Milk to Cheese
Starting at the farm, this lab keeps an eye on quality.
The laboratory is at the center of all the action in the facility, which also produces lactose powder and a whey protein called reduced lactose. The laboratory is involved in every step of production, starting with testing samples arriving from the farmers’ fields, continuing through production, and finishing with releasing the product for shipment to customers.
Jerry Labelle, the lab supervisor at the facility, explains, “The primary function of the lab is testing: ingredient testing and a lot of finished product testing.” However, the lab is involved in much more.
From the farm to the table
The entire process starts at the 150 farms that the facility receives its milk shipments from. In the dairy industry, it is a requirement that every load of milk must be tested for antibiotics before unloading, and if antibiotics are found, the entire shipment is rejected.
As a result, the laboratory is involved with the farmers long before the milk arrives in tankers at the facility. The laboratory accepts samples from farmers that the lab sends away for antibiotic testing to ensure that the cows’ milk has no traces of antibiotics in it. If a farmer had a sick cow that was being treated with antibiotics, the testing would give farmers the information they need to be confident the milk they send to the facility would be accepted. The quality of milk is also important to Agropur, and farmers are able to have samples sent away for somatic cell testing through the lab.
When the milk arrives, it is first tested for antibiotics by an intake receiver who is trained to use the Charm threeminute test. If the milk tests positive for antibiotics, the sample is sent to the lab and tested a second time. The lab at the Weyauwega facility is certified to test for antibiotics, and if milk tests positive in this second test, the load of milk is rejected, and the lab work continues with further testing to determine which farm was responsible for contaminating the load of milk.
During processing, the lab performs analyses on cheese and powder samples pulled from production, and depending on the sample, the lab can monitor the moisture, fat, salt content, pH, and/or ash (mineral content). There is also a microbiology lab on-site, which is responsible for analytical and microbiological in-process testing, running standard plate counts and performing coliform, yeast, and mold analysis on all of the cheeses and powdered products.
A day in the life
The lab has three full-time and three part-time technicians, with Labelle filling in whenever necessary. All of the technicians rotate responsibilities weekly, moving between cheese, lactose, or whey-concentrate product analysis, and they can be given additional duties such as running milk samples, environmental swabbing, or taking air samples. The plant is a 24/7 facility, but the technicians start the day at five o’clock in the morning. The first technician to arrive gathers samples that need to be sent out for external lab testing, whether they are samples from farmers for somatic cell and/or antibiotic testing, or environmental swabs or powder samples for pathogen testing. The technician also generates reports for production, reporting which products need retesting and which products are ready to be released for shipping. The remainder of the shift is spent performing routine analysis on the cheese and whey, and entering the data from the analysis into Oracle.
The next technician who arrives works in the microbiology lab and is responsible for protein analysis, ash testing, and pH testing, and running all of the microbiological work for production on that particular day. Testing starts with ensuring that the milk is suitable for the cheese being produced. To help production workers standardize the milk, the technicians run the samples (milk and cream) through a milk analyzer. To ensure that the milk is producing a high product yield, vat samples made that day are run through the milk analyzer so that the lab can keep track of butterfat and protein for that day’s production. The results are provided to the production staff, and the milk is adjusted accordingly. To ensure that the consumer receives the best-quality product, the laboratory tests the product as it moves through production, ensuring that it meets customer specifications.
Throughout the day, samples are prepared for shipping out the following day, and any antibiotic test results that come from the external lab are relayed to the farmers by the technicians. When the night shift comes in, they continue the work done in the microbiology lab. All the technicians maintain records of analysis and enter the data into Oracle, which allows them to compile information about the product and gives Labelle all the information he needs before he approves the product for shipping. All documentation and analysis is sent to the state of Wisconsin, which has a split-sampling program in place with the facility and that audits the lab to ensure that the lab meets the requirements to be certified. In addition to monitoring production, the lab monitors air quality in the plant, as well as monitoring central sanitizing systems and foot foamers, and performs environmental swabbing.
Roles and responsibilities
The employees in the lab have a variety of experiences and degrees, and although a degree is not required to work in the lab, some employees have bachelors’ degrees in microbiology or dairy technology. The technicians receive training beyond basic lab responsibilities and techniques as they undergo HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point), GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice), and safety training, along with a month of hands-on training in the lab before they are left to work independently. The technicians also obtain water and antibiotic testing certification and licenses, since the lab at Agropur must meet the requirements of a certified lab.
Labelle has experience in research and development and quality assurance, and has worked as a lab supervisor and lab manager. He has been with Agropur for seven years and says that the role of the lab has changed in that time as customer quality and safety requirements have led to increased responsibilities. “As customers make more demands for food safety programs, we look at the resources of the plant and work to meet the new requirements,” Labelle explains. The increase in responsibility has led to hiring more staff. There has also been an increase in data entry into Oracle and various spreadsheets, with two to three hours spent on data entry daily.
The role of the lab supervisor has also changed, “It used to be that the lab supervisor just supervised the lab and handled the reports,” Labelle says, and now, along with the quality assurance manager, the two are responsible for approving and releasing the product for shipment. The Oracle system assists with the approval process, since the system does not allow the product to be released unless standards are met. Labelle also works closely with the field staff in other plant locations, and although there is a member of staff who performs HACCP record reviews in conjunction with the QA manager, Labelle is ultimately responsible for HAACP reviews pertaining to milk coming into the plant.
“Making sure everything goes smoothly is the important thing,” Labelle says regarding the day-to-day operation of the lab and facility, but there can be some unexpected challenges such as equipment that fails and requires immediate repair while the lab still needs to complete testing. Labelle also describes the importance of coordination between production and the laboratory, because trucks could be delayed by waiting for the release of the product because testing is not complete.
Most communication in the lab is face-to-face, and Labelle interacts with staff on all the shifts. Notes are left on a lab whiteboard if there is important information to pass on, and issues are communicated by e-mail. If there are new requirements for analysis, Labelle will hold an informal lab meeting to address the topic and discuss how lab workers can accommodate the requirements as a team, and he will get immediate feedback from the technicians.
Labelle says that he does little supervising and acts as more of a resource for staff, filling in for people who may be away or assisting them with any problems they may have. Like many lab managers, he is responsible for many duties with regard to the maintenance and operation of the lab. Labelle is responsible for troubleshooting any equipment that breaks down, and he performs preventive maintenance and calibration as required, e.g., the calibration of the milk analyzer on a monthly basis. His duties also include maintaining inventory, ordering supplies, and keeping the workers motivated. Labelle enjoys working with and training his staff; there is not a high turnover in the lab, and the atmosphere is positive as all are happy to help out when they can. He is available to his staff if there are any problems, and the biggest challenge he faces is keeping staff motivated and excited about their work. Labelle also says he “enjoys the challenge of getting a piece of equipment up and running,” and he has learned to become self-sufficient by doing his own troubleshooting and working with manufacturers over the phone.
The lab has acquired a host of new equipment over the last few years including a microwave oven, a milk analyzer, and a Babcock centrifuge, and Labelle hopes that he will be able to update the lab with the next budget. Many things have changed in the lab over the years, but one thing that does not change often is the staff.
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