A Column Offered by Jim Mueller and Larry Bell of the Artisan Dairy Producer Food Safety Initiative
When the Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law seven years ago, both regulators and manufacturers knew putting it into practice would take time and a whole lot of effort.
Larger companies were asked to lead the way and reach compliance back in 2016.
As they navigated FSMA regulations, the bigger dairy processors began to fully recognize the challenge that new rules might pose for artisans, operating without the support of dedicated food safety staff.
To address this potential pitfall, a group of processors directed the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association to find a way to help, and – together with the Center for Dairy Research – WCMA earned a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture to provide FSMA training, via a program dubbed the Artisan Dairy Producer Food Safety Initiative.
That’s where we came in.
With nearly 90 years of combined dairy industry experience and nearly every food safety certification on our resumes, WCMA and CDR asked us to serve as the program’s Food Safety Educators. Our goals were clear: help artisans meet their FSMA compliance deadline of September 2018 and improve food safety practices across the industry.
Over the past two years, we’ve been honored to work with more than 80 dairy processors operating in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, providing FSMA workshops, on-call assistance, and dozens of template procedures and documentation forms, which are available now on WisCheeseMakers.org.
We’ve also provided on-site consultations at more than 70 manufacturing plants.
Some of those plants have 50 employees. Some have just a handful. Some are making many varieties of cheese for sale around the country, while others are only selling a couple kinds at a farmers’ market. Some are making ice cream. Some have generations of processing experience, and others are just getting their businesses started.
However operations may vary, one attribute is universally shared: dairy processors grasp the gravity of food safety in our industry. Despite competing demands on their time – and their preference to be working at the vat – the artisans we partnered with were committed to the process and paperwork needed to meet FSMA compliance. They’ve pored over paperwork, established and implemented new protocols, engaged in HACCP trainings, and – in some cases – even hired additional staff to meet requirements. Their commitment to providing safe, high quality, delicious products to consumers cannot be questioned.
Still, challenges to food safety at the artisan level remain, and those, too, seem universally shared.
Most artisans have limited technical resources in-house for food safety checks. You won’t find a lab tech or a QA manager in a two-person operation. As a result, environmental monitoring may be restricted.
Artisans’ buying power is limited, as their needs are limited. It can be difficult for these makers to find supplier partners that will sell a small quantity of sanitizers, like floor powders or granules, or enter into a pest control contract for a facility that’s just 5,000 square feet.
Similarly, we find that many artisans are purchasing spices or other ingredients for their cheeses or other dairy products off the shelf at big-box stores, because they cannot procure them at desired quantities via an industry supplier. That creates some risk, as the consumer retailers of the world will not provide the same level of assurance on content.
These challenges could also be considered business opportunities for industry suppliers. We can confirm the demand for goods and services is there; a supplier need only find a way to deliver smaller quantities in a way that’s still profitable.
We also believe there’s opportunity here for the industry to continue to strengthen itself by pooling food safety knowledge. WCMA, CDR, and Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin have launched the new Dairy Food Safety Alliance with the goal of sharing regulatory updates and insights from the brightest minds in government, research, and business. Joining is free and open to dairy processors of all sizes.
The truth is, FSMA compliance work is only just beginning. Our collective understanding of food safety continues to evolve and, as a result, regulations will evolve, too. Improving food safety in dairy processing facilities should be a continuous goal, and one we work hard to reach every day.