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.