Just the Facts
by Lynn Petrak
For dairy processors, delivering quality assurance means taking advantage of new tools and technologies.
Evidence is at the heart of many quality-assurance programs and, to that end, processors are continually working to build their case for the quality-related attributes of their products.
As dairy operators ratchet up QA activities to ensure that they are producing the safest, most consistent and palatable products possible, they continue to implement a variety of tools and services to help them achieve their objectives. Thanks to new technologies and an ongoing focus among processors to deliver on the promise of quality, the methods used to bolster external confidence and provide value internal feedback continue to improve.
The introduction of new QA tools that cover everything from raw material handling to production to inspection come at a time when industry competition remains intense and the bar is set high for quality and safety. Dairy plants that work on several fronts to stay profitable also have to address QA at many different points, with retail and foodservice customers as well as the government, their own suppliers and in some cases, investors and stakeholders.
According to John Urh, product manager for process products for Matthews, N.C.-based process control instrumentation supplier CEM Corp., the emphasis on QA partly stems from the lean environment in which dairies operate. “The margins are so thin in this industry that a change as small as a few tenths in butterfat concentration makes a difference,” he says. “At the same time, they want to be compliant with nutrition and labeling issues and there is also the profit issue; hitting that number is driving a lot of demand for QA these days.”
The new product development that has resulted from competition also has ramifications on the type and extent of QA programs and tools utilized in many dairy facilities. “A lot of products like the new coffee drinks require a new generation of testing protocols,” Urh says. “Things that work well for milk, cream and cheese don’t necessarily work for some of these new formulations.”
Pete Emond, vice president of business development for Advanced Instruments Inc. a Norwood, Mass.-based provider of analytical instruments and test kits, agrees that the broadening of dairy product offerings impacts QA needs and activities. “One glance at your local supermarket dairy section shows how competitive pressures are driving the development of an ever-growing variety of consumer products by dairy processors,” he says. “From a quality-control standpoint, these new products must address the safety and health concerns of consumers as well as meet increasingly stringent regulatory requirements. All of this, in a business sector with very tight profit margins.”
For any new or existing dairy product, there are, in fact, quite a number of QA activities that are undertaken at various stages, some of them that reflect the latest developments in the industry.
To help manufacturers as they follow QA paradigms or create their own systems, suppliers of QA tools and services are regularly introducing new features and systems for their customers. At the earliest point in the supply chain, for example, dairy farmers are utilizing services like on-farm equipment evaluations and whole-herd milk cultures designed to reduce mastitis levels that can hamper quality.
“While we continue to upgrade our line of testing products for product and environmental testing in the plant, one area dairy processors are striving to make improvements is in the quality of their primary raw material: milk,” says Fritz Buss, technical director at Nelson-Jameson, Inc., a Marshfield, Wis. broadline supplier to the sanitary processing industry.
Buss says Nelson-Jameson has introduced a new sensitive on-farm test for detecting sub-clinical mastitis identified by somatic cell counts. “This is called the PortaSCC Test and is a modified version of a clinical test used to monitor white blood-cell counts of cancer patients,” Buss explains, noting that there are also complementary Quad Plates from DQCI Laboratory. “The newest plate, called the SSGNC Chromogenic Quad Plate, permits producers to plate milk on the farm from animals showing positive PortaSCC results. Plates will reveal whether the infection is caused by a gram negative or gram positive organism.”
Such a tool benefits the producer and the processor by maintaining milk volume and greatly reducing risk of rejected milk due to antibiotics, while common pathogens including E.coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus agalactiae can also be identified using the plates.
Advanced Instruments likewise is reporting a push back to the farm side of the farm-to-fork QA chain. “Here, Advanced Instruments is active in robotic testing of raw milk to reduce analysis costs and enhance the consistency of test results,” Emond says. “This can influence the whole supply chain since, for example, tight control of the level of somatic cells in raw milk by the farmer directly impacts a processor’s cheese production yield.”
In the processing plant, meanwhile, QA professionals also take advantage of new testing tools for both product and equipment.
According to Emond, QA programs and equipment for incoming, in-process and finished goods testing at dairy processing facilities are evolving to accommodate the technical and economic challenges posed by the growing variety of end products. “Analytical equipment flexibility is an important factor. The latest generation of mid-infrared FTIR component analyzers from our Delta Instruments subsidiary is one example,” he says, adding that the recently-launched tool addresses a processor’s need to accurately measure components of economic and quality control interest in multiple raw and in process blends for product consistency, yield and cost control.
As consumer and processor trends change, Emond adds, so must the capabilities of QA equipment. As one example, Emond points out that Delta Instruments has an ongoing program focused on developing additional measurement parameters, such as free fatty acids, that can be run on the same instrument platform without major incremental investment to the processor.
To be sure, rapid testing has been a focus of many QA program improvements. Bentley Instruments, a provider of analytical instruments for milk and milk products based in Chaska, Minn., recently introduced a new series of bacteria counters that have dramatically closed the results window. “For getting rapid bacteria on a milk sample, instead of having to wait 48 to 72 hours, it’s 10 minutes. You can also test several samples, and that way you can get down to a sample a minute or so,” reports company president and owner Bent Lyder.
According to Lyder, improvements in flow cytometry technology contributed to the development of the new counters. “It is actually counting the individual bacteria,” he says. “We are counting live bacteria and dead bacteria for a total count.”
Even though the bacteria are dead, it is still an indication that the milk is mistreated along the line, Lyder explains. Also dovetailed into QA programs is Bentley Instruments’ new line of infrared equipment, based on fourirer transform infrared technology. The new line is the latest addition to Bentley’s mid-infrared instruments built in single-beam optical systems.
The trend toward providing test results in less time is also being addressed by CEM Corp. Among other instruments and services, CEM offers the SMART Trac fat and moisture analyzer that provides a direct measurement of total fat, including both free and chemically-bound fat in solids, liquids and slurries. “We’re able to see through all of the additives and in different formulations and measure the fact directly regardless of what else is present,” Urh says. “With this technology, people can also change formulations without having to change the calibration of the instrument and still be able to provide good quality assurance.”
Flexibility was also a consideration in the development of other recent technologies at CEM. “We now have full method transferability among our products. If you have a cultured product, for instance, that has a specialized method in the instrument to get a good result, it is possible to export that method to another instrument that is essentially a clone,” Urh says, noting that there is no need to acquire a half dozen samples to calibrate the equipment. “If you have method transfer capability, you only have to create a method once.”
Beyond analytical instruments, there are other tools literally used on the front line of production, such as cleaning tools. “We’re doing whatever we can to make their sanitation process easier and more standardized. As I’ve seen HACCP starting to take hold, for example, we’re seeing more in terms of color coding to keep brushes from cross contamination,” says Lance Cheney, president of Braun Brush Co., Albertson, N.Y.
The increasing use of stainless-steel equipment also has QA implications, Cheney adds. “Brushes that are not going to damage equipment have been more important. We have a couple of ways that we are addressing that, like an epoxy-set product they can use in a tank or vat without fear of bristle lost,” he explains, noting that Braun recently developed new metal-free, ultrasonically welded brushes.
Reflecting other components used in QA programs, brushes from Braun are increasingly made on a custom basis. Users can simply go online and design a brush specific to their needs, Cheney says. “If they have a pipe that’s 9 feet long and 1 3/8 [inches] in diameter and need something specific to that pipe instead of an off-the-shelf pipe, we can do that,” he says.
Technologies that help operators enhance their QA programs extend beyond the back door of a dairy facility as well. Cold-chain management systems include a variety of tools used in the storage and distribution of refrigerated and frozen products. For example, Pak-Sense Inc., a Boise, Idaho-based supplier of intelligent testing products, offers a flat 2-by-2-inch label that can monitor the time and temperature of perishable product throughout distribution, with lights flashing if specifications have been breached. Data collected by the label can be downloaded and used on a spreadsheet.
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.$OMN_arttitle="Just the Facts";?> $OMN_artauthor="Lynn Petrak";?>