If it was up to dairy processing professionals, they never would hear about schoolchildren drinking milk that doesn’t taste good or a concerned customer picking up a dairy product in a grocery store and wondering about allergens or contaminants because of a recent recall that was in the news.

That vision of a sublime state for the industry is top of mind for manufacturers when they are devising and implementing their food safety plans.

In order for the industry to optimize its success, consumers need to trust that dairy is “safe and delicious,” said Chad Galer, vice president of product innovation and food safety for Dairy Management Inc. That’s one of the reasons DMI works to bring the industry together through its Innovation Center for US Dairy. Galer said he and others feel strongly that one “trip up” can have “a major impact” on sales for companies industry wide.

“Food safety is not a competitive advantage – the dairy industry really believes that,” Galer said.

Ideally, he said, consumers wouldn’t think twice about food safety and instead would trust they are buying safe products because of the strong regulations and partnerships in place in the dairy industry.


Identifying and preventing hazards

Food safety plans are nothing new for dairy companies. John Allan, vice president of regulatory affairs and international standards for the International Dairy Foods Association, said Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles were widely used beginning in the 1990s.

By 2010, Allan added, the vast majority of US dairy companies had HACCP plans. So when the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) became law in 2011, there wasn’t much of a learning curve. Dairy companies already had a good handle on HACCP when FSMA regulation introduced its Preventive Controls Rule, which Allan described as an upgrade to HACCP principles, with a lot of overlap and some tweaks and modifications.

Galer said once FSMA was established, manufacturers’ food safety plans began covering process points, sanitation, hazard controls, allergen hazard controls and the supply chain, leading to more holistic prevention.

“Products are very safe,” Galer said, adding that’s “one of the great things” about dairy. “We’ve been early adopters of some of the first food safety practices in the country.”

With the Preventive Controls Rule serving as the standard for hazard analysis, Allan said the execution of a food safety plan is key. That starts with required documentation for every step of the process. Companies must keep records of: preventive controls for identified hazards and verification that they are controlled, monitoring that ensures preventive controls are consistently performed, a full account when corrective actions are taken, a supplier approval and verification program, a recall plan, all testing and auditing results and food safety plan reanalysis results.

“It all hinges on proper paperwork, record keeping,” Allan said of implementing a successful food safety plan. “And just kind of understanding, having a good grasp of the hazards and having a good food safety background.

“It requires a level of expertise. Without that in the company, companies would be at risk of failing and having food safety problems.”

Another critical component of the equation, Galer said, is instituting a food safety culture so employees from the top down are taking the proper approach day in and day out.

“You can have the best plan, but if it’s not executed on third shift at 2 a.m. in the morning perfectly, it doesn’t matter how good the plan is,” Galer said, adding it can be a challenge to get everyone on board. “It comes down to the execution.”

Along those lines, Galer said the Innovation Center for US Dairy has an initiative in place to create a safety culture dashboard for the industry, to help companies large and small not only track what they are doing, but also check to see how they stack up with other dairy organizations.


Procedures keep improving

While food safety plans are part of standard operating procedures at this point for dairy processors, Allan said carrying them out also has evolved for the better.

Verifying plans and following the Preventive Control Rule relates to testing and sampling throughout the manufacturing process.

“The technology and the scientific tools for testing are still continuing to advance, so that’s where we’re seeing the greatest change in terms of food safety,” Allan said.

Such developments have made it possible for dairy processors to better detect hazards in ingredients and products and be able to respond to those testing results in their plants at the ground level, making it easier to “stay on top of things,” he explained.

Galer said impactful detection systems go beyond just metal, pointing to image systems as an example of progress.

“There are materials other than metal that can be an issue if they get into products,” he said. “We don’t want that. So there’s a lot of technology developing there to really try to catch that.”

Additionally, in process monitoring is improving with breakthroughs in sensors. Even so, Galer said the industry needs even more headway on such technological fronts to make sure dairy is minimizing hazards and keeping the industry vibrant.

Notably, dairy professionals are seeing continuous improvements in their food safety plans with data management systems, Galer said, which are imperative for documentation and keeping track of the process.

“Getting things done as efficiently as possible and having those sources of data management more robust is important,” he said, noting he wants to see “a lot more” data management systems made accessible to an even broader set of dairy producers in the near future.

Thanks to technological steps in the right direction, Allan said the process of identifying and rectifying hazards has become easier and more effective in recent years.

“Companies have much more sensitivity to detecting problems before they get out of control,” he said of the current state of dairy’s food safety plans. “So it’s all about detecting things before they spiral and become a major problem.”

Food safety and quality issues, such as environmental contaminants getting into the production line, can be detected more effectively now than they could just a few years ago.

“The earlier and sooner and quicker you’re able to detect those things and then respond to them, to cleaning and sanitation and hygiene controls, the better off you are,” Allan said.


Consumers in mind

The purpose behind all of the rules, plans and protocols is to deliver an optimal product to consumers. Allan thinks the industry’s history of food safety plans and long established relationship with HACCP principles should give customers confidence in the safety of their dairy foods and beverages.

Almost 20 years ago, IDFA offered a significant amount of HACCP workshops for the dairy industry, even before FSMA and its Preventive Control Rule were in place.

“I think the dairy industry in particular has been kind of ahead of the game, compared to maybe other segments of the food industry, broadly speaking, as far as adopting and implementing HACCP,” Allan said. “So they were in a good position once the preventive controls came along to adjust and be able to be compliance ready for those new rules.”

Galer said one such early adjustment involved the concept of proving a sanitation program was effective. But now dairy processors commonly understand how to tie that in with their environmental monitoring programs to document that they clean and don’t pick up organisms at their plants.

Similarly, they can test for allergens and pathogens with test kits, swabbing after they clean to check for effective removal of any hazards and avoid cross contamination.

“It is a lot more comprehensive,” Galer said of the benefits of modern food safety plans that address hazard analysis and critical control points.

And while companies are seeing a reduction in allergen recalls, Galer said he would like to see even fewer.

“It’s still a challenge,” he said.