When Jeremy Travis chairs a meeting of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy’s food safety committee, he is not surprised by the collaboration in the room. Travis, vice president of quality and technical services at Hilmar Cheese Co., has recently taken the reins of the 16-member food safety committee that develops and shares best practices to continuously improve and advance dairy processing and manufacturing procedures.

“It’s a privilege to bring together experts from across the industry in a precompetitive forum,” he says. “The research and work that the committee engages in would be difficult, if not impossible, for us to do as individual companies.”

The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy was created 10 years ago by Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), an organization that is funded by 40,000 U.S. dairy farmers and importers through the dairy checkoff. Dairy farmers pay 15 cents and dairy importers pay 7.5 cents for every hundred pounds of milk they sell or import into a generic dairy product promotion fund—the dairy checkoff—that DMI manages along with state and regional promotion groups. That money—with U.S. Department of Agriculture oversight—is used to fund programs aimed at promoting dairy consumption and protecting the good image of dairy farmers, dairy products, and the dairy industry.  

Dairy farmer leadership of the checkoff saw an opportunity through the Innovation Center to unite the entire value chain around common goals and challenges, such as food safety, in a precompetitive setting.

Tim Stubbs, vice president of product research and food safety for DMI, manages the day-to-day priorities of the committee and its long-term goals. He sees the “convening power” of the Innovation Center up close.

“We have the top leaders and subject matter experts from across the dairy industry working together to solve problems and share solutions,” Stubbs says. “It’s like working with an all-star team.”

Commitment to Food Safety
Sharpening dairy’s food safety focus is not a new priority. In fact, the industry is built on decades of sharing through organizations such as the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments, 3-A Sanitary Standards Inc., and the International Association for Food Protection.  

But the dairy industry also has seen the negative impact food safety issues have had on other categories, such as one of the worst in U.S. history involving the Peanut Corporation of America in 2008.

Dairy industry leaders, including Larry Jensen, who was president of Leprino Foods Company and chair of the Innovation Center at the time, and Mike Haddad, CEO and president of Schreiber Foods Inc. and current Innovation Center chair, wanted to make sure dairy heightened its food safety commitment as a result.

Committee member Edith Wilkin, vice president of food safety for Leprino, recalls Jensen saying the dairy industry needed to set aside its competitive interests and tackle food safety as a collective category. Jensen and Haddad felt strongly that food safety should never be used by a company as a competitive advantage and that a significant crisis could hurt everyone in the dairy category.

Together, they encouraged the Innovation Center to make food safety one of its unifying priorities.

“Larry was concerned that perhaps not as much attention or education was happening across the industry,” Wilkin says. “He began to talk with some of the CEOs who were part of the Innovation Center’s efforts, and they came away with the sense that we need to do something more intentioned in terms of training, education, best practices, and more outreach.”

Soon, that vision became a reality, and about a dozen leaders from different businesses left their competitive mindsets outside the doors of a Wisconsin hotel meeting room and huddled for the first time as a single industry. Wilkin remembers Tom Hedge, a former executive with Schreiber Foods, leading that first committee meeting and asking the room, “So, what kinds of problems are you seeing?”

His question was met with somewhat of a memorable thud.

“When you begin to talk about ‘here’s what I do sanitation-wise,’ those get very close to the vest and typically that’s not the type of information that is shared, even among friends,” she says. “It was awkward and difficult. However, the people we brought together were all in the quality food safety arena. Gradually, there was an opening up, which really helped.”

A Spirit of Collaboration
The Innovation Center is proving that a large, complex industry is stronger when it works with a collective spirit on important issues such as food safety. Led by CEOs and chairs of dairy cooperatives, processors, retailers, and associations, the Innovation Center provides a precompetitive forum for the dairy community to develop credible, industry-aligned tools and resources to advance U.S. Dairy’s long-standing commitment to social responsibility and continuous improvement (see “Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy Food Safety Resources”).

More than 60 percent of U.S. milk production is represented by Innovation Center board members, including many of dairy’s biggest companies, such as Hilmar, Schreiber, Leprino, HP Hood, Land O’Lakes, Foremost Farms, Agri-Mark, Dean Foods, and Dairy Farmers of America.

Keeping cheese, fluid milk, dry ingredients, yogurt, and ice cream safe from pathogens has their full commitment. As a result, Wilkin says, the buy-in of that original food safety vision of “working as one” is today fully embraced.

“Some of the newer people who participate in the Innovation Center are somewhat shocked at how frank our conversations are,” she says. “We have a (dairy company) president who came from the soft drink industry and he said, ‘We didn’t talk to each other. I’m surprised at what dairy does through the Innovation Center.’

“It always amazes him. It amazes a lot of people.”

The committee follows several action platforms, including:

•    Pathogen controls (Dairy Plant Food Safety and Supplier Food Safety Management workshops)

•    Artisan/farmstead cheese food safety

•    Pathogen control guidance documents (comprehensive Listeria guide issued; broader pathogen guide under development)

•    Listeria research consortium

•    Traceability

These committee members—Stubbs’s “all-stars”—are some of the dairy industry’s leading experts who focus on food safety for their respective organizations.

“These are people at the top of their field and they work for private companies,” Stubbs says. “The companies are fully committed to this effort and have given the committee access, for example, to the best pathogen experts in the world. Companies happily share the best sanitation experts, microbiologists, people with 30 years’ experience in equipment design, and other ‘internal’ experts for the greater good.”

The committee meets in-person twice a year and convenes for monthly calls. Stubbs says they share best practices, discuss workshops, and Listeria research. At the end of the call, they save time for open dialogue. This openness builds trust, and the sharing of best practices and insights, plus having access to an arsenal of experts with skill sets for any need, is what keeps the momentum going strong.

“As a company, we get to contribute, and when you give, you get to receive,” Travis says. “I used to be surprised by the collaboration, but you soon realize that we all live through a lot of the same things, and it’s easier to move faster when you understand them together. The research work we’re doing as a consortium would be a lot more expensive and complicated for us to do as individual companies.

“So, it’s really easy to align the Innovation Center work with my day job. I have a lot of regular interaction with the committee members and it keeps Hilmar from having to reinvent the wheel.”

Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy Food Safety Resources

To strengthen manufacturing practices in all dairy processing facilities, advance science-based tools, and diminish food safety risks that could compromise the reputation of the U.S. dairy industry, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy provides workshops, tools, and guidance documents.

All materials are available at www.usdairy.com/foodsafety.

•    Dairy Plant Food Safety Workshops – Design checklists, scientific reference materials, registration

•    Dairy Supplier Food Safety Management Workshops – Risk assessment calculator, best practices guide, workshop registration

•    Listeria Guidance for the U.S. Dairy Industry – Comprehensive guidance for manufacturers of all sizes, free online in English and Spanish: www.usdairy.com/foodsafety

•    Spanish-Language Tools – Listeria guidance document, checklists, and Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures, examples available in Spanish

•    Listeria Research Consortium

•    Traceability Guidance

Listeria in the Crosshairs
One area the committee identified as needing an industrywide focus was Listeria monocytogenes. So, in 2015, the group created the Listeria Research Consortium that was built with funding from core dairy companies that chose to contribute and from another farmer-founded organization, National Dairy Council. To date, the consortium has raised more than $1 million and funded nine projects aimed at:

•    Listeria controls in products and in the plant environment

•    Listeria virulence research

•    Surface-ripened and fresh cheeses

The Listeria control guidance document was another activity of the team. The guide, published in 2015 and revised in 2017, offers a comprehensive approach to controlling Listeria in the dairy industry. It was authored by 13 industry experts and reviewed by academic and government experts. Last year, the materials were translated into Spanish. It is available for free download at www.usdairy.com/foodsafety.

The Innovation Center’s ability to leverage processors’ expertise and best practices allows it to share broadly through several training workshops. Two trainings that deliver an effective impact are the Dairy Plant Food Safety Workshop and the Supplier Food Safety Management Workshop.

The Dairy Plant Food Safety Workshops are 2-day, hands-on sessions designed to cover best practices and uniform approaches to in-plant pathogen control programs. Thirty-eight sessions have taken place since 2011, and more than 2,000 professionals have attended.

The Supplier Food Safety Management Workshops focus on how to build a supplier quality program and mitigate risk from materials and services. These also are 2-day interactive workshops that reach an audience of quality, supplier quality, and purchasing professionals. Thirteen sessions since 2011 have provided risk identification and mitigation tools to more than 200 people.

While it’s dairy’s largest companies driving commitments such as these, Stubbs says committee members have a collective ability to look well beyond themselves. In fact, smaller artisan/farmstead cheesemakers also benefit from the Innovation Center’s heavyweights. The mindset is that companies of all sizes suffer when consumer confidence is lost, no matter who has an issue.

While artisanal and farmstead cheesemakers account for only a small percentage of U.S. production volume, the number of companies is increasing, multiplying the potential for risk. Stubbs said there are about 1,000 cheesemakers devoted to meeting this growing consumer demand, and it’s why the Innovation Center formed the Artisan Food Safety Advisory Team (see “Resources for Artisanal and Farmstead Cheesemakers”).

The Innovation Center conducted 21 training sessions from 2012 to 2016, reaching 750 artisan/farmstead cheesemakers and regulators. To make the materials more accessible, the Innovation Center partnered with North Carolina State University (NCSU), the American Cheese Society (ACS), and others to build an interactive online version of the course.

The course—“Food Safety for Artisan/Farmstead Cheesemakers”—includes five interactive segments focused on the importance of food safety, food safety hazards, preventive controls, regulatory considerations, and product/environmental monitoring. Additional training guides and resources are available at www.safecheesemaking.org, which is hosted by the ACS, and there is also in-person outreach to help companies write their own food safety plan. The commitment to the artisan community extends to research efforts as well.

“There was uniform agreement that the number one focus needed to be artisan dairy,” Stubbs says. “This is where the vulnerabilities are, but those [artisan] companies don’t have the same resources. There would not be much research funding for queso fresco or Brie because companies who make them are not big enough to pay for it. So, we steered much of our research funding to Hispanic-style and surface-ripened cheeses for two reasons: One, we have seen outbreaks historically in this category. Two, if you can help these products, it helps most of the rest because high-moisture, neutral pH cheeses are the hardest nuts to crack.”

Travis says it’s a commitment that is well worth the investment from Innovation Center members.

“We all have learned that when smaller players stub their toe and have an issue, the whole industry is affected,” he says. “We don’t just focus on a truly competitive mindset, where as long as we don’t have a problem, there isn’t a problem. If anyone has a problem, the whole industry has a problem.”

Resources for Artisanal and Farmstead Cheesemakers

To support the rapidly growing artisan dairy community, the Artisan Food Safety Advisory Team was formed to enhance food safety and pathogen control with clear, easily accessible resources and training.  

•    Food Safety Basics for Artisan Cheesemakers – Online food safety course through North Carolina State University, accessible anytime from anywhere: www.usdairy.com/artisan

•    Safe Cheesemaking Hub – Centralized food safety links for cheesemakers powered by the American Cheese Society: www.safecheesemaking.org

•    Hands-on Food Safety Coaching – Work sessions to help artisan and farmstead producers develop/improve their food safety plan: dairyextension.foodscience.cornell.edu/programs/artisan-dairy-food-safety-coaching

•    Ice Cream – Food safety hub and online class coming soon  

•    Support Hotline – E-mail support for artisan and farmstead producers: dairyfoodsafetycoach@cornell.edu

Academic Support
The Innovation Center has surrounded itself with experts beyond those from dairy companies. It has built many relationships across the world of academia, including those through the National Dairy Foods Research Centers. This program encompasses the resources and skills of a network of universities divided into six regional groups across the U.S.

Since 1987, the dairy centers have received financial support from dairy farmers and processors to collaborate with organizations such as the Innovation Center. Each center has its own proficiencies, such as the Northeast Dairy Foods Research Center at Cornell University, which is a go-to source for food safety.

Dr. Sam Alcaine, a professor at Cornell’s Department of Food Science, is part of the Innovation Center’s artisan efforts and conducts research. He works with the Innovation Center and companies to help them understand the latest research and findings, which are always evolving.

“The challenge in the processing and ingredients environment is what we didn’t know before,” he says. “Twenty years ago, we didn’t quite know about Listeria and now we know about it and that requires different practices to be put into place.”

Alcaine has led workshops for dairy companies and their employees across the org chart, “from the executives on down to the linemen,” he says.

Much of his outreach centers on helping smaller companies understand and follow the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) that was signed into law in 2011. FSMA provides the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate how foods are grown, harvested, and processed.

In October 2017, Alcaine, with the Innovation Center, NCSU, and the University of Connecticut, secured a 3-year, $400,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. This provided the resources to conduct FSMA-focused food safety plan writing and coaching sessions nationwide. The target of this effort is artisanal cheese, ice cream, and other small dairy manufacturers. Alcaine, with regional extension help, examines their food safety plan and provides coaching where vulnerabilities exist.

“Even before this grant, we realized there were gaps,” Alcaine says. “We then wrote this grant with the idea of bringing in food safety experts from academia and large companies, so we could sit with the artisans and help them understand a food safety plan and see the risks and understand what they need to put in place. A lot of times, these are one- or two-person operations and they’re wearing a lot of hats and it’s easy to drop the ball.”

In addition to the Innovation Center-coordinated classes, Alcaine’s outreach stretches to medium-size companies, where he performs audits to help them identify weaknesses.

“It’s really important when you understand there are problems that could impact everybody,” he says. “If we all have a ‘we’re in this together’ mentality, that drives funding for the science to figure out where the problems are and then develop solutions. And it’s not just for the dairy industry. A lot of the learnings we discover are applicable to other foods.”

Unforeseen Benefits
When Stubbs reflects on the committee’s highlights over the last several years, the Listeria work bubbles to the top of tangible results for him. Yet, he offers a bigger-picture perspective. It’s the idea that people from competing companies have found common ground and camaraderie through the Innovation Center.

He never takes the uniqueness of it for granted.

“It’s pretty neat that 30 companies have been very active in food safety work, and they give us their top subject matter experts,” he says. “They let us have them 8, 9, sometimes 12 days a year, and when I talk to those individuals, they love doing it.

“We’re providing an outlet for sharing and collaboration that people are eager to do. It’s an opportunity that is safe and their companies support. It’s amazing how many volunteers we have and how deep they go and how much they work. It’s the power of getting all those great minds together.”

Travis has experienced an unexpected benefit from being involved with the group. He sees people from his company who have blossomed professionally by having a platform through the Innovation Center.

“Once you get them out of their plants, out of their offices, and get them in front of their peers doing a presentation or trying to convince someone that a different approach is better, you begin to impact professional development,” he says. “And that’s something that you hadn’t even thought about.

“I have seen a lot of people really put on a lot of polish as they have gone through the Innovation Center programs. That’s a nice benefit that we sometimes don’t talk about.”

Wilkin’s extensive knowledge base and strong voice have created a mentoring presence among her Innovation Center peers.

“I have Edith on speed dial,” Travis says, probably only half-kiddingly.

Wilkin, too, has a list of food safety accomplishments that she is proud of. There’s the Listeria Research Consortium…the various workshops...the thrill of discovering new knowledge together…helping the artisans…the best practices and guidance documents…the engagement with regulatory officials and academia…and so on.

“Are all of these things a surprise to me?” she asks. “I guess in thinking about being in a hotel meeting room in Green Bay, Wisconsin, way back when, none of us thought we’d get to this point and in pretty short order. We did our first pilot workshop in 2011, and a mere 7 years later, look where we are today with all these moving parts.

“When you think about the resources companies put into doing this sort of thing at a time when people are short on help, have too much work going on, and are dealing with competitive pressures—we’ve stayed committed to doing all of this together. That gives you a very warm feeling about the dairy industry as a whole.”  

Scott Wallin is vice president of industry media relations and issues management at Dairy Management Inc.