by Lynn Petrak
Programs to ensure quality encompass increasingly high-tech tools.
When it comes to sending dairy products out the door and ultimately into the mouths of consumers, it takes more than just some faith and finger crossing that the items are the best possible quality. Any number of defects — harmful microbes, shards of metal or incorrect chemical composition — can mean the difference between satisfied, returning customers and losses or lawsuits.
A standard dictionary may not have a working definition of the term, but in most manufacturing circles, quality assurance means certain steps are taken to ensure a company’s goods or services are of sufficiently high quality. Those concrete actions, which involve extensive planning and a fair investment in various tools and techniques, are standard business practice today.
In the dairy industry, quality assurance is taken seriously by global dairy corporations and small processors alike.
There are dozens of validation, tracking and testing tools designed for dairy products, including tests for physical, chemical and microbiological contents. Quality-assurance programs can fall under various umbrellas within an operation and are considered part of many people’s responsibilities.
Over the past several years, dairy processors have demonstrated a willingness to go to great lengths to ensure product integrity, consistency and safety through formal quality-assurance programs. Suppliers of diagnostic equipment and services have noted the increased interest. “Before, it was really a sales job to convince them they needed it. Now that it has become more the norm, people are realizing the value proposition and that it is really a way of protecting your brand,” says Viggo Nielsen, president of Tampa, Fla.-based Safeline Metal Detection.
Quality-assurance specialists underscore the fact that dairy processors have focused on this issue, even as they face a host of other demands. “The dairy industry must strike a difficult balance between fulfilling HACCP (hazard analysis critical control point) and regulatory compliance, assuring product quality and nutritional integrity and consumer expectations, and meeting fiscal and budgetary requirements,” says Gerard Ruth, vice president of sales for Lawrence, Mass.-based Charm Sciences Inc., which offers a broad range of diagnostic tests for antibiotics, aflatoxins, somatic cells, and pasteurization and hygiene validation.
Others agree dairy manufacturers are distinctive in how — and by how many — their products are controlled. “Compared to most other food industries, the dairy industry is heavily regulated by city, state and federal agencies,” says Ken Micciche, director of marketing for Advanced Instruments Inc., Norwood, Mass., a comprehensive diagnostic testing supplier.
Adds Steven Nason, who works in business development for hygiene monitoring and microbiological testing company Hygiena in Camarillo, Calif.: “Dairy operators have to comply with federal and state legislation as well as industry codes of practice that recommend good manufacturing practices, sanitation SOP (standard operating procedures) and HACCP.”
Meanwhile, change has also come from within, as dairies continue the acquisitions and mergers trend and as product lines become more diverse. “With consolidation going on in the dairy industry, more big companies own more of the processing plants. The need for them to get data from their plants to a centralized location is critical to be able to report on quality,” says Scott Scdoris, manager of national dairy business for Chicago-based Celsis International plc, which supplies rapid-diagnostic products and laboratory services.
Micciche agrees that quality-assurance programs are often retooled as consolidations change the landscape. “As the industry has consolidated, the companies have typically become larger and as a result have established quality programs and protocols. They seem to standardize on equipment once they have proven its value to their operations,” he says.
QA on the QT
For dairy products, quality assurance begins right with the cow. Hygiena, for instance, offers SpotCheck Plus hygiene tests for use by producers on the farm. Likewise, Charm Sciences offers tools for several points along the food chain. “Our customer base starts with the farmer, the farmstead operation and the pump over stations,” Ruth says, “and ends with the manufacturing plants that receive raw milk and further process, or receive fractionated dairy products and ingredients and further process.”
Within a dairy-processing environment, quality-assurance tools are used to gauge a product’s physical, chemical and microbiological characteristics. On the physical side, there are many measures that can help processors ensure quality and consistency.
Scales and checkweighers, for example, are increasingly sophisticated as quality-assurance programs continue to expand. To complement its existing line of electronic balances, digital scales, weighing indictors and viscometers, Milpitas, Calif.-based A&D Weighing recently introduced a new Ninja® Digital Scale line, a lightweight, low-profile design featuring the latest in calibration function, multiple weighing units, and a large LCD display, among other attributes. Also this spring, A&D unveiled a new line of Bluetooth® balances, scales and indicators that allow users to eliminate the cables required when communicating weighing to nearby computers.
Another component of physical testing tied to quality assurance is the detection of foreign objects. Safeline offers several tools for solid contaminant detection, including metal detectors and X-ray equipment. “We are seeing a trend for dairy companies to have metal detectors on all lines, except for fluid,” Nielsen reports, adding that the move has come in part due to demands from retail and foodservice customers. More X-ray machines have been added as well, he says, to detect non-metal objects like glass or even PVC plastic pieces.
As far as improvements go, changes in metal detection and X-ray technology have focused on enhanced sensitivity as well as reliability, according to Nielsen. “We are spending significant time and effort to make sure the metal detectors we supply have a 100 percent up-time. It is not acceptable that a metal detector can shut down a $2 million production line,” he explains, adding that X-ray technology has also become easier to use for plant operators. “In the past, customers had to receive significant training in this technology, but today the system software is much more intuitive and easier to run and operate.”
In addition to physical testing, chemical and microbiological assessments that include instruments and services for both sanitation and validation purposes are core to many quality assurance programs. Again, there are a variety of methods and accompanying tools that can be used in a dairy plant.
Such systems have a range of applications, from checking raw materials to evaluating work surfaces to monitoring support systems. Hygiena, for instance, offers a Pi 102 luminometer used for biomass detection in water supplies.
Pasteurization verification is another major step in quality assurance. Charm Sciences offers a PasLite test for pasteurization verification. “PasLite’s sensitivity advantage provides an early warning indicator of potential problems, like leaky gaskets or cross connections, tiny cracks or pinholes in stainless steel plates, when deviations beyond critical limits occur,” Ruth says. “This is in keeping with the HACCP premise that it is far less costly to anticipate and prevent quality problems than to react after problems appear.”
Because the detection of harmful pathogens is critical to safety, detection measures are built in to many quality assurance systems. For its part, Celsis supplies Adenosine TriPhosphate (ATP) bioluminescence-based testing to find the absence/presence of microorganisms. Last year, the company introduced a new Innovate system to detect microbial contamination in ultra heat treated (UHT) and extended shelf life products. “It is a completely new software and reagent system for us,” Scdoris says, adding that the exceptionally fast system has great potential in the dairy sector. “The dairy industry does a huge amount of testing compared to other industries and has a great amount of data.”
In addition to speed and accuracy, Scdoris says customers are looking for integrated databases. “With changes in the food industry, as far as being mandated to provide instant traceability, this system makes it very easy to pull up results from micro-testing,” he says. According to Scdoris, a user can export information from the database into a format that can be immediately emailed to someone within the organization.
Another company that has improved microbiological tools is Chaska, Minn.-based Bentley Instruments Inc., which provides instruments for rapid and accurate analysis of butterfat, protein, lactose and solids, along with somatic cell counters and bacteria counters. “Our most recent product is a semiautomatic bacteria counter, the BactoCount-M,” says company president Bent Lyder. “It is an instrument which in less than ten minutes will determine the total bacteria count in a milk sample.”
Although there has been a major industry focus on microbes, allergens have been an emerging issue for dairy companies as well. Adding to its stable of tools, Charm Sciences recently introduced a new highly sensitive ATP hygiene test called AllerGiene®. According to Ruth, the test provides results in 30 seconds and is used in pre-operational surface monitoring to check for major food allergens of concern to the dairy industry.
“The AllerGiene test, as with all Charm ATP tests, is measured on Charm luminometers including the new novaLUM, a powerful palm-sized instrument dedicated to improving finished product quality,” he says.
Finally, beyond technical improvements, innovations in quality assurance equipment and services reflect a keener understanding of how to interpret and use results. “Testing for testing sake may satisfy auditors,” Ruth says, “but increasingly, dairy QA managers are empowered to act on test results long before the outcome reaches a level of critical concern.”
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.$OMN_arttitle="Assurance Policy";?>