Safety first at Schoep's

Immediately prior to a tour of the Schoep's Ice Cream production facility on Madison's near-east side, visitors are asked to remove jewelry – and even click pens – to prevent anything from dropping into the product. Rubber overshoes cover street shoes, and guests are presented with white overcoats, hair caps, ear plugs, and protective glasses. Those with facial hair must also sport beard masks. Though the garb may feel silly, it's clear food safety is no laughing matter.

E.J. Schoephoester started Schoep's Ice Cream in 1928, then sold to Peter B. Thomsen, whose family has owned the Madison company ever since.

Grandson Eric Thomsen is one of several family members continuing the family's ice cream legacy. As director of food safety, Thomsen, 47, implements the company's standard operating procedures, oversees sanitation and audits on the production floor, troubleshoots, and is responsible for the ingredients used in the production of the ice cream. He's worked with Schoep's since 1985, after graduating in food science from UW-Madison.

"My grandfather acquired the company in the 1930s," Thomsen said. "When he passed on, my dad and his brothers took it over and ran it until my uncle retired (about two years ago). That's when Tim Timm was hired," he said of the current president and CEO.

Almost immediately, Timm added resources, Thomsen said, doubling the company's food safety staff and hiring Michael Schoenherr, 31, as the food safety manager. It was all part of a concerted effort to attain a Level II Safe Quality Food (SQF) rating, which is not unlike a LEED certification for the construction industry. Besides Thomsen and Schoenherr, the department now includes three lab techs and a senior quality engineer.

Passing through a doorway of clear plastic hanging panels into the production room, one can't help but notice wet floors everywhere. Melted ice cream? No way, Thomsen laughs. It's sanitizing foam, which automatically spews out of strategically located spigots and spreads throughout the plant on the feet of workers.

Before going any farther, visitors are directed to a hand-washing and sanitizing station, which all guests and employees must use every time they enter the food processing area. Guests already have received printed instructions in a visitor's policy: "Soap must stay in contact with your skin for 20 seconds," it read, "then rinse thoroughly, dry, and apply hand sanitizer."

The company takes care to curb any cases of colds or influenza in this environment. In fact, Thomsen says any worker exhibiting signs of a sickness is either temporarily reassigned, or asked to go home.

While Schoep's food safety practices are standard in food manufacturing, its decision to seek the Level II SQF certification was a strategic change that would elevate food safety into a company-wide – and not just production-based – priority.

"The SQF certification is unique because it's globally benchmarked, like the gold standard," Thomsen said. There was a business motivation as well: clients were demanding it. "It adds a level of competence," he explained, and has opened the door for Schoep's to work with ConAgra (which owns Healthy Choice foods), and its biggest client and ice cream label – Walgreens, sold in every Walgreens store nationwide. Thomsen said Walgreens could have pulled its contract if Schoep's failed to attain the Level II SQF certification before the end of 2011, so the pressure was on.

Schoenherr and Thomsen implemented new company rules and staff training guidelines, in accordance with SQF requirements. "Formalizing procedures challenged all departments to look at their own areas," Schoenherr said, to make sure every task was done appropriately and in the most effective manner.

"We used to have a kind of tribal knowledge here, so if someone quit their job, they'd end up taking that knowledge with them." Now, a training matrix assures company-wide expertise. "Those who didn't buy in aren't here anymore," he admitted.

Schoep's staff of 165 non-union employees pumps out about 10 million gallons of ice cream per year. In the production area, about a dozen employees are assigned to each of the first two shifts, while a third-shift sanitation team cleans and prepares all of the equipment for the next day. Eight employees have the lucky job of working in the -20 degree freezer.

Back in the production room, an ice cream base of milk, cream, sugar, and "stabilizers" (used to prevent heat shock and improve texture) is mixed in the afternoon. The concoction makes its way through a pasteurizer and homogenizer to eliminate pathogens before being stored in silos ranging in size from 3,000 to 10,000 gallons. Throughout the process, the lab tests the product for butterfat, pH, and total solids, and rechecks it every two hours for the presence of bacteria. A mixture cannot proceed unless first approved by the lab.

This day, Walgreens butter pecan ice cream is being produced. The base-mix is fed into large tanks where flavoring is added, mixed, and then frozen. Additional items are dropped into the base with a fruit feeder. Today it's pecans, for example, but it could be cherries, or cookies and cream. Batches are monitored for the proper amount of pecans, fruit, or for how a "chocolate swirl" appears in the carton.

At about 6:30 in the morning, "hard pack" ice cream containers are filled, then loaded onto pallets and stored in the company's 28,000-sq.-ft. warehouse freezer.

Last year, the Schoep's facility and procedures were reviewed in a four-day SQF audit. Perhaps anti-climactically, Thomsen and Schoenherr learned through an e-mail in November that their efforts paid off. The company responded by erecting a tent in the parking lot and providing lunch to all shifts.

"It is a total mindset. Everyone contributed," Thomsen said. "Five years from now, we want to be at Level III, but not at the expense of Level II," he said, which will require annual re-certification.

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