Magic Show
by James Dudlicek
New Idaho plant lets Gossner Foods boost capacity to meet demand for cheese.
“We don’t know what the future holds, but we’ve got a lot of room to expand,” Dolores Gossner Wheeler says, surveying the open space in the make room of her company’s new Swiss cheese plant in Heyburn, Idaho.
It could be used to make more Swiss cheese, says the president and chief executive officer of Gossner Foods Inc., or for aseptic milk to augment the operation at the company’s headquarters two hours away in Logan, Utah. Or maybe the space can accommodate a specialty-cheese operation, as that segment of the industry continues to grow.
Whatever that next product, it’s clear the new $30 million facility positions Gossner Foods well for future growth. “This gives us lots of possibilities for future expansion,” says Dave Thomas, general manager of Idaho operations.
And that’s something that the state of Idaho is hoping for as well, as it gets acquainted with the newest resident of Magic Valley, a region of southern Idaho that’s become so attractive to cheese manufacturers that it has elevated the Gem State to the third-largest cheese-producing state in the nation.
The state is happy to see jobs return to the site as well. Gossner’s new plant is located on the site of the former J.R. Simplot Co. potato processing plant that closed in November 2003. Simplot donated the site to be developed as an industrial park; Gossner Foods is the first tenant.
“We had a very aggressive timeline,” Thomas says of the plant’s construction, which began in October 2004 and involved 110,000 square feet of new construction added to an existing 40,000-square-foot building. “We had a customer looking for product to be made. We started making cheese a year and a day after breaking ground. It was pedal to the metal for the whole year.”
The company had originally planned to expand its plant in El Centro, Calif., but was drawn to Idaho by several factors, including an abundant supply of both milk and water, proximity to the company’s home base, an excellent wastewater treatment system and a business-friendly state government that has offered assistance like $650,000 in grants for worker training and site improvements.
“But no matter what investment you make, it comes down to people,” says Thomas, who left his previous post as president and CEO of Glanbia Foods in nearby Twin Falls to oversee Gossner’s Heyburn project. “We had 500 applicants for 60 jobs.”
Acknowledging the newness of the plant and the need to train many novices to the cheese industry, Thomas decided against creating a supervisory structure at the outset. Instead, he opted to wait and see how employees gained experience on the job and earned leadership roles. “After six months, we’re starting to see people rise to the challenge,” he says.
The Eyes Have It
Gossner’s Magic Valley plant contains the latest high-tech cheesemaking equipment available. But, of course, the basics never really change.
The plant receives milk seven days a week (it manufactures five days) in its twin receiving bays, which can accommodate semis with tandem trailers. All milk comes from Idaho farms within a 30-mile radius, 70 percent of it shipped directly from farms, the rest through a local cooperative. Magic Valley can also accept extra milk from Logan if that plant is running at capacity, Thomas says.
All milk must pass basic labs onsite before offloading; samples are sent to the lab in Logan for more extensive testing and cataloguing. Receiving is computerized with an on-screen schematic; all areas of the plant can be monitored from any computer terminal in the facility.
Raw milk is pasteurized and run through a separator for adjustment of protein and fat levels using an infrared system. Touch-screen controls allow an operator to set the desired ratio of casein to fat, a critical step in the creation of Swiss cheese.
“We want the same amount of protein in every batch so we can produce the same amount of cheese in every batch,” Thomas says, noting the system will fill the cheese vats to the proper level needed to maintain that consistency. “It’s a very efficient, user-friendly system. It gives us consistent quality.”
In the make room, the six cheese vats are operated by touchscreen controls with password access, able to call up preprogrammed recipes for various types of regular and reduced-fat Swiss; most product made here is Gossner’s trademark mild Swiss. “These are the latest generation in cheese vats,” Thomas says.
Each vat fills three to four times each day, taking an hour to fill and three hours to cook, churn and cut, and then running a washdown sequence before the next batch of cheese. Each vat is outfitted with two outlets for quick cleaning; leak-detecting mixproof valves allow vats to continue making cheese while others are being cleaned.
Beyond the high-tech gadgetry, the basics of cheesemaking are the same: fill the vats with milk, add the cheese cultures, churn the liquid until the curds form, drain off the whey. The vats’ agitator blades cut the curds when run the opposite direction.
Thomas notes there are seasonal differences in the production of Swiss cheese. In the winter, milk contains more solids than it does in the summer, when vats need to be filled higher to get the same level of solids for consistent cheese year round, he explains.
Lab technicians, stationed in an office on the outer edge of the make room, check vat production regularly, Thomas says. “It’s critical for Swiss that we hit the right fat and protein levels,” he stresses.
Cheese is pumped from the vats to a filling station in the press room, where the cheese travels through a maze of pipes to a rotating device that sends bursts of curds and whey slurry through 16 lines into four block molds. The custom equipment was manufactured in Finland and assembled by local contractors. “The point of the distribution system is to evenly distribute curds in the molds to get a smooth, even fill and minimize curd disruption,” Thomas says, explaining that such disruption could result in too many holes or “eyes” in the finished cheese.
It takes about 25 minutes to fill the molds, which are made of perforated stainless steel to allow for whey drainage. The molds are lidded and put under a heavy press to expel more whey for between 12 and 24 hours. Traveling on a conveyor around the perimeter of the press room, the molds are uncovered and the cheese is removed by the insertion of non-stick “fingers” around the edges. A guillotine cuts each 1,000-pound formed block into four pieces, which continue down a flume into the brine tank.
The molds and lids are washed for reuse, their status constantly monitored by touchscreen control. “We have enough molds for 10 vats and could fill them twice a day,” Thomas says. “This is the room that’s been the most challenging for us mechanically because of all the servos and heavy lids.”
Steel fencing surrounds all the machinery in the mold room as a safety precaution; if a gate is opened, the system shuts down automatically.
In the next room, the sweeping brine tank has 20 lanes that each can hold one vat’s worth of cheese. Blocks are held for a day in the brine, which is continually circulated to keep the temperature consistent. Salinity is checked daily, with salt added as needed; a filtration system keeps the brine clear.
Released from brining, the 250-pound cheese blocks travel up a conveyor to be boxed for 60 days of aging. An “air knife” blows residual moisture off the blocks, which are then pushed into a plastic bag and vacuum sealed before they’re boxed. Pallets of boxed cheese are staged in corridor and moved to the mobile racking system in the make cooler, where they stay for up to two weeks. The moving rack system is designed to handle the extreme weight of the cheese and actually works better when fully loaded, Thomas explains.
From the make cooler, cheese is moved to the warm room to be held at room temperature, with large fans used to circulate the air to maintain a consistent temperature for each block. The blocks are turned several times during the aging process to ensure consistent pressure and temperature critical to Swiss cheese. It’s also here that graders take plugs of aging cheese to monitor eye development.
“It’s almost like it’s alive,” Wheeler remarks. “Because you don’t know exactly what it’s going to do, you can’t get totally confident making Swiss cheese.”
Following its stay in the warm room, cheese is moved to the finished cooler, then removed from its aging containers for final packaging. Some cheese — like 7- and 14-pound deli loaves — is packaged on site, but much is trucked to Logan’s more extensive packaging operation for completion. Plans call for eventual expansion of Heyburn’s packaging activities.
Rounding out the Heyburn facility is the whey operation. A hundred pounds of milk yields just 9 pounds of Swiss cheese, so Gossner takes that 91 pounds of drained whey and creates whey protein concentrate that’s sold for ingredient use and lactose permeate that winds up in cattle feed.
Still to come in the Magic Valley, a retail store at the corner out in front of the plant, a chalet-style building with a balcony offering views of the Snake River across the road. The store will offer cheese, fresh curds, butter, ice cream and other products like the well-patronized store in Logan. A cheddaring table stands ready to make curds, a storage area will be transformed into a butter room and ice cream will be made in a room segregated from the cheesemaking areas as a nod to allergen concerns over inclusions.
Cache and Carry
Meanwhile, the Logan plant is busy packaging output from Heyburn and El Centro as well as its own make room. According to Logan cheese plant manager Dave Larsen, more than 1,500 SKUs are packaged here, about 20 percent for Gossner’s own brand, the rest for an array of contract packaging customers in the branded, private label and foodservice arenas.
Gossner makes all the Swiss, muenster and mini horns it packages, but procures other varieties like cheddar and mozzarella from other processors for packaging in various formats. Opened four years ago, the nine-line packaging operation (a 10th is expected to be added this year) handles deli loaves and chunk cheeses of various weights, exact-weight slices and shreds.
The packaging process begins when the 270-pound blocks of cheese are cut in half.
“That’s the first point we get to see what the eye formation looks like,” Larsen says, repeating one of the difficulties of Swiss production. “We’re looking for dime- to nickel-size eyes, evenly spaced through the entire block.”
As the cheese passes through the slicer, graders check eye size and separate the pieces into various grades. Swiss logs are wrapped in plastic, then run through a metal detector, shrink tunnel and hot water bath before being weighed, labeled and cased. Cases are palletized, with about a ton of product on each, and each pallet is shrink-wrapped.
A second line runs chunk Swiss, while four others handle slices of various configurations, like shingles, stacks and twin packs. Swiss logs are fed at an angle into the slicer, which automatically places paper between each slice. Each stack of slices is weighed; wrong-weight stacks are kicked to the side for a line employee to adjust and return to the line for packaging.
Portable zipper machines can be rolled out to run lines of zip-pouch cheeses, Larsen says.
“Every line is unique,” he notes. “The equipment is a little bit different on each one.”
About 260 people work in the Logan cheese plant; the packaging department is its largest employment center. Another 175 work at the aseptic milk plant next door.
The UHT plant receives up to 3 million pounds of milk per week, according to plant manager Kelly Luthi. “We run everything through a pasteurization system first,” Luthi explains. “We don’t have to, but it’s how we standardize the milk.”
Logan’s aseptic milk filling operation utilizes four sterilization systems, each with a dedicated sterile tank and running at 1,500 gallons per hour. “If the filler shuts down, we still want to be able to continue to sterilize the product using the sterile tank as a buffer,” Luthi says.
Raw milk enters the system at 40 degrees F and is heated up to 285 for a few seconds; filling commences when it cools down to about 85 degrees. Three blending systems allow for processing up to three varieties of milk at one time.
There are six aseptic filling machines, three for liter-size (32 ounce) containers and three for single-serve (8 ounce) drink boxes. Packaging stock gets a bath in a 35 percent peroxide solution to sterilize the paper at 70 degrees C and is run through a set of rollers before being formed into a continuous tube. This tube is filled with milk, after which a set of metal jaws clamp around the tube to form the individual containers. Single-serves receive straws, while the larger boxes are fitted with reclosable plastic caps. Filled boxes are packed into cases — 12 quarts or 27 single-serves per case.
“We’ve been doing shelf-stable for 20-plus years,” Luthi says. “It’s such a simple concept, but a lot of people don’t understand it. We’ve made a lot of headway. It’s becoming more recognized.”
Gossner’s UHT plant is 150,000 square feet, of which 110,000 is warehouse space, Luthi says. “One [aseptic] bottle filler would occupy the same space as my six aseptic [box] fillers,” he notes.
Safety and Security
As with other aspects of the start-up, Logan plant personnel helped set up the safety program at the new Magic Valley facility, with the quality control manager organizing safety training for various plant functions. “The most important thing employees have to think about is getting home safe to their families,” Thomas says.
Significant investment was made in equipment with integral safety features, and the company gets its suppliers involved with things like chemical training and personal protective gear. “In a new factory, a lot of these people haven’t been exposed to cheese plants,” Thomas says.
For food safety, too, the Heyburn team is working with the folks in Logan to develop a HACCP plan. The plant’s primary audit survey is centered on key customers, Thomas explains.
Walls in the make room are coated with a material similar to that used for pickup truck bed liners, creating an impervious surface for an enhanced sanitary environment. A storage mezzanine, hidden in the ceiling 21 feet above the plant floor, allows access to utilities without disrupting plant operations.
Security measures include key-card entry to each area of plant, with access assigned by job task. There are 13 cameras monitoring activity throughout the plant. “From a biosecurity standpoint, it’s state of the art,” Thomas says.
In Logan, too, “we really pride ourselves on quality,” Luthi says, explaining the plant’s event-based quality-control program. In addition, a new lab testing system coming on line will cut sample incubation time from five days to 48 hours. “With this system, we’ll be releasing [aseptic] product in four days instead of seven days,” he says.
Of course, while Gossner relies on technical advances to improve its manufacturing operations, its deeper faith is in its employees to make it all run smoothly. As Allen Wheeler, Dolores’ husband and a company director, puts it, “When you have dedicated people like we have, it doesn’t get any better.”  
GOSSNER FOODS
PLANT AT A GLANCE
Location: Heyburn, Idaho
Opened: October 2005
Size: 150,000 square feet
Employees: 60
Products made: Swiss cheese, whey protein concentrate, lactose permeate.
Capacity: 1 million pounds of milk daily.
Milk storage: 3 silos @ 50,000 gallons raw (1.3 million pounds), 2 silos @ 10,000 cream (170,000 pounds).
HTST: 50,000 pounds per hour.
Make room: Six vats, each producing 4,000 pounds of cheese per hour.
Press room: 44 1,000-pound molds.
Storage: Make cooler, 1.8 million pounds; warm room, 3.5 million pounds.

MUENSTER MASH
Gossner goes right to the source in California’s Imperial Valley.
Considering Gossner Foods’ close relationship with its farmer producers, it’s fitting that one of its three cheese plants was inspired by one of them.
In 1999, the company partnered with Jim Kuhn of KF Dairy in El Centro, Calif., to open
an on-farm cheese plant. Gossner’s Imperial Valley Cheese produces 35,000 pounds of Swiss and muenster cheese a day, processing about 320,000 pounds of milk daily, mostly provided by KF Dairy.
“We intend to grow that business,” says Dolores Gossner Wheeler, president and chief executive officer of Gossner Foods. “That’s where we want to make all the muenster for the organization. It’s really just a make room, and then we move the product up here [to Logan, Utah]; the Swiss is actually cured up here. We are going to add on a large cooler down there, which should take place this spring.”
A delegation from Gossner Foods was on hand at Dairy Forum in January for a ceremony in which Kuhn was posthumously honored as the 2006 Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year. Kuhn died in an auto accident last year; his widow, Heidi, is continuing his work to grow KF Dairy and Imperial Valley Cheese.
“I see growth coming at Imperial Valley,” Wheeler says. “We see a lot of interest right now in natural muenster cheese. We’re looking at maybe doing some specialty cheeses down there if the opportunity comes.”
Imperial Valley Cheese is run by plant manager Clemente Russo, who oversees a team of 25 employees in the 25,000-square-foot facility.