An investment in technology and a strong culture that promotes food safety and quality distinguish Wisconsin-based cheese company Sargento Foods Inc. from the crowd. The family-owned and operated company was recently named winner of the prestigious 2020 Food Quality & Safety award.
The award, presented annually by Food Quality & Safety magazine, honors the dedication and achievement of an organization that makes significant contributions to uphold the highest food standards supported by quantifiable results. This year, our panel of judges, composed of food quality and safety experts, determined that Sargento Foods demonstrated a comprehensive food safety and quality management program that included a robust focus on technology and training.
Founded in 1953 and headquartered in Plymouth, Wisc., Sargento Foods employs nearly 2,000 people and has taken in $1.4 billion in net sales. The company’s business philosophy began with is founder, Lenoard A. Gentine. Sargento successfully introduced America to sliced and shredded pre-packaged natural cheese, says Portia Young, the company’s director of corporate public relations. He believed in treating people like family—not only employees, but also the company’s consumers, business partners, and neighbors in the community; this philosophy forms the foundation of the company’s commitment to food safety and quality and demonstrates its history of upholding high standards and making investments for the long term, she says.
The philosophy is, “How can we be predictive and find or detect problems before they become problems?”—Vijay Krishna, Sargento Foods Inc.
Two highlights of the company’s recent investments are a multimillion-dollar enterprise resource program (ERP), completed in 2018, and a central microbiology laboratory expansion, completed last year. The lab will also include a new software that should be completed in the first half of 2021. The company, which is one of the largest cheese companies in the United States, also has invested in ongoing employee training at all levels, from the production line through management. One of the company’s 20 principles that comprise the corporate culture is career and personal development, which is why training and continuing education are investments it willingly makes.
Vijay Krishna, Sargento Foods’ vice president of food safety and quality, says that the keys to mitigating risk and improving and maintaining top-notch products lie in the company’s culture, its employees, and its processes. “I think what makes us special is our ability to continually innovate and invest in the area of food safety and quality. This is not just something we started doing in the past few years; our values as a company keep us firmly on the side of putting people first. Our quality systems protect the integrity of our products, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because that’s what anyone would do for their own family.”
With more than 1.1 million square feet of factory space across three plants, the company creates approximately 300 million pounds of sliced, grated, string, stick, and custom cheese products per year for the consumer and food service industry markets. The company also includes a technology center in Elkhart Lake, Wisc., and is run by third-generation CEO Louie Gentine II and third-generation executive vice president of operations Mike McEvoy.
Bridging the Digital Divide
The ERP conversion was one of many significant technology upgrades in the company’s 67-year history. Adopting a digital system has made it easier for the Sargento team to pull relevant information and data together to help them make the right decisions at the right time when it comes to food safety and quality.
Krishna says the move to the SAP platform was a major endeavor for the organization, and it took a while for employees to adapt and learn the new system. But, at this point, he says the company is exceeding its expectations for quality using the system. “The philosophy is, ‘How can we be predictive and find or detect problems before they become problems?’” he says. That’s why the company is investing ample time and financial resources in food safety and quality initiatives, he adds.
About a year ago, the company expanded the size of its corporate microbiology laboratory so it could consolidate testing in one location. The company also invested in a laboratory information management system to further enhance data integrity for the micro lab.
Another multi-million-dollar investment across all Sargento Foods facilities enhanced the separation between high care and low care manufacturing zones. High care areas are where the cheese is exposed in some way or when it is converted, for example, from a block of cheese into slices.
The company typically purchases 40-pound blocks of cheese, converts them into different shapes, and then packages them. It works closely with suppliers to provide the high-quality cheeses when it comes to taste, texture, and freshness. A set of Wisconsin-licensed cheese graders sit on the quality team, professionals unique to the state, who assess inbound cheese for key attributes such as color, flavor, pH level, and appearance. They also ensure that the cheese has the right knit or body to withstand the conversion process. When the cheese arrives, it often has secondary packaging that has to be removed. It is then taken to a room where it can be shredded, sliced, or converted into sticks. The highest opportunity for microbial, physical, or chemical cross-contamination occurs when the cheese doesn’t have packaging protection, so conversion and packaging are performed in the high-care areas. “We have to make sure we have the right protocols in place to protect the product at all times during the entire manufacturing process,” Krishna says.
Food Safety Plans
Sargento Foods has established several distinct food safety plans to ensure that biological, physical, chemical, and radiological issues are controlled and that the products it produces are safe and in accord with the Food Safety Modernization Act, says Young. The company’s food safety plans are based on the Codex Alimentarius principles of food hygiene established by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 1963.
Sargento Foods also has comprehensive preventive programs in place, including (but not limited to) environmental monitoring, pest control, preventive maintenance, sanitation, allergen control, food safety and quality training, supply chaing control, and recall.
When it comes to pest control, for example, Jennifer Weber the company’s quality systems manager, says that Sargento Foods conducts a shadow audit with an employee who makes sure that everything is checked by the third-party agent. The company randomly checks pest traps by placing a business card inside them to make sure the pest-control operator is actually checking every trap when he or she is on site.
The plans have helped lead to improved Global Safe Food Initiative audit ratings by the BRC in 2020. “In 2020, all of our manufacturing facilities received an ‘AA’ BRC rating,” says Kerry Kremer, the company’s senior vice president of manufacturing and engineering. The “AA” is the highest BRC rating for a planned audit.
Krishna says that the company’s food safety plans are robust and comprehensive. “It’s a dynamic document, which means we continuously pressure test it against new risks that come up, and we do an audit against that plan,” he says.
The company shares the audit across the organization and shares important information with its suppliers. It has a program called “Audit Ready All Year” so that employees and factories are ready for an audit at any time. Protocols for managing the food safety plans also are in place. A cross-functional team at the plant level meets at least once a month to discuss any issues and corrective measures. Also, a corporate-level committee, which Krishna, Kremer, and others sit on, reviews food safety and quality initiatives and investments at least on a monthly basis. “I think we have a great check-and-balance. [We] make sure … our plan is doing what it’s designed to do, which is to protect the food, protect the brand, and exceed stakeholder expectations,” Krishna says.
He adds that the company works on a lot of relationship building and strategic partnerships with its suppliers. “Obviously, we do an audit with them on product formulation and specifications, but what might separate us from other companies is that we have a personal relationship with many of our suppliers. We’ll share information that we’ve discovered because we do not believe food safety is a competitive advantage. We rise together as an industry and the more best practices we can share, the better off we will be,” he says.
Training is another important aspect for food safety at Sargento Foods, says Krishna. He says the company spends a lot of time and energy to build the right skill sets and technical awareness across the organization. “When you work in food safety and quality, you have to work collaboratively with other groups,” he says. “One of the things you need to do is be able to influence groups.”
Weber says the company has been using the Alchemy learning management system geared toward food and employee safety for a number of years. More recently, it incorporated that software into its SAP base learning management system. “That really helped enhance our training for our employees,” says Weber. “We have a one-stop shop where they can go into something we call ‘My Learning,’ and all their training is in that one spot.”
Weber says the training approach also enhances Sargento Foods’ reporting capabilities so that the company can track what courses employees have taken. “We really worked on tailoring our training to specific roles and responsibilities in the organization,” she says. In the past, the company had more PowerPoint-based training and offered courses less frequently than it does now. The combined Alchemy and SAP education platform lets it offer more micro-learning options so it can focus in on a specific course; for example, process technicians would receive general food safety refresher training but also very specific training on critical control points, preventive controls, and their work area. “Providing this more detailed training to the employees to make the right decisions and choices really helps enhance our safety,” says Weber. While there is an area with computers at the company, the pandemic has caused more e-learning than is typical. A few of the sessions are more hands-on or classroom-type sessions.
Beyond the more basic training, Kremer says the company is in its third year of providing Six Sigma Yellow Belt continuous improvement training to employees, which she says helps provide some foundational understanding of tools for continuous improvement. “It really helps with new skills within our employee base,” she adds. “It’s about the engagement and involvement of our workforce.” Weber says that the programs help Sargento Foods to better track who has received training and who still needs it. Since 2016, the company has offered additional training through a third party on preventive controls, which is based on the company’s food safety plans.
Krishna says there is always room for improvement, and the company plans to continue to invest in food quality and safety technology and education, as it has done since 1953. “Excellence in food safety and quality isn’t a destination,” he says. “It’s a journey.”
We couldn’t agree more.