November 14, 2018

From Farm to Fork: The Dairy Supply Chain

Written by Garret Weigel | Food Safety, Supply Chain

Milk and dairy products have been associated with foodborne illness for centuries. So it’s no surprise that they’re probably the most highly regulated foods. In fact, the milk industry was the first sector of the food industry to implement its own regulations to improve food safety. To get a little perspective – in 1924, when the first Pasteurized Milk Ordinance was passed, milk products accounted for 25% of all foodborne illness. Today, they account for less than 1%.

 

Despite this amazing progress, occasional outbreaks still occur, although not nearly as frequently as eggs or leafy greens. The key to maintaining such high safety standards is an efficient and effective dairy supply chain. Time, temperature, distance, innovation, and packaging are especially important considerations.

 

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The Role of the FDA

The FDA, as it relates to the dairy supply chain, is responsible for ensuring safe milk production and processing operations, as well as providing guidance to the industry at large. These guidelines identify preventive measures to minimize the risk that milk will be subject to, including tampering, adulteration, or contamination. FDA also establishes milk sanitation standards for sampling, testing, and rating procedures. Along the supply chain, FDA agents inspect dairy farms, distribution centers and vehicles, processing plants, manufacturers, and retail facilities. Milk that does not meet FDA standards may be impounded.

 

A Brief Journey Along Dairy Supply Chain

PRODUCTION: On the Farm

The dairy supply chain starts on one of the approximately 50,000 dairy farms in the United States. Milk production typically starts from milking cows via pipes connected to cooling storage silos, also located on the farm. Milk remains in storage no more than 48 hours, where it's kept at below 40°F.

 

FDA agents inspect dairy farms and determine if the milk is safe for consumption. Most milk passes inspection, of course, but batches falling into one of three categories will be quarantined from the supply chain:

  • Abnormal: Milk that is visibly changed in color, odor, or texture
  • Undesirable: Milk that, prior to the milking of the cow, is expected to be unsuitable for sale, such as milk containing colostrum
  • Contaminated: Milk that is unfit for human consumption because the cow was treated with antibiotics or other medicines not approved for use on dairy animals by the FDA or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

 

DISTRIBUTION: On the Road

The transport of milk and dairy products occurs generally at three stages:

  • From farm to the processing/manufacturing plant
  • From the plant to a distribution center
  • From the center to various retail outlets

 

Even though milk poses a high risk of expiration and spoilage, it usually moves by truck rather than train or plane because of its weight. The main objective of dairy transportation is to ensure the milk doesn't remain in one place too long. Moving milk rapidly from farm to fridge is a complicated undertaking. Unlike the beef industry, the dairy industry remains largely fragmented, with smaller farms and cooperatives scattered more widely over broader geographic areas. As a result, supply chains require resilience to eliminate transportation and storage disruptions.

 

PROCESSING: On the Assembly Line

Whether at a processing plant or the product manufacturer, fluid milk is here made into different dairy products and packaged for distribution. It is this stage that safety regulations have been most significant. With almost no exceptions in the United States, any milk transported interstate must be pasteurized, and most often is also homogenized and fortified.

 

Because fluid milk can be transformed into a variety of products, such as cheese, yogurt, and ice cream, rules and regulations grow increasingly complex. Currently, the dairy industry is innovating more than ever, as sales in milk decrease, but sales in other dairy products increase. Each new product and new process must be evaluated in terms of its public health impact; in turn, each has its own manufacturing requirements, regulations, and safety concerns.

 

For instance, whey, a byproduct of making cheese, is often processed into snack foods, infant formula, and body-building products. While this diversity of products brings in additional revenue, whey processing may occur at a different plant than the plant that makes cheese. These extra steps add extra stops along the supply chain, further increasing food safety risk.

 

With the proliferation of new dairy products, such as lactose-free milk, single-serve packages of ice cream, and four-packs of yogurt in which each carton is a different flavor, dairy innovators may need to go beyond the current regulations to ensure their products are a low risk for causing illness.

 

RETAIL: On the Shelf

Dairy products typically arrive at supermarkets and grocery stores within two days of leaving the farm, although products requiring fermentation, such as cheese, take longer. At this final stage of the supply chain, the primary concern is to guarantee that all dairy products are stored and held at proper temperatures at every point of purchase, including refrigerator and freezer cases, deli departments, cafeterias, salad bars, and vending machines. For this reason, continuous temperature monitoring becomes a key best practice as part of a good HACCP plan.

 

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