Everyone gets hungry. Hungry for a grilled cheese sandwich on a Sunday afternoon, hungry for a late night bowl of ice cream you don’t need but have anyway. But most of all, today’s consumers are also hungry for knowledge about where their food comes from.
As consumers are seeking to become aware of where and how their food is getting to them, the entire food supply chain must be more transparent, reliable and trustworthy when producing food grade items. MMPA is not immune to this trend. Reliability and trust between the food industry and consumers can be formed through the use of a food safety program such as Safe Quality Food (SQF). After obtaining Level 2 certification last year, MMPA reached the highest possible level of SQF—Level 3 Certification—in July 2015.
As a cooperative, MMPA strives to gain the utmost trust from our customers, hence our commitment to reaching SQF Level 3 Certification. This certification increases the marketability of MMPA milk and will allow the co-op to pursue and gain customers that weren’t an option before.
The continuing goal of SQF—the gold standard for food processing certification—is to help processors assess risk in food processing facilities while limiting food safety incidents. The program streamlines plant inspections, developing consistent food safety standards across the industry. Starting in 2012, MMPA customers were setting deadlines compelling the cooperative to achieve SQF certification to demonstrate the co-op’s commitment to food safety.
Becoming SQF certified is no walk in the park, but MMPA took on the challenge and achieved that goal in just a few short years. In July 2014, MMPA’s Constantine and Ovid plants achieved Level 2 SQF certification with “excellent” ratings. And by July 2015, the co-op earned Level 3 SQF certification after a rigorous auditing process. While MMPA plants have always produced high quality products using food safety protocols, SQF is a widely recognized certification, trusted and accepted by domestic and international buyers.
“To be able to supply any of our products to our customers, we have to be SQF certified and now many of those customers are requiring a Level 3 Certification,” Amandeep Dhillon, MMPA director of quality, said. “Level 2 Certification was mainly focused on developing our Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans and Food Safety plans. Now we have reached that milestone, MMPA is able to focus on strengthening our quality management through Level 3 Certification.”
Each plant went through a series of steps to prepare for the official audit:
- Step One: Identified every production phase procedure from receiving to clean up. Those procedures were evaluated, documented and then cross-referenced with Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) to make sure all procedures were on track with GMP requirements.
- Step Two: Created five HACCP plans for each plant, in which each plan identified and described prevention protocols for possible contaminants through each product’s complete life cycle.
- Step Three: Retrained employees on the new protocols and procedures that coincided with the SQF requirements.
- Step Four: Ensured all employees were informed about food safety, SQF and were ready for the audit. An exam was given to employees and a passing grade was required.
In addition to the demands of Level 2 Certification, Level 3 adds a quality management factor to the equation. To earn this certification both plants had to follow these steps:
- Step One: Conducted risk assessments based on customer complaints and internal quality history and identified key quality factors that require special attention to maintain high quality.
- Step Two: Drafted food quality plans for each product from completed assessments.
- Step Three: Trained all employees on Level 3 Certification requirements, with emphasis on the difference between safety and quality. This includes explaining the food quality plans for each product.
- Step Four: Administered competency awareness quizzes to all employees to ensure all understood the requirements of the certification.
With all Level 3 requirements in place, the quality of MMPA products is certified, increasing the product’s marketability. With properly trained employees, less waste will be produced and both plants are becoming more efficient. “It’s beneficial to take the time and train all employees on SQF. It makes everyone more aware of what is required from them. SQF gives our employees more tools to use on the job and allows them to produce a high quality product,” affirmed Ovid SQF Practitioner Ron Steinhorst.
In mid-July, the Ovid and Constantine plants underwent SQF audits. Both were conducted by a licensed certification body and started with a desk audit which consisted of reviewing the more than 800 food safety documents that have been continuously prepared over the last few years. From there, the audit moved on to a plant inspection to gauge whether work instructions and the correct manufacturing procedures are being followed. While on the plant inspection, employees were randomly selected to answer questions about the plant’s commitment to SQF and the food safety plans that are in place.
“Preparing the plants for the audit was a huge team effort. Without cooperation from the operators and encouragement from the supervisors, it would’ve been a difficult task to achieve,” said Constantine SQF Practitioner Jesse Mahoney. “The preparation process became a little easier when everyone understood the importance of this certification and how it will impact MMPA’s future by making member milk more marketable.”
Looking ahead, each plant will be SQF audited annually to maintain certifications to sustain high expectations. All new hires and contractors will need to pass food safety training before being allowed on the processing floor.
After two years preparing for Level 3 Certification, the benefits are obvious. First is the increased marketability of MMPA milk and the many doors certification opens for the co-op.
“Receiving this certification shows that we are committed to food safety and quality. Level 3 Certification distinctly sets MMPA apart from competitors,” Dhillon said. “This achievement will give us the ability to draw in more customers and be able to provide them and existing customers with an even higher quality product.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of the Michigan Milk Messenger.