ask our suppliers to give us a letter of guaranty of service that they are in compliance with sanitation procedures in the pasteurized milk ordinance,” Diggory says. “In house, we do a GMP audit once a month and a general audit that includes security and cleanliness, done by various employees in every department.”
In all, Foster Farms Dairy’s Kansas Avenue plant in Modesto has come a long way in the past five years. The company continues to look for ways to streamline operations, electing to concentrate most of its initiatives here versus other locations. But efforts to improve automation will be important at any of the company’s manufacturing sites.
“We’re trying to consolidate as much as we can at this location,” Foster says. “At our Fresno location, the desire is to continue to automate, so no matter where we go or where we expand, automation is key to our success.”  
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