Hygiene standards in the dairy industry are already high, but the COVID-19 pandemic has demanded an even greater focus on hygiene at dairy processing facilities.

At La Casa Del Formaggio, COVID-19 has prompted additional cleaning, changes to shift structures and activation of La Casa’s Business Continuity Plan.

“Our first priority is our staff. Initially the team had a fair bit of anxiety about COVID-19, however that started to ease in April and the low cases of COVID-19 in South Australia helped calm anxiety levels,” said La Casa Del Formaggio Managing Director Claude Cicchiello.

La Casa Del Formaggio Managing Director Claude Cicchiello.

“In terms of the changes we’ve made at the factory, the positive aspect is that hygiene is already high in a dairy plant and the practices that are being recommended, including washing hands, sanitising work areas and coughing and sneezing into the elbow, are practices we have had in place for many years, so that put us in a good position from the start.”

At the factory, hand sanitisers and surface cleaning sprays and wipes have been placed at all staff entry areas at the factory, the retail stores and administration areas. Hourly sanitising of the lunchroom and all door handles used between the factory and lunchroom is occurring.

Staff have been asked to respect physical distancing rules and managers are responsible for ensuring staff adhere to the rules.

La Casa has implemented a maximum of four people in the lunchroom and change room at any one time, to adhere to the four-square metres per person rule.

“And we’ve asked all employees to speak up if they see or hear of any compromising behaviours, and we’re following through with penalties for breeching our policies. Unfortunately, we had to let go of two labour hire workers who defied the changeroom capacity limit. This has sent a clear message to the rest of the team that we are taking this extremely seriously, and this rule has not been broken since.”

Working from home has been introduced for all roles which can be done remotely. Of La Casa’s 130 staff, that currently includes nine staff across marketing, finance, sales, procurement and purchasing.

“We’re using Zoom to keep in daily touch with staff who are working at home. It’s critical to keep the engagement up,” Claude said.

All staff that need to be on site are split across three shifts. Daily operations meetings have been cancelled, and the Production Manager and Dairy Manufacturing Specialist are alternating weeks on site in the Production Management role, to ensure there is back up if one gets sick.

Posters describing COVID-19 symptoms compared to colds and flu, using words and pictures, are in key locations around the site.

“We also have signs up reinforcing that staff members should wash their hands and sanitise frequently and stay home if they are unwell. And we’ve granted leave to two people who are at risk of infection due to age and underlying health issues.

“We’ve been communicating with employees frequently about the measures we’ve put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at work.”

When COVID-19 restrictions were announced, Claude quickly gathered together a team of staff from across every area of the business to plan La Casa Del Formaggio’s plan of action.

“This team strategises often to review the risks to the business and the actions we need to implement and communicate to our staff, our suppliers and our customers. That cross section of people through the business working together early was critical for risk management and communication. Clear and consistent communication is vital during a crisis.”

La Casa has also sent out regular updates to its farming families, highlighting the milk pick up hygiene protocols that have been introduced by La Casa’s carrier, McColls.

“And I’ve been personally in touch with our 16 farmers to let them know what our business is strong and that we’ll still be picking up their milk,” Claude said.

Claude said COVID-19 had tested the company’s Business Continuity Plan. And some of the changes made during the COVID-19 crisis will be permanent, to minimise risks to the company.

“COVID-19 has certainly been an effective way to test the business – and to test where the gaps are in our risk planning and where improvements can be made going forward,” Claude said.

“Thankfully we haven’t had to act on many of the risk management actions as our production is operating at normal levels. Business is holding up due to our high percentage of retail sales compared to food service. Our food service business has pretty much flatlined, but our retail sales have grown, which has balanced things out.”