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Checkoff Watch: Protecting consumer confidence core

Tim Stubbs for Progressive Dairy Published on 06 November 2019

I’d like to talk about cantaloupe. Specifically, a 2011 situation when a cantaloupe operation in Colorado was the focus of a deadly food safety crisis.

A nasty bug – Listeria monocytogenes – contaminated cantaloupes in a packing facility which were distributed across 28 states. There were 33 deaths among 147 confirmed illnesses, making it the deadliest outbreak in the U.S. since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began tracking outbreaks in the 1970s. The cantaloupe industry reportedly suffered a 40% drop in sales following this crisis. Some farms didn’t even harvest their fruit because they had no place to ship it.

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Now, I’d like for you to substitute the word “cantaloupe” with cheese, milk, yogurt, ice cream.

Sometimes there are risks which are largely outside your control, but I’d like to share one way your checkoff helps protect dairy through the farmer-led Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and its industrywide food safety efforts.

We owe it to our consumers to do everything we can to keep them safe, and we owe it to our dairy farmers to do what we can to maintain confidence in the foods produced by their hard work at the farm.

Consumers have choices

Food recalls today are under a global microscope, and they generate headlines. Consumers have options in the supermarket and if there is the least bit of doubt over the safety of a product (think romaine lettuce in 2018), they’ll seek an alternative.

When the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy was formed a decade ago, its leaders had a vision to come together and address mutual challenges. The entire value chain worked to adopt a pre-competitive mindset and focus on the greater good. These leaders agreed food-safety best practices needed to be shared by all processors. They knew if one product loses consumer trust, then the entire dairy community suffers.

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The Innovation Center’s food safety team convenes experts from the country’s largest dairy companies to share their knowledge and create resources to benefit the entire industry. Those efforts have grown since 2011, resulting in a broad array of classes and resources (see Dairy Plant Food Safety).

It’s very rewarding to see companies come together around a table and share their best practices – down to the most mundane details –with people they may compete against in the marketplace.

Our earliest efforts led to the creation of a series of workshops, including the Dairy Plant Food Safety workshop, Supplier Food Safety Management and Artisan/Farmstead Food Safety, which disseminate best practices to processors of all sizes and product types.

We teach a “seek and destroy” philosophy of controlling pathogens where manufacturers learn to identify and control risks. Are their floors, ceilings and equipment properly designed and in good condition? Do they have proper sanitation and environmental-monitoring programs? Are they controlling moisture and airflow?

We’ve run 86 workshops so far which have reached more than 3,700 participants, and we’ve created online classes for artisans, made tools available on our website and written widely adopted guidance documents. These efforts are supported with staff and funding from processors. They do not require checkoff funds.

Food-safety best practices are constantly evolving, and our industry gets better and better each year, so the workshops are updated as we learn information and include new topics. The workshops have gone from teaching introductory topics to more advanced sessions with hands-on exercises and lots of time for participants to ask questions of seasoned experts.

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The classes are conducted by experts from companies in a peer-to-peer format, which allows for difficult questions and helps everyone, including the trainers, learn new approaches and skills.

Resources for all

What is even more impressive is how willing the large companies are to help the smaller, artisanal ones which may lack the knowledge, staff or other resources needed to enhance their food safety protocols.

Dairy farmers who are producing farmstead cheese or ice cream and small companies all have access to materials geared toward them at Food Safety: Artisan and Farmstead Dairy, and they can get one-on-one coaching by contacting Dairy Food Safety Coach.

There are thousands of these small dairy companies around the U.S., so we’ve made some classes and resources available online, knowing not everyone can take the time or travel for workshops.

Helping companies of every size goes back to our philosophy of protecting consumers and knowing that a problem for one is a problem for all.

The longevity and depth of these efforts speaks to dairy’s commitment to food safety and the checkoff’s role in convening and leading the dairy community. We continue to gain momentum and add tools. With more than 100 active volunteers, we have new projects ranging from a guidance document for dairy powder plants (which are critical to U.S. exports) to an online introductory class for small ice cream manufacturers.

I am very proud to be part of these efforts, which speak to the giving nature of our industry. They show how willing people are to share what they know for the greater good, and they show the power of working together as a single dairy community.

The results of this effort also speak to our collective desire to not let a food safety scare harm dairy’s good reputation, which starts at the farm and continues all the way to the consumer.  end mark

Tim Stubbs
  • Tim Stubbs

  • Vice President, Product Research and Food Safety
  • Dairy Management Inc.

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