Winning the 2023 Dairysafe Food Safety Culture Award was a well-deserved reward for Udder Delights, who have been on a major food safety journey over the past decade.
This has involved investing significantly in food safety systems and recovering from major setbacks, including a food recall and Adelaide Hills bushfires in 2019.
The Udder Delights of 2023 is a world away from the business started in 1995 by Trevor and Estelle Dunford – a goat dairy on a small patch of land in the Adelaide Hills. They were joined by their daughter Sheree Sullivan when the cheese factory began at the Lobethal Onkaparinga Woollen Mill in 1999.
“At the start, Sheree was delivering cheese from a fridge in the back of her yellow car to supportive small retailers across the state,” said Kim Sparks, Quality Assurance Manager at Udder Delights.
“Udder Delights started in just one room at the Onkaparinga Woollen Mills, and then over the course of 25 years, we have taken over three entire buildings within the large complex.”
Production Manager Simon Dreckow has been with Udder Delights for 15 years and has witnessed the dramatic growth of the business.
“When I started, we were processing 3,000 to 4,000 litres per week. And now we’re averaging about 130,000 to 140,000 litres per week,” Simon said.
“Over this time, we’ve expanded from just South Australian retailers to all of Australia, including into Costco, Coles and Woolworths.”
Simon said both cheese making and food safety were a case of trial and error in the early days of Udder Delights.
“We were all self-taught. Even we thought we were doing things the right way, we learnt better ways to do things over time and not just with food safety, but with cheese making itself,” he said.
“We had our Dairy Authority audit but no Costco or other retail audits at that stage. We knew when an auditor was coming, so we’d do a massive clean that day.
“We were doing things on the fly a little bit. I did a few short courses on food safety, and we made improvements where we could, but it wasn’t until our first Quality Assurance Manager started about 10 years ago that our food safety journey really began.
“We were growing so fast – every year was a growth year for at least 10 straight years. Most of the available investment money was used just to make more cheese. But we weren’t investing into food safety and so we eventually ran into problems.”
The biggest food safety challenge came in 2019 when Udder Delights was forced to recall several cheese products when they were found to exceed the allowable limits of E. coli.
“That was really costly, not just financially for the business, but also emotionally for the teams that were involved. It was heart breaking for all of us,” Simon said.
“It took months to rectify the situation, and everyone was just exhausted by the end of it. We managed to get back on track and the benefit was that the recall forced us to look deeper into our processes and improve our systems.”
Kim said before the recall, Udder Delights was testing as per the minimum regulatory requirements. In 2021, Udder Delights built a lab to be able to complete their own testing.
“Now we can test products ourselves, and test our production environment, including equipment, floors, door handles and valves. By testing in-house, we can swap more frequently and get results much quicker,” Kim said.
“This gives us the ability to spot potential problems much earlier and work to resolve them before finished product is impacted.”
Kim said Udder Delights has also introduced a hold and release process, which has made the food safety system more robust.
“It’s given us confidence that everything that leaves our site is safe for consumption,” she said. “Those two factors combined – the hold and release system and the improvements in testing processes – have been the major reason why our safety program is so successful now.”
Udder Delights also has a strong staff communication program, focused on continuous improvement.
“In all our team huddles we talk about personal hygiene, such as hand hygiene, and if we start seeing some negative trends in certain areas, for example, door handles that have higher bacteria readings than usual, we can then discuss that within the groups, to keep the feedback and information flowing,” Simon said.
“And we do find that the teams are eager to be part of our food safety journey. All staff want us to have a good product. Everyone is proud of our cheeses, and everyone knows that this is what pays our wages.”
Kim said the strong food safety culture at Udder Delights, which extends to its farmers and distributors, has collaboration at its core.
“We’ve changed the business to a model where we’re actively communicating and sharing the good and the bad across our teams,” she said.
“We have a very open and welcoming culture. And having 60 engaged people in the factory is powerful – we’ve got 60 sets of eyes ensuring the factory is clean and safe. The pride and passion that our team has in our products also helps to keep our food safety culture top of mind.”
Udder Delights received a $5,000 education, training and development grant as its Food Safety Culture Award prize. They will use this grant to upskill their cheese makers.
The award was presented at the 2023 South Australian Dairy Awards in August and eight members of the Udder Delights operations team attended to accept the award.
“Thanks to our strong culture of collaboration, we now share our successes with the entire team, and everyone in the factory is exceptionally proud of that award,” Simon said.