When it comes to operating any type of plant, be it a lamb, cow, or cheese operation, the operator will inevitably face the question of why something isn’t working. “Why is my cheese rotting?” “Why is my cow acting so shy?” Or “Why is the humidity so high in this room?” I can honestly say I have been there too. My experience in the cheese industry is by no means flawless, and mistakes have given me much knowledge and foresight to prepare for problems in advance. By using an established plan for good practices and understanding how to solve problems, I believe anyone can be successful at their operation.
Neville McNaugton, "Dr. Cheese"
I started working at Kapiti Cheese Co. in 1983. At the time, New Zealand had been making cheddar for over 100 years and this was the country’s forté. This was the same for the New Zealand Cooperative Rennet Co. While the rest of New Zealand only made cheddar, my new employer was making eight different kinds of natural cheese every day! I was at an age of craving knowledge and had the “can-do” attitude to experiment with even other cheeses. There was much support and room for expansion and change, including an extensive company research library, an active Dairy Technology Society, and lots of problems that had little to no answers.
As some of you may know, I am not afraid of problems. Problems, in my opinion, can all be solved.
In New Zealand, one response to getting our processes under control was to develop “quality manuals.” In America, one might refer to them as “Standard Operating Procedures”: a step by step process to, for example, build your own desk or tend to a sick animal. It was the book that had answers to almost everything. These were big on farms and cheese plants in New Zealand and paved my thought process for tackling problems. They showed me that problems do have answers. The real challenge was knowing where to look.
Based on that premise, let me now share some basic rules for starting a Cheese Operation.
Rule 1: Good Practices Instill Good Work
You may have to write your own code of conduct, Bible, or “quality manual,” but to truly save your time and become better at understanding your field, I recommend learning from others. The starting place is to get the generic GMP document from the Dairy Practices Council and modify it for your own use. It is your responsibility as a plant owner and/or operator to be able to write these documents, understand them and know your own situation better than anyone. Don’t assume you can simply write your own guide. Write them and have them reviewed by a credible source. If you need help, CheezSorce would be happy to assist you.
Allow me to share an example of a bad situation that would not have existed if good practices had been in place: I was contracted to work for a Hispanic Cheese operation that was regularly being infected with Listeria monocytogenes. My job was to figure out how and why this was occurring, but most importantly, figure out how to solve the problem. I discovered that there was no adequate cleaning system in place for the drains. With correct cleaning and sanitation practices, there would simply be no Listeria in the system drains. Additionally, it was important and unfortunate for me to address the fact that their cooling systems were not designed to be cleaned. If the system was infected, there was no solution but to replace it entirely. In this situation, understanding and having protocol for equipment use was imperative to the health of the plant. It became a harsh lesson that we must all beware of what we install, keeping in mind that one bad component could well be the Achilles Heal of a whole system.
Rule 2: Mistakes Will Make You Smarter
As I said, some mistakes are ones you’ve made and some you’ve watched others make. Whichever the case, reviewing processes, problems and solutions will greatly improve your chances of success. One way of doing this is to review reports of incidents that have occurred in other cheese plants around the world. For me, reviewing reports helps set my answers to problems into an existing framework.
Rule 3: Take Responsibility to Learn
As a new cheese plant operator, you will be challenged to learn many new things. Probably the most challenging role is to fill and uphold the State Inspectors’ expectations of your plant. You will most likely find yourself asking, “How do I find a path through the maze of legal and ‘technical’ requirements?” While there are no clear guidelines, the inspectors will surely tell you what is not going well. If the problem is truly bad, the FDA may step in to investigate. Of course, this is something we all want to avoid, and the only way to avoid these probabilities is to learn and plan ahead. In short, expect the unexpected.
Another example: Building a cheese plant requires a thought process that leads to the best decision about what type of materials you may want to use for your walls, be it interior or exterior. I can tell you that wooden construction, sheet rock, and the lack of vapor barriers are all causing many Cheese makers issues and additional expense as their buildings age. Additionally, hollow core walls are great places for roaches and other vermin to live in. Even little things like electrical outlets need careful planning, as they can provide easy access for little critters to enter your facility. To prevent this situation requires the Cheese maker/owner/operator to consult with someone who has experience building a plant. While one may have their thoughts and preferences for what one likes, it is necessary to plan carefully when building a cheese plant. Do not be afraid to learn and ask for help.
To sum things up, when a problem arises it is not acceptable to say, “nobody required or told me to do something differently.” There are always ways to prevent and improve. When planning and developing a cheese plant, you have to take initiative, responsibility, and do your research. From the making of plant to the making of the cheese, always record data to measure progress and change.
These three preceding rules are the first set of guidelines I suggest when deciding to enter the cheese business. I hope you will keep them in mind and are fearless in asking questions. Be prepared and don’t let the State or the Feds be the ones to inform you that your product or plant is insufficient, or worse yet, contaminated.