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After overcoming initial reluctance, the team at Bel Brands USA in Little Chute turned to food safety certification in its journey to become a world-class operation and soon found the process and the subsequent outcomes to be rewarding.

In 2011, the Bel Brands’ facility in the Outagamie County community embarked on a 14-month certification process. A year later, the Little Chute operation received the Foundation for Food Safety System Certification (FSSC) 22000 and in 2013 was honored by being named Facility of the Year by Dairy Foods magazine.

Chicago-based Bel Brands USA is the U.S. subsidiary of Fromageries Bel, a worldwide leader in branded cheeses that has its headquarters in Paris.

The company’s European plants already had undergone the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) process for food safety when Bel Brands USA decided to pursue FSSC certification.

“We knew that’s where we needed to go,” plant director Ed Blascak said. “We needed a global food certification.”

The 144,000-square-foot Little Chute plant operates as a cheese converter and produces cold-pack and gourmet cheese spreads, cheese logs and balls, and sandwich spreads. Brands include WisPride, Kaukauna, Boursin and Merkts.

Constructed in 1974, the facility employs about 200 workers and produces more than 25 million pounds of cheese per year.

After a meeting with its parent company, Bel Brands decided that FSSC 22000 would best suit its needs since it is focused on business process improvement along with food safety. Bel Brands management contacted the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership a short time later.

“We knew we needed some help and WMEP’s name kept coming up,” Blascak said.

“First of all, the WMEP put on us on the right track,” Blascak said. “We had a lot of programs, policies and procedures but they needed to be brought to the next level.”

As it got deeper into the certification process, Bel Brands discovered a business advantage to FSSC 22000.

“It is huge. It changes how you look at your business,” Blascak said. “You are trying to bring it to world class. It is not one of those programs that you start and stop, it is all about continuous improvement. One of the reasons it works is that you have to take time to sit back think about your process, going deep into the causes and effects, and eliminating those causes.”

The company made upgrades in its plant and invested about $2 million in equipment, systems and technology improvements during the certification process and an equal amount since that time. The company also instituted a variety of training programs.

Employee involvement and interaction between departments grow throughout the process, Everyone got involved and the facility made great strides, not just in food safety but in all aspects of continual improvement.

It also required a change in the culture at the plant as to how products are made and the adoption of a mindset focused at all times on continuous improvement, Blascak added.

The investment in the certification process has had a variety of paybacks, including improved efficiency and tighter inventories. Product quality also has improved and consumer complaints have dropped significantly, Blascak said.

“We were skeptical at first about the tangible benefits of certification,” he said. “It has been a real education and continues to be. I’m a proponent of certification and I wasn’t before. This has been really good for us. It solidifies the business and we feel better about the future,” he said.

Blascak credited the WMEP for its vital assistance in the process.

“We’ve been very satisfied with the partnership,” he said. “You can’t do this by yourself.”

FSSC 22000 will serve Bel Brands well as it expands into other certifications. In the end, the company will have an integrated management system designed to drive improvement.

The Little Chute facility is continuing to work with the WMEP on ISO-14000, ISO-50000 and ISO-9001.