How to Ensure the Quality and Safety of Cheese Products

During the cheesemaking process, biological, chemical and physical hazards can introduce foodborne pathogens such as Listeria and Salmonella, unwanted allergens, or harmful foreign matter into finished products—with possibly dangerous outcomes.

“Any of the three could cause significant injury, illness or even death, given the nature of the specific hazard or underlying health condition of the consumer,” says Greg Desautels, vice president, quality assurance and food safety for Saputo Dairy USA. “For that reason, it’s the utmost priority of dairy manufacturers to identify these potential hazards and ensure they’re prevented.”

Generally, they have been. A cheese-related Listeria outbreak hasn’t occurred since September 2019. Since July 2019, the United States Department of Agriculture has only reported two foreign object contamination instances in prepackaged items containing cheese, which wasn’t identified as the source of the issue in either case. And the last E. coli outbreak investigation tied to cheese was in 2010.

Numerous factors—ranging from ingredient sourcing uncertainty to employees cleaning more than one facility area with a single-use scrub pad—pose a continued cheese manufacturing risk, however. To ensure the quality and safety of the production process, cheesemakers should implement the following proven practices.

Create a Contamination-Adverse Layout

CPG manufacturers and consumers may not directly ask cheese producers about facility design, but it plays a role in safeguarding against quality and contamination issues.

Producers need to consider equipment placement, employee mobility, and other functionality concerns to avoid issues such as bacteriophage, a virus that attacks specific strains of bacteria and can prosper within production facilities due to poorly designed air systems.

“The acidification rate may be affected by numerous factors, but the one that all cheesemakers are constantly working to manage is the risk of bacteriophage buildup in the plant, [which causes] cheese cultures to slow their acidification rate,” Desautels explains. “If the acidification rate is thrown off, many different problems arise [that can affect] cheese composition, texture, flavor, functionality, yields and shelf life.”

Because Listeria monocytogenes can be found in so many places, including soil (enabling the bacteria to potentially enter the factory via someone’s shoes), contamination can be a key concern in the cheese production process after milk has been pasteurized, according to Alex O’Brien, dairy safety and quality coordinator at the Center for Dairy Research.

As a defense, O’Brien says, facilities may want to employ hygienic zoning principles, which can involve providing employee uniforms, including shoes, and a footbath that’s checked regularly to ensure the concentration of sanitizer is within a particular range.

“You want to make sure you have an employee area to get dressed, with two separate [locker] sections—one for the uniform designed for the plant and another part for clothing from home,” he says. That way, an employee is required to shed the shirt worn to work that could have been contaminated with salmonella from a splash of raw egg while he was making breakfast that morning, for example.

Thorough Facility and Equipment Cleaning

In addition to bacteria being tracked in from outside, spreading it within the building can also be a problem.

Listeria monocytogenes really loves standing water,” O’Brien says. “If you aren’t controlling your footbaths or cleaning the floors often, that could be a risk for it to get on boots. You want to make sure all floors are draining properly and drains aren’t backing up—and that you aren’t walking through and splashing water up onto surfaces that are higher off the ground.”

To facilitate detailed cleaning, production process machinery also needs to have accessible components. “Make sure equipment has a cleanable design,” O’Brien continues. Some components “have really small angles you can’t reach, which means they aren’t cleanable,” he adds.

Employee cleaning protocols can also help ensure product safety, according to Chad Galer, vice president of food safety for Dairy Management Inc., which manages the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, an organization that works to ensure a socially responsible and economically viable dairy community.

“You have to take a methodical approach to cleaning,” he says. For example, ensure that “when you say a scrub pad is single use, people understand that means it can cause contamination in different areas. People are so used to [just] grabbing a hose and washing things down.”

Reduce Supplier Risk

Although smaller cheese manufacturing operations typically only have one allergen—milk—on premises, having vendor controls in place, such as documentation that states shipments of milk or other ingredients don’t contain certain allergens, is a good idea, O’Brien advises. “Other smaller inclusions—spices, especially—[must be] treated and certified to help reduce [the presence of] microorganisms,” he says.

A solid supply chain program generally includes identifying and mitigating the concerns that are associated with different items and people coming into your plant. If employees of your supplier companies wear uniforms, for example, you must think about where they’ve been before they come into your facility, Galer says. Is a provider “cleaning their laundry carts when they come in, or bringing something dirty into your plant?” he asks. “When your customer asks for something, are you holding suppliers to the same standard you’re being asked [to uphold]? Make sure those programs match and are doing the right thing to protect consumer interest and public health.”

Proactively Promote Quality Assurance 

Before cheese products are released to be sold or delivered, a metal detection system can help reduce the risk of a product leaving the facility with a piece of metal or gasket that had broken off during production. Physical inspections and microbiological testing also can help ensure quality and safety, Galer says.

“Things can happen where public health isn’t as much of a concern but quality is affected—flavor being off, or not curing correctly, depending on the type of cheesemaking,” he explains. “Think of final yeast and mold microbiological testing, X-ray/metal detection or even chemical testing as a check for big issues. Everything you can do upfront to make sure you have things under control and eliminate or reduce risk will be more effective than relying on an end test to catch it.”

Annual employee training is crucial to ensure the cheesemaking steps that take place before final testing will produce high-quality cheese products that meet industry safety standards—a not uncommon approach in the industry. “With items such as hazard analysis, material controls or metal detectors, even pest control, I’ve seen [training] done as often as quarterly,” O’Brien says. “Every plant is under the jurisdiction of the U.S Food and Drug Administration. They ensure we’re making safe food.”

But cheesemakers already “hold themselves to a very high standard,” he adds. “They take pride in what they make—and want to make sure they’re supplying these items safely.”

Read The Saputo Promise to learn about Saputo’s commitment to food quality and safety, as well as other aspects of good corporate citizenship.

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