regional groups across the U.S.
Since 1987, the dairy centers have received financial support from dairy farmers
and processors to collaborate with organizations such as the Innovation Center.
Each center has its own proficiencies, such as the Northeast Dairy Foods Research
Center at Cornell University, which is a go-to source for food safety.
Dr. Sam Alcaine, a professor at Cornell’s Department of Food Science, is part
of the Innovation Center’s artisan efforts and conducts research. He works with the
Innovation Center and companies to help them understand the latest research and
findings, which are always evolving.
“The challenge in the processing and ingredients environment is what we didn’t
know before,” he says. “Twenty years ago, we didn’t quite know about Listeria and
now we know about it and that requires different practices to be put into place.”
Alcaine has led workshops for dairy companies and their employees across the
org chart, “from the executives on down to the linemen,” he says.
Much of his outreach centers on helping smaller companies understand and follow the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) that was signed into law in 2011.
FSMA provides the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate
how foods are grown, harvested, and processed.
In October 2017, Alcaine, with the Innovation Center, NCSU, and the University of Connecticut, secured a 3-year, $400,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant
through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. This provided the resources
to conduct FSMA-focused food safety plan writing and coaching sessions nationwide. The target of this effort is artisanal cheese, ice cream, and other small dairy
manufacturers. Alcaine, with regional extension help, examines their food safety
plan and provides coaching where vulnerabilities exist.
“Even before this grant, we realized there were gaps,” Alcaine says. “We then
wrote this grant with the idea of bringing in food safety experts from academia and
large companies, so we could sit with the artisans and help them understand a food
safety plan and see the risks and understand what they need to put in place. A lot of
times, these are one- or two-person operations and they’re wearing a lot of hats and
it’s easy to drop the ball.”
In addition to the Innovation Center-coordinated classes, Alcaine’s outreach
stretches to medium-size companies, where he performs audits to help them identify
“It’s really important when you understand there are problems that could impact
everybody,” he says. “If we all have a ‘we’re in this together’ mentality, that drives
funding for the science to figure out where the problems are and then develop solutions. And it’s not just for the dairy industry. A lot of the learnings we discover are
applicable to other foods.”
When Stubbs reflects on the committee’s highlights over the last several years,
the Listeria work bubbles to the top of tangible results for him. Yet, he offers a
bigger-picture perspective. It’s the idea that people from competing companies have
found common ground and camaraderie through the Innovation Center.
He never takes the uniqueness of it for granted.
“It’s pretty neat that 30 companies have been very active in food safety work, and
they give us their top subject matter experts,” he says. “They let us have them 8, 9,
sometimes 12 days a year, and when I talk to those individuals, they love doing it.
“We’re providing an outlet for sharing and collaboration that people are eager to
do. It’s an opportunity that is safe and their companies support. It’s amazing how
many volunteers we have and how deep they go and how much they work. It’s the
power of getting all those great minds together.”
Travis has experienced an unexpected benefit from being involved with the
group. He sees people from his com-
pany who have blossomed profession-
ally by having a platform through the
“Once you get them out of their
plants, out of their offices, and get them
in front of their peers doing a presentation or trying to convince someone that
a different approach is better, you begin
to impact professional development,”
he says. “And that’s something that you
hadn’t even thought about.
“I have seen a lot of people really
put on a lot of polish as they have
gone through the Innovation Center
programs. That’s a nice benefit that we
sometimes don’t talk about.”
Wilkin’s extensive knowledge base
and strong voice have created a men-
toring presence among her Innovation
“I have Edith on speed dial,” Travis
says, probably only half-kiddingly.
Wilkin, too, has a list of food safety
accomplishments that she is proud
of. There’s the Listeria research con-sortium…the various workshops...the
thrill of discovering new knowledge
together…helping the artisans…the best
practices and guidance documents…
the engagement with regulatory officials
and academia…and so on.
“Are all of these things a surprise
to me?” she asks. “I guess in thinking
about being in a hotel meeting room in
Green Bay, Wisconsin, way back when,
none of us thought we’d get to this
point and in pretty short order. We did
our first pilot workshop in 2011, and
a mere 7 years later, look where we are
today with all these moving parts.
“When you think about the resources companies put into doing this sort of
thing at a time when people are short
on help, have too much work going on,
and are dealing with competitive pressures—we’ve stayed committed to doing
all of this together. That gives you a very
warm feeling about the dairy industry as
a whole.” n
Scott Wallin is vice president of industry media relations and issues management at Dairy Management