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Buttering up.

One of America's largest butter-packaging plants advances Associated Milk Producers' goal of increased value through processing.

When it comes to finding uses for its milk, you might say that the people at Associated Milk Producers Inc. are a bunch of hard cases.

Eighty-five percent of the 4.6 billion pounds of milk marketed annually by AMPI gets converted into butter, cheese, dry milk and other hard or processed products. This approach is exactly the opposite of most dairy cooperatives, which tend to market most of their milk in fluid form.

In a sense, this preference for processing is what determined AMPI's very existence. In its previous incarnation as AMPI's North Central Region, the New Ulm, Minn.-based co-op was allied with AMPI's Southern Region (although the two were always distinct financial entities). But when the Southern Region agreed in 1997 to join three other large dairy coops to form Dairy Farmers of America, the North Central Region opted out of the deal, and is now known simply as Associated Milk Producers Inc.

Part of the reason was the structural differences between AMPI North Central and the DFA partners. Of AMPI's 13 plants, only one is dedicated to fluid milk; the rest produce cheese, butter, non-fat dry milk, whey, lactose and other consumer products and ingredients, all within a radius of about 260 miles from the New Ulm headquarters. "Because AMPI was so regionalized, it was easier to separate" from the DFA merger, says general manager Mark Furth.

Of course, AMPI's independence doesn't bring immunity from other trends affecting the dairy industry. Dairy historically has been among the most heavily regulated food segments, especially in terms of price. With dairy price supports due to terminate at the end of this year, diversification will be an important advantage, Furth says: "We are as diversified and as much into consumer packaged goods as any coop our size."

Under orders

But the end of price supports won't mean the end of government involvement in milk pricing. Milk marketing orders regulate the price ratio between fluid milk and milk used for further-processed goods, with the latter traditionally being lower. The Byzantine regional structure of milk marketing orders recently was simplified by the USDA (under congressional mandate), but regional dairy compacts, in New England and other areas, have the potential to bring back price supports in the form of price floors.

"Dairy compacts will distort dairy farmer income and prices to the detriment of the upper Midwest," AMPI president Wayne Bok said in a prepared statement. "Compacts could be worse for upper Midwest dairy producers than the federal order system."

But there's a bright side to the picture. Butter consumption has held up: Per capita consumption was 4.06 pounds in 1998, compared with 3.67 pounds in 1990. Like many foods perceived as indulgent, butter increasingly is consumed in restaurants and other foodservice venues. "The average consumer eats margarine at home out of habit from old health myths and then goes out to eat and demands the best - butter," Furth says.

AMPI's butter plant, near its corporate headquarters in New Ulm, is in a good position to capitalize on this trend. A significant part of its production is in butter cups (foil-sealed plastic cups), "continental chips" (foil-wrapped pats) and other foodservice packaging. The plant also supplies about 70 private label retail customers.

At 100 million pounds a year, the New Ulm facility bills itself as one of the largest butter packaging plants in America. Most of the butter packaged there is produced on site; the rest comes in blocks from outside sources. About 90 percent of production goes east of the Mississippi, much of it to East Coast metropolitan areas.

The plant runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with two sanitation periods per week. This around-the-clock production jibes with the continuous nature of the process. "Butter historically was a batch-made product," Furth says. "No more."

Cream of the crop

The process starts when cream, with 42 percent butterfat content, arrives by tanker and is stored in one of five outside silos, each with a capacity of 250,000 pounds. The cream is pasteurized in an adjoining building, then kept at 40 to 45 F until just before use, when it is heated about another 10 degrees for the churning process.

After passing through a balance (i.e., surge) tank, the cream goes to one of three churns from Westfalia Separator, Northvale, N.J., and APV Americas, Lake Mills, Wis. The largest churn can process 9,000 pounds of butter an hour; the other two run 5,500 pounds each. Cream is pumped into the top cylinder of the churn and passes through a beater that spins at 20,000 rpm, then into the separating section. Blades force the fat solids forward, while the buttermilk drops down through a screen and into a vat. At this point, the buttermilk has about 8 percent solids content. An evaporator takes that to 35 percent, and the product is shipped to the AMPI facility in Rochester, Minn., for use in ice cream mix.

The fat solids then pass into the working section of the churn. Augurs force the product through a series of screens and impellers. Meanwhile, small plastic tubes inject water and a salt slurry. The butter then drops into a large vat with ribbon blenders at the bottom.

Butter produced elsewhere comes in blocks of about 68 pounds and is stored until needed. A worker in the rework area manually feeds the blocks into a Model 8477 Microfix from the Benhil-Gasti division of Jagenberg Group, Clearwater, Fla., whose augers and beaters work it into the proper consistency. It then is pumped from the rework hopper to a master hopper.

The New Ulm plant has 15 packaging lines, producing sizes from one-pound blocks to restaurant-style chips. Any of the vats that receive newly made or reworked butter can feed any of the packaging machines, through pipes over each machine that can be swung downward and attached as needed.

Some of the packaging machines have a small vat that receives butter and works it into a roll. A metal plate rests on the roll, attached to a sensor that is connected to the pump from the vat immediately upstream. When the plate sinks too far down, indicating the roll is becoming smaller, the sensor signals the pump to add more butter to the reservoir.

Sticking to it

Wrapped quarter-pound sticks are packaged in a Benkil-Gasti filler. The heart of the machine is a rotating table with mold cavities. The filler deposits pieces of wrapping parchment in the bottoms of the molds, which then rotate under the fill heads that deposit the product. The top of the wrap is folded over, and the sticks come off the table and onto a perpendicular carousel that sets up the cartons and seals them with hot-melt glue. The quarter machine does 90,000 pounds per day. This line can automatically case product into regular slotted containers; specialty shipping cases, such as display cases for club stores, are filled semi-automatically.

Continental (foil-wrapped) chips are filled on a similar machine. Foil is inserted into molds in a rotating table, which then pass under a depositer. The chips are wrapped and stacked automatically into cartons, which are then hand-cased. Five packaging machines, fed by one master line that deposits product into the machines' holding cylinders, make continental chips in 47-cut (i.e., 47 to a pound) and 59-cut sizes.

A machine from Sanford Redmond, Bronx, N.Y., packages reddies. A cylinder draws product from the vat line and feeds it onto a thin wheel with indentations corresponding to the size of the butter pats. The backing paper is on a web that gets cut into squares and fed perpendicularly onto a belt. Clips hold the paper squares in place as the wheel deposits the butter chips onto them. A second web, of facing paper, gets cut and deposited onto the chips. The machine does 15,000 pounds a day, at 90 reddies to the pound.

Restaurant-style whipped butter cups are processed in a beater from Goodway Industries, Bohemia, N.Y. The butter flows into the machine and is beaten by paddles while compressed air is injected, bringing the product to 50 percent air. The packaging is done on a machine from Hassia USA, Morganville, N.J. A web of styrene passes over a thermoformer that makes indentations six across. A cutter crimps the corners for easy consumer opening, and then the pockets pass under fillers. Laminated foil is heat-sealed to the top of the strip, which is then cut into individual cups. These are dumped into a shipping case on a carousel; after a given number of cycles, the table rotates a quarter-turn to present an empty case. Workers then weigh and seal the cases by hand.

Butter is a delicate product that is liable to occasional damage during the intricate packaging process. Such damaged product must be removed from its packaging to be sold for scrap. (AMPI sells all its scrap for use as butter oil.) Quarter-pound and larger blocks can be separated by hand, but the restaurant-style chips must be run through a fish deboner from Baader North America Corp., Fort Myers, Fla., that squeezes the butter out of the small packages.

Finished product is stored for shipment to customer distribution centers, which takes place in a maximum of 10 days. A recent 20,000-square-foot expansion increased the capacity of both cold and dry storage; the cold-storage walls are built for easy moving when more cooler space becomes necessary.

AMPI undertakes in-house maintenance of all its machinery, with most repair and rebuilding done by staff workers. "I think it's a matter of having a lot more knowledge of how to rebuild and what to rebuild with," says division manager Richard Wuttke.

Quality control takes various forms. In the grading room, a small area near the cooler, a trained grader gives sense tests to random samples of incoming block butter. Incoming butter also gets tested for microbiological standards (including E. coli, yeast/mold and standard plate count) and quality parameters (including fat, pH, moisture, salt and curd). Butter produced on-site undergoes tests out of the churn for moisture, salt, pH and other parameters.

Associated Milk Producers at-a-glance

STATISTICS

93,000 square feet, 145 production employees (160 total). Three shift/day, seven days/week. 100 million pounds of product processed per year.

CHANGEOVER

Churns can feed into any of 15 packaging systems by changeout of pipes.

AUTOMATION

Receiving vats/cylinders for packaging areas tied to upstream churn pumps through sensors.

MAINTENANCE

All machinery repaired and rebuilt by company maintenance workers. Most parts stored and/or fabricated on site.

QUALITY

Incoming block butter undergoes organoleptic, quality and microbiological tests. Both freshly churned and packaged butter undergo quality and microbiological tests. USDA resident grader oversees lab work on all shielded product.
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Title Annotation:Associated Milk Producers Inc. of New Ulm, MN; Plants of Tomorrow
Author:Demetrakakes, Pan
Publication:Food Processing
Date:Jul 1, 1999
Words:1816
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