Strengthening farmstead cheese businesses through risk assessment, reduction, monitoring, testing, and technical support
From milk through finished cheese, this project will research, develop, and pilot test a product safety risk reduction program for farmstead cheesemakers and convert the added-value of program participation into a marketing advantage. Producers will assess the impact of the program on their business and research the feasibility of forming an organization to make the program self-sustaining. If found to be viable, the project will result in a regional technical assistance, testing and marketing association.
The project takes work by the region’s universities to help farmstead cheesemakers develop Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) food safety plans, to the next level: a formal system for monitoring plans, independent verification through testing, with results going to the farm and a technical advisor, and assistance for corrective action if needed. The project adapts the well-established European Union (EU) Directives for risk reduction to New England/NY. The project’s technical advisor will work with cheesemakers in an on-farm pilot to not only develop, but monitor and verify HACCP plans by testing for microbiological contaminants and help the farm work through any problems surfaced by testing.
Because these extra steps will cost producers more money, the project will conduct business planning for a formal association that can provide technical assistance, testing services and also undertake marketing and promotional efforts targeted at wholesale and retail buyers to return the added value of the program to producers who adopt a verifiable risk reduction regime as part of their operations
*Of the 100 farmers who participate in one of three Farmstead Cheese Safety Risk Reduction Seminars, 20 will join the New England/NY Farmstead Cheese Pilot Program. Of these, fifteen will adopt the risk assessment, monitoring and testing systems developed by the pilot program as a permanent feature of their operation and will form the core of a regional cheesemakers association to provide on going technical assistance, testing and marketing services to members. These farms will take this action because the program 1) produced a quantifiable increase in the profitability of their operations, over and above its cost, by the prevention of the loss of at least one batch of cheese and/ or by retaining or adding or expanding a market outlet and 2) made the cheesemakers feel more secure, more positive and less anxious about the future of their industry.
Milestone 1: 100 cheese producers will attend one of three seminars on farmstead cheese safety risk reduction to learn how to use HACCP risk analysis and planning to reduce potential for pathogen contamination of their products. Verified by attendance records and workshop evaluations.
2007: With the help of state cheese maker organizations and Cooperative Extension, four day-long HACCP Seminars were held around region (NY, CT, VT, ME) to provide training on HACCP planning and recruit farms for the risk management program. NH farms were invited to attend the VT and CT workshops; MA invited to VT and CT workshops, RI to CT workshop, and VT to NY and VT workshops. 5 of the farms had a HACCP plan in place; all but one farm felt their knowledge of HACCP had increased; and all but 4 farms indicated they would look for and be more aware of contamination points and or write or update a HACCP plan. From the 70 participants, 24 farms signed-up for the program, 22 joined and 21 stayed with it. They are a mix of large and small producers from VT, NY, ME, MA and CT who make sheep, goat and cow cheeses, some from milk produced on-farm, some from off the farm and some from both.
Milestone 2: 20 farmers will see the value of going one step further and enter into a pilot program to verify through testing the effectiveness of their HACCP plans and work together to plan a self-sustaining association to carry on the program. Verified by producer participation and on-going evaluation of the pilot. A pre-pilot survey will gather baseline data on the farm’s current sanitation practices, numbers of batches, pounds per batch, annual pounds of cheese produced each year, for past 3 years, and market value along with an estimate of number of batches (pounds) lost per year and estimated cost of the loss (time, materials, sales) and why, industry and marketing concerns related to product safety issues, and perceptions about quality assurance and risk reduction, e.g., if they need more training and assistance.
2007: 24 farms signed-up for the program, 22 joined and 21 are still members of the pilot. Seminars were evaluated; pre-pilot survey was collected. The latter forms the basis for the project database which tracks sample data and technical assistance. Site visits were held on pilot farms; HACCP reviewed; sampling protocols put in place and farmers trained to collect and ship samples; samples collected, analyzed and test results reported. Approximately 400 raw milk, 120 cheese, and 120 environmental samples were tested. Identified problems were discussed and solved.
Milestone 3: 15 farms will determine that the program should become a permanent part of their operations. Verified by producer participation in a formal evaluation of the pilot to include a post-pilot survey to assess the farm’s experience with new sanitation practices, training in HACCP planning, testing facilitation and technical assistance in monitoring the test results. Farms will report numbers of batches, pounds per batch of cheese produced under the pilot regime, and number of batches (pounds) lost for comparison to the post – pilot benchmark data. Farms will provide an estimate of savings and/or additional income and profits received due to program participation, to be compared with costs of the program. Farms will be queried on industry and marketing concerns related to safety issues. In sum, a thorough assessment of benefits eg. increased numbers/pounds of successful batches, access to markets greater confidence in cheesemaking, safety risk reduction benefits, quality control improvements, etc. and costs eg. time, changes in facilities, equipment, testing, etc. will be made to document and quantify improved profitability, quality of life and preparation for the future.
2007: The first phase of the pilot testing program ended on January 1, 2008. The SARE grant paid all of the testing and shipping costs for each farm during this period of July 1 to December 31, 2007. The pilot participants will be paying the costs of testing and shipping samples for their own risk reduction plans for the next 18 months. New plans will be developed for each farmer during January, 2008 that focus on affordability and will be designed according to scale of cheese production, as is done in France and other EU countries. The information gained from the first phase will be used to facilitate this process.
Feedback from farmers indicates that most if not all the producers will continue the program. The information returned to the farm from sampling has been helpful both in assuring that all is well and if not, identifying problems and fixing them. Farmer responses to the test results and technical assistance indicate that farmers appreciated the pilot project. They were able to learn more about their milk and cheese quality and make improvements to both. They also identified potential risks to cheese quality from the environment of the creamery and were able to reduce these risks by improving their sanitation programs, which is a part of the HACCP plan. The gain in pounds of cheese with saleable quality for each farmer has not been documented yet. A summary of the benefits, improvements, and costs of the testing program for each farm are being prepared now that the data has been entirely collected.
Milestone 4: 15 farmers will institutionalize milk and cheese risk management planning and testing into a New England/NY certification, technical assistance and marketing association and seek the participation of other cheesemakers in the association by sharing their experiences, benefit/cost analysis (as documented above) and the business feasibility study at a series of regional cheese safety seminars. Verified by business feasibility planning, producer participation and decision-making.
The kick-off seminars were very, very well received, with producers acknowledging the importance of developing and using HACCP. Our goal of 20 participants in the pilot was accomplished. These producers have indicated that the testing has identified areas requiring more diligent or different approaches to preventing contamination. On those farms where no problems have been identified, producer confidence has increased. Farms that identified problems were pleased to have that info and to be able to go though a process, sometimes with further testing to verify the finding and if needed to find and solve the problem. Right now we feel confident that most farms will continue the program.
While a formal report is in progress for the July through December 2007 sampling period, we know the following was accomplished as a result of testing:
• one farmer held back a batch of cheese, which had a pathogen, thereby preventing a costly recall, subsequent loss of markets and more. In tracking down the problem it was learned the contamination came from an ingredient added to the cheese; the ingredient was discarded and procedures were put in place to assure proper handling and storage of the new ingredient, an addition to the HACCP plan.
• problems with high levels of bacteria were identified in samples from 8 farms and these levels were lowered within one month so that higher quality cheese was made.
• cheese and milk quality problems on 2 farms were traced to contaminated water.
• potential pathogen contamination was identified in 6 cheese samples, which were sent for further identification to a separate laboratory. These samples proved pathogen free. The process made encouraged farmers to search for sources of the contaminant, which although not dangerous to consumers was a risk to cheese quality.
• In two cases, problems were identified in purchased milk, leading to improved procedures for monitoring quality by the milk source.
• In three cases, cheese brines were found to be a source of contamination ( a new learning in itself); contaminated brines were eliminated and now brine is being sampled on a regular basis at every farm.
• cheese draining and ripening matting was found to be a contributor to cheese contamination and procedures were changed to sanitize these by more frequent cleaning and hot water cooking.
• sources of environmental contamination (mostly from drains) that created risks to cheese safety were identified on 14 farms and procedures were changed to eliminate these risks.
• six farms received technical assistance to directly improve the quality of their cheeses by changing cheesemaking and aging techniques.
A report to the American Cheese Society in July describing the program and its goals was very well received with many producers and agencies looking forward to learning more.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Based on the positive results/benefits of the program, research into ways to institutionalize this program are underway, with a report expected in the spring.
As reported above, the project:
* Identified areas requiring more diligent or different approaches to preventing contamination.
* Increased producer confidence
* Reinforced to producers that problems can be tracked down to sources and solved.
* Brought new issues to light: false positives; contaminants in brine and more.
* Confirmed that producers can monitor HACCP plans, are interested in learning how to make better cheeses and that there is a national audience for findings.