Curd is the Word
by James Dudlicek

Revamped cottage cheese operation just the latest in ongoing improvements at Safeway's Bellevue, Wash., plant.
The Pacific Northwest has taken a beating this winter, with heavy snow and driving winds joining the rain to which the region is accustomed. Through it all, Safeway’s Bellevue Milk Plant just east of Seattle has continued undeterred in its mission to supply milk and cottage cheese to the company’s supermarkets along the West Coast as well as Alaska and Hawaii.
Over the past four years, the grocery retailing giant has spent almost $12 million on dairy infrastructure improvements at its Bellevue plant, most recently with a complete revamping of the cottage cheese operation, launched in late 2005. It’s Safeway’s largest cottage cheese plant, making 20 million pounds a year, says Randall Dei, director of dairy supply operations. That encompasses some 70 SKUs for Safeway’s own Lucerne brand and a variety of private label products.
“There’s not too many people doing that now,” Dei says of such a substantial investment in a category that doesn’t exactly breed excitement. “We took the art and made it a science.”
The “art” of making cottage cheese once required years of experience for an operator who had to follow his gut almost as much as the chemistry to get a good result. A computerized system has rendered the making of cottage cheese virtually effortless. “We used to have direct steam injection into the vats,” Gary Gill, plant engineer, says of the 1958-vintage equipment that was replaced.
The six new vats — the first made to second-generation 3-A standards — are controlled from a touchscreen that shows all stages of the cooking process, waits for the operator’s acknowledgment of completed steps and prompts when to do the next one, taking all the guesswork out of the process. The only manual tasks still necessary are applying the paddles and curd-cutting blades, and checking the pH level of the recipe. “Our consistency is very much improved,” Gill says.
Dei explains the process after curd leaves the vats: Hot curd is pumped through the whey drainer, then into a cooling tower where it’s washed of excess acid whey and cooled with treated water. Computer-controlled mixing and magnetic flowmeters ensure a correct cream-to-curd ratio for each product; four old mixers were replaced with two 11,000-pound units. Dressing is flowed through ice cream-type freezers to chill it rather than the curd. Inclusions like fruit or chives are added to the dressing before filling.
Culturing is accomplished in two 13,000-pound, steam-sterilizable starter tanks. Carbon dioxide is injected into the dressing as well as the three dressing tanks in adjoining room; Dei explains that, as the dressing level goes down, CO2 stays on the surface (because it’s heavier than air) and protects against bacteria spoilage.
Gill says the biggest part of the project was the complete demolition of the old cheese room. “We only had a four-week shutdown to complete the process,” he says. “We shut down on a Friday night, and four weeks later on a Saturday morning, we were making cheese.” Dei adds: “We had sellable product the first day.”
During construction in the fall of 2005, Bellevue operators were sent for training at Safeway’s Denver plant, where similar renovations had recently been completed. Meanwhile, new walls, floors and ceiling went up at Bellevue, with surfaces Dei described as being “as sanitary as a hospital,” along with stainless-steel ductwork.
Fillers were repositioned to accommodate the new equipment; robotic palletizing will be added to the line this year.
Milk and More
Improvements elsewhere in the plant that predate the cottage cheese project have gone a long way toward streamlining operations.
A high-speed filler can handle 150 gallons per minute for milk and 240 for water. “It can go through a truckload of milk in 28 minutes,” Dei says, noting that the system’s frequency drive will automatically slow down or speed up depending on activities downstream. “This is the fastest gallon filler currently operating in the country.”
A statistics process control weighing system ensures legal labeling and less “giveaway” in the form of overfilled containers, Dei explains. Cartons are randomly pulled from line and weighed; the electronic readout instantly displays the weight and records it. Deviations are printed in a report sent to the lab and plant manager.
A dedicated skim tank provides skim milk to be blended with product coming off the second HTST unit to get the correct fat level needed for various products. The system utilizes automated skimming with flowmeters to more accurately gauge how much cream is coming off the separators, Gill says. Meanwhile, vitamins A and D are added to milk with a computer-controlled device that administers doses of fortification by weight for more accurate delivery.
Gallon bottles for milk are blow molded on site. Fillers run faster than the blow molders, so bottle-making continues when fillers are down; bottles are stockpiled in up to 10 trailers. Bottles are annealed at 1,100 degrees, a process that compresses the molecules to prevent new hot bottles from shrinking after molding and ensure consistent size of containers. Bottles are bagged and robotically palletized; Dei says the plant is looking to automate the debagging process.
Bellevue Plant History
1958: Built to replace an aging Seattle location
1970: Cooler expansion
1975: Blow molding
1988: Automated palletizing
1999: High-speed gallon filler and container bag on
2002: Two 60,000-gallon silos added
2003: 2.5-gallon water line added
2005: Cottage cheese renovation
Coming: Stand-alone boiler room, robotic palletizing for cottage cheese line
The Bellevue plant provides fluid milk to Safeway supermarkets in Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Idaho and Montana, which get daily milk deliveries.”
Cottage cheese is sent to 600 stores throughout the Pacific Northwest, Northern California and Hawaii. And twice a week, the plant sends product packed in shipping containers aboard freighters out of the Port of Tacoma bound for Alaska, to serve Safeway stores as far away as Nome.
Doing it Right
The processes at Bellevue need to mirror those at the Denver plant for product consistency, since some markets are served by both facilities. To that end, the Bellevue team employs the latest lab tests to ensure quality products. For example, a laser particle analyzer is used to make sure the size of nearly all particles is less than 2 microns so milk won’t separate at retail. Further tests check acidity, salt, calcium and CO2.
As for food safety, the Bellevue plant was one of six pilot plants chosen in 1999 for a voluntary HACCP program, Dei says.
Striving for “world class” manufacturing initiatives, worker progress is evaluated at thrice-daily visual production meetings. “It’s a very effective tool to educate ourselves on the issues and educate those on the floor to their goals,” says plant manager Bill Schoenbachler.
More changes are on the way at the Bellevue plant site, outside as well as in. The milk plant sits at one end of a 39-acre complex that also includes a distribution center, which will soon be sold and torn down for redevelopment. Dei explains it has been replaced by a new 55-acre distribution facility in nearby Auburn with tens of thousands of pallet spaces — 45,000 for grocery alone — and a 3-mile order selection line.
Meanwhile, the milk plant, along with an adjacent ice cream plant and a beverage plant across the street, will continue churning out quality products for Safeway customers.
“This is one of our older plants,” Dei says, “but we keep it state of the art.”
For more on how Safeway does dairy, select the April 2004 issue from the drop-down menu under the current issue at www.dairyfield.com
SAFEWAY PLANT AT A GLANCE
Location: Bellevue, Wash.

Year opened: 1958

Size: 70,000 square feet

Employees: 100 on three shifts

Products made: Milk (regular, flavored), buttermilk, eggnog, cottage cheese, water; milk sourced from Washington’s Darigold cooperative.

Capacity: 1 million gallons weekly.

Processing: Two HTST @ 52,000 pounds per hour.

Filling: Three lines for gallon, half gallon, quart and pint; two lines for cottage cheese (8-ounce, 1-, 2-, 3-, 4- and 5-pound); one line for 2.5-gallon water. Storage: Milk — 18 tanks for raw, blended and pasteurized product; 240,000 gallons raw storage, 210,000 gallons pasteurized storage. Cooler — 25,000 square feet.