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Dairy food science program promotes safety, quality

The Cornell Dairy Foods Extension certificate program run by the Department of Food Science in CALS helps industry people learn the ins and outs of product safety and quality. Above, participants in the Cornell Dairy Foods Extension certificate program workshop conduct a sensory evaluation of cottage cheese samples by evaluating taste as well as shape and curd consistency. Photo by Anahita Verahrami

Eileen Bonville was a senior at Binghamton University in 2013 when her microbiology professor said the two words that would change her life: Greek yogurt.

“He told me the industry would be taking off in upstate New York and that I should get into it,” Bonville said. “I didn’t even know what butterfat was at the time.”

Bonville heeded that call and landed a job doing quality testing at an HP Hood plant that made cottage cheese and Greek yogurt. She learned on the job, but when she was promoted to supervisor in 2017, her bosses felt it was time for her to become educated in the real ins and outs of dairy science. For that, they sent her to the Cornell Dairy Foods Extension certificate program run by the Department of Food Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).

“That’s where I learned about all the different variables that affect the finished product,” she said. “I’ve become a better supervisor because of it.”

Moving up the ladder at a dairy company is just one of the many reasons that employees and managers end up at Cornell’s nationally renowned program, according to program director Kim Bukowski.

“We get younger people who are moving into the positions opened up by retiring baby boomers, all the way to executives who have been in the industry for 30 years but want to keep up with the newest information and techniques,” Bukowski said. “New York state even sends its new dairy inspectors here for our courses.”

The program provides certifications in food safety and quality, which have become increasingly important in the dairy industry, Bukowski said, as tighter regulation and choosier consumers have continually raised the bar on monitoring, improving and documenting product safety and quality.

“We bring in case studies of companies in the industry that had things go wrong for them in these areas,” Bukowski said. “That really gets attendees’ attention. Nobody wants to be one of those companies.”

The Dairy Extension program offers a core curriculum that covers basic dairy science and food safety, along with more specialized courses in cheese, milk and fermented products such as yogurt. The content includes basic concepts, such as the composition of milk, plus techniques for handling and testing the products at each step of the manufacturing process, and highly sophisticated data-analysis tools for ensuring product quality.

The program provides an average of 14,000 hours of courses each year to more than 1,000 people from approximately 150 companies.

“I’ve been very impressed with the level of investment from dairy companies in this program,” said Dana Lively, a manager at food safety services provider Ecolab. Lively serves as an instructor in cleaning and sanitation in the Dairy Extension program.

“Not only do they send people here,” Lively said, “but those people go back to their companies and teach others there. It’s really helping companies meet the demand for ensuring products are at higher standards.”

In addition to awarding certificates for completing individual courses, the program since 2012 has been offering higher-level certification to attendees who complete a four-course track in one of the specialties. About a dozen attendees a year achieve that distinction.

The high level of participation has made the program an influential resource to the dairy industry – especially in New York state, which is home to more than 4,600 dairy farms that annually produce nearly 15 billion pounds of milk, which is shipped to 360 dairy plants. New York is among the top states in the production of fluid milk, and it leads the U.S. in the production of yogurt, cottage cheese and sour cream.

Many of the attendees come from the New York state operations of dairy industry giants like Hood and Chobani, but the program is also attentive to the needs of smaller plants and farms in the state.

“Some of the attendees come from 15-cow farms that are making artisanal cheeses sold at farmers markets,” said Louise Felker, the Dairy Extension program coordinator. The program also runs courses on site at companies enrolling multiple managers and employees.

Program alumni are spread throughout New York. One of them is Nicole Pearsall, a quality supervisor at Byrne Dairy, a 400-employee, family-owned business with four plants, all in New York. Pearsall, whose plant makes yogurt and sour cream, has taken nine courses at the program, most recently a June course in advanced yogurt science. 

“Before I started taking the courses, I knew how to run the tests, but I didn’t really understand what they were for,” she said. “Now that I understand it, I know where else I can look for problems and prevent them. We have a much stronger environmental monitoring program because of it.”

The dairy industry is becoming increasingly complex, Bukowski said, especially as new, specialty dairy products emerge. That’s led to a demand for specialized courses, including one that Bukowski admits is her favorite: a course in artisanal ice cream the program put together last year and that will now be offered annually.

“I’ve wanted to do this for years,” she said. “Ice cream is my passion.”

David H. Freedman is a freelance writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.