Cloverland's got milk — and more security, auditing

The four black orbs — dark-tinted security cameras — watch silently overhead in a room filled with stainless-steel pipes. The pipes carry raw milk from four large holding tanks outside the building into two large metal cabinets that look like oversized car radiators.

This is one of the critical points in Cloverland Dairy's production process, where raw milk is pasteurized — heated well above 161 degrees Fahrenheit — and then pumped through pipes into other parts of the Baltimore plant for processing and packaging. It's also a spot that company officials, government regulators and independent auditors want to see thoroughly protected and sanitary, and free from tampering.

The four cameras are part of a network of 37, plus other security and auditing measures, that came with a new round of upgrades that the Baltimore-based dairy recently completed at a cost of more than $250,000.

It's part of keeping the milk supply safe. Cloverland, which traces its roots to a dairy formed by three brothers in West Baltimore in 1919, has been one of the milk industry's regional leaders for decades. It now supplies milk to Safeway and other large and small markets and convenience stores across the Mid-Atlantic.

The new measures added in recent years have helped the company achieve the highest rating from the Safety Quality Foods Institute, an international standards body. About 150 milk processors across the country have the highest rating from the institute.

"Retailers want it," said Ralph C. Kemp, president of Cloverland, whose father, Maynard C. Kemp, was one of the dairy's founders. "You would lose accounts if you didn't do it. It makes us a better facility."

Kemp allowed a Baltimore Sun reporter to tour the milk production facility recently but didn't allow a photographer inside to take pictures of the plant, for security reasons. After the 9/11 attacks, milk production facilities came under scrutiny for their safety and security practices, as concerns grew about terrorists targeting the nation's milk supply.

The company processes and bottles between 800,000 and 900,000 gallons of milk a week, much of which ends up in the refrigerators of millions of people, and in hospitals and school lunch programs across the region. The dairy employs 338 workers at its city plant and at a distribution facility in Salisbury.

Cloverland relies on a network of nearly 200 dairy farms, most in Pennsylvania, that sell their milk and load it onto tanker trucks that wend their way to the company's block-wide plant on Loch Raven Boulevard in Northeast Baltimore. The company is among three or four major distributors that serve Maryland and other Mid-Atlantic markets.

Kemp remembers when there were about 14 dairies that did what his company does. Cloverland bought more than a half-dozen of them since he began running the company in the 1960s.

Cloverland is inspected once a year by the Army, in addition to visits from federal, state and city health and safety inspectors, company officials said.

But the SQFI certification is increasingly important, as major retailers, such as grocery chains, adopt the standards and expect their suppliers to abide by them.

The certification stems from a growing movement that began more than a decade ago as consumers demanded more stringent safety measures in the food-supply chain in response to high-profile food recalls and consumer anxiety.

Food suppliers and distributors around the world formed the Global Food Safety Initiative, which recognizes the SQFI certification process that Cloverland achieved.

The plant has been tightening security for years, adding fencing, automatic gates and, more recently, identification card readers and cameras. Ed Kennedy, director of operations, said that employees who work in some parts of the plant aren't allowed to enter other more secure or critical areas if they're not authorized.

The plant has its own lab so that it can quickly test milk samples from each of the 18 truck deliveries it receives daily. The raw milk is tested for presence of antibiotics and microbacteria; milk containing antibiotics or unacceptable levels of bacteria is returned to the farmer.

The plant also produces ice cream mixture for ice cream producers and retail stores.

In one part of the plant, steel equipment separates fat from the milk in a centrifuge, and then later blends it back in to create 2 percent and 1 percent variations. (The whole milk that Cloverland produces contains 3.25 percent of milkfat by weight.) The dairy also has machines that blend vitamins A and D into the milk.

The big seller right now is 2 percent, said general manager James Cella. But as consumers gravitate to lower-fat products, demand for 1 percent milk is growing, he said.

Demand for organic milk, typically costing more, hasn't grown much, Cella said. The company distributes only about 15,000 gallons a week to stores — less than 2 percent of its weekly production.

One of Cloverland's biggest annual expenses is water and cleaning. The plant's steel pipes and tanks, sprawling across several acres, have to be cleaned and sanitized about every 24 hours. The plant uses millions of gallons of water a year and, because of high wastewater cleanup charges from the city, built its own wastewater treatment facility a few years ago, for $1.9 million.

"Everything has to be documented," Kennedy said. "If you clean something, you have to document it."

In the bottling area, heavy steel equipment can fill bottles with milk at a pace of 110 gallons per minute, Kennedy said.

Because of drought and higher cow feed prices, Kemp and his managers at Cloverland see the potential for higher milk prices in coming months. Milk price data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that the wholesale prices of whole milk started climbing last month.

A federal Department of Agriculture economist forecasted Thursday that milk production next year will decline because of this year's drought, as dairy farmers thin their herds. The price of milk will climb through this year but remain below 2011 prices, according to the USDA.

Back in the pasteurization room, each time someone enters, they must dip their shoes in a shallow tub of liquid sanitizer and power-wash their hands with hot water for 30 seconds. It's another part of keeping the milk safe.

"I probably wash my hands the most out of everybody every day," Kennedy said.