2009 Annual Report for LNE06-250
Strengthening farmstead cheese businesses through risk assessment, reduction, monitoring, testing, and technical support
From milk through finished cheese, this project is researching, developing, and pilot testing 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 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
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.
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.
2008: Of the 21 participants in the 2007 pilot project, 17 farmstead cheesemakers remained committed to inclusion in the pilot group and agreed to pay for the testing themselves. Four of the original participants decided not to continue in 2008 because the cost of testing did not justify the value of the project to them. However, they thought that the project was valuable to them in 2007 when the cost was covered by SARE. Two of these remaining 17 cheesemakers were not able to operate sampling/testing programs in 2008, citing personal reasons, but remain committed to the project. Two new farmstead cheesemakers joined the group in 2008, for a total of 19 in year two of the pilot.
Milestone 3: 15 farms will determine that the program should become a permanent part of their operations.
2008: 17 farmstead cheesemakers continued to monitor their risk reduction programs with periodic sampling and testing of milk, cheese and the environment. Be the end of 2008, 11 had stayed with the sampling/testing aspect of program for their entire time of cheese production, which ranged from six to twelve months depending on ruminant species and management style, e.g. seasonal or year-round; follow-up interviews will determine why the other cheesemakers did not continue their sampling/testing for the entire production period. Preliminary indications point to any of the following reasons: economic constraints, time constraints, adequate regulation in their own states, and confidence in quality and risk reduction because of improvements made in 2007.
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.
2009: The Vermont Cheese Council decided to pursue a quality assurance/risk reduction program. Eight of the pilot project participants are Vermont producers. The project will work with the VCC to develop a model program that can be adopted by other states.
Interviews with farmstead/artisan cheese buyers across the US found strong interest in a program which would provide documentation of best practices from milk to cheese production to shipping, handling, and distribution would provide assurance and traceability that would satisfy food safety risk and cheese quality needs.
2009: Peter Dixon shared findings from his two year risk management program work with the project’s farmers to more than two hundred farmers at the New England Direct Marketing Conference in March 2009.
Having determined the basis for farmstead cheese risk management protocols, this year’s emphasis was on evaluating market perceptions of a risk management program. To this end, the project partnered with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, the Vermont Cheese Council and consultant Rosalee Wilson to assess whether and how a risk management program could offer artisan cheese makers opportunity to not only maintain existing market share and wholesale buyer confidence but also capitalize on the added value consumer level marketing. Wilson conducted interviews with sixteen distributors and twenty retailers, varying in size from independent artisan cheese stores to national supermarket chains to determine:
1) Do wholesale and retail buyers feel there is a need for or interest in a risk management program for farmstead cheeses?
a. Do they have quality assurance standards in place as a requirement with their vendors, and if so, and what are they?
b. And, what are the areas of concern?
2) Do they feel that an RMP, based on what they see as areas of concern, could provide added value or a marketing advantage to artisan cheese makers? For example, would having a “symbol of approval” type of certification or branding element strengthen perceived value to retailers and consumers?
a. Could this enable the cheeses to command a higher price?
b. Would it help purchasers at the point of sale in selecting these products over others, thus increasing sales volume?
c. Would retailers and distributors be more likely to select and promote these cheeses, thus expanding market sector and new markets?
d. What suggestions might there be in promoting and marketing this program?
1. There exists an inherent assumption in the national artisan cheese industry that Vermont artisan cheese makers, by their very nature of being small, being in direct connection with retailers and distributors, and being in Vermont, have high quality standards and are following good practices, therefore need for a “formalized” program or bureaucratic approach is considered unnecessary. To the degree that this is a genuine compliment to the Vermont artisan cheese industry, it also represents a real threat to the Vermont brand and to individual cheese makers should a situation ever arise to challenge this assumption.
2. That good practices are valued, and that documentation of good practices could become the basis for a risk management program.
3. Through documenting one’s adherence to principles and good practices for the entire product lifecycle, from animal health, husbandry, and milk production through cheese production, all the way to shipping, handling, and distribution, in a manner in which third parties can understand, Vermont cheese makers can fulfill an industry assurance to suppliers and retailers that they are receiving product at the cusp of its ark of brilliance and in perfect condition, while also creating traceability that would satisfy food safety and risk management needs.
The study also found several related findings:
1. Adopting a “documentation program” could expedite new vendor application processes with larger retail establishments, potentially even becoming acceptable as an alternative to a chain’s own pro forma documentation.
2. A “documentation program” that included a marketing campaign that fostered networking opportunities between cheese makers and industry decision makers in key cities, and used point of sales materials to introduce consumers to the farms and families who produce the cheese, and depicted the values adhered to in making the cheese, would resonate with consumers and decision makers, increasing sales and market share for artisan cheeses.
3. Shippers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers who need to be trained in proper handling, storing, packaging, and shipping of artisan cheese. If cheese makers wish to protect product and brand integrity they will need to take it upon themselves to train shippers, handlers, wholesalers, and retailers—all individuals and entities coming into contact with their products, about good practices and principles.
4. Within the industry and the general public there is confusion regarding what constitutes artisan scale versus commercial scale cheese production. At what size, scale, and volume would a producer be considered too large to fit the definition of artisan cheese? This is considered a significant finding because value was placed on creating formalized oversight for larger scale operations but not for smaller scale operations.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
A documentation approach to risk assumes that producers have information, training, systems and monitoring in place and allows each individual producer the autonomy to document their own particular food safety risk procedures and principles. As such it has application to other producers of farm made value-added products. By creating and naming a template for producers to document their risk management procedures that is easily recognizable within the industry, the documentation approach could be incorporated into a quality assurance marketing campaign focused on buyers that in turn could be used to promote products to consumers.