Manufacturing safe, wholesome products is the most important aspect of any dairy foods business. And the foundation for producing these products are rigorous food safety and sanitation programs in a properly designed facility.
The importance of a suitable facility can’t be overstated. Earlier this year at the Cheese Industry Conference, staff from the Center for Dairy Research (CDR) presented some of the top food safety issues seen in dairy plants. First on this list were outdated plant designs. Many older plants have food safety challenges such as poor layout issues (e.g., no separation of raw and pasteurized areas) and employee traffic patterns that could potentially lead to cross-contamination.
Another issue high on the list of observed safety issues is air quality and flow. Plants need to ensure they have proper air filtration and that air is flowing correctly through the plant. Filtered air should enter the plant in the most sensitive rooms (bulk starter room, vat room) and move through the plant to the less sensitive processing rooms (coolers, storage and shipping).
Equipment design is another area of concern. Equipment should be properly designed for cleanability purposes. Equipment should also be visually inspected to ensure it is getting cleaned. Although most systems are clean-in-place, it is recommended that plants open up processing equipment on a routine basis to verify that proper cleaning is occurring.
Biofilms, if established, can be hard to remove with routine cleaning processes. Biofilms are troubling because they can indicate the presence of spoilage microorganisms and some pathogens.
Help for smaller processors
Smaller artisan cheese manufacturers are a key group identified for more food safety training. They often lack the resources for a dedicated safety/quality person.
Artisans often need one-on-one consultations to explain the aspects and requirements of quality programs and help with completing all the required documentation. Artisans can also benefit from plant visits from experienced dairy manufacturers who can help identify and address any facility issues.
In Wisconsin, CDR and the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (through funding from a National Institute for Food and Agriculture grant) teamed up to provide regional trainings for smaller cheesemakers. This group also created numerous templates to help artisans with writing standard operating procedures, as well as with all the records that are required for the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). These templates can be found at www.wischeesemakersassn.org/food-safety.
Environmental monitoring programs
Finally, good environmental monitoring programs are an important tool to identify the overall effectiveness of hygienic practices in the plant (including sanitary design and personnel practices). According to FSMA, a good environmental monitoring program should integrate into the hazard-analysis-and-critical-control-point prerequisite program, verify cleaning and sanitation effectiveness, monitor biological hazards, find bacteria in the environment before it finds the products, and verify the effectiveness of preventative controls. Environmental monitoring programs provide information about the sources and concentrations of indicator organisms so appropriate corrective actions can take place to avoid any potential outbreak.
While most cheeses are considered relatively safe due to their low pH, high salt and competitive microflora, certain cheese types can pose a higher food safety risk. These include cheeses made with raw milk, cheeses with a high pH (low acidity), cheeses without an active starter culture and smear ripened/wash-rind cheeses, which may have a high surface pH and also require a lot of manual handling.
Emerging approaches to improve the safety of some cheeses include using cultures that produce inhibitory substances toward some pathogens (such as Listeria) and using high-pressure processing or cold plasma treatments of the final cheese.
In summary, the strong safety record of cheese can be maintained with careful attention to cleaning and sanitation, the use of good manufacturing practices and the utilization of robust environmental monitoring programs.