Adding Automation to the Recipe

Greek yogurt processor brings traditional recipes and non-traditional practices to U.S. plant.

Tradition and automation are two words typically not joined together in the food industry. FAGE USA Dairy Industry begs to differ, and has backed this assertion with a 100-million dollar, state-of-the-art production facility in Johnstown, NY.

Started in 1926 as a small dairy in Patissia, Greece, FAGE Dairy Industry S.A began exporting to the United States in 1998, later establishing subsidiary FAGE USA Corp. in order to more effectively distribute product to the U.S. market. Their "ridiculously thick" Greek yogurt was a success, which led to the decision in September 2006 to start construction of a U.S. processing facility.

Fully operational in April 2008, the 120,000 square foot plant employs 110 employees – but few of them ever come in contact with yogurt.

"Our yogurt is made with almost no manual intervention," says Ioannis Ravanis, Executive Vice President of Manufacturing & Operations at the Johnstown facility.

An average of 35-40 milk tankers arrive weekly at the plant door and are lab tested for pH, fat content, antibiotics, bacteria count and temperature prior to unloading. Milk deliveries cannot be pumped from the tankers into the plant until they are individually approved by the plant's Quality Control Department. Using a modular plant automation solution (Tetra PlantMaster) specifically designed for food processing plants, control room operators can track and control every step of the yogurt-making process with the click of a mouse.

At the end of the line, after the finished product as been automatically case packed and palletized via robotized systems, pallets are stored in a refrigerated warehouse with a 1,650-pallet storage capacity. The cold storage warehouse utilizes an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) from Westfalia Technologies Inc. governed by a warehouse automation system (denoted Savanna.NET® WMS) to track all the pallets throughout the facility and control the case picking operation.

Due to the specific handling needs of FAGE yogurt (it cannot be tilted or jostled, as this affects product texture) it is imperative that all the packaging, palletizing and warehouse operations are smooth and accident-free.

Even the plant's byproducts require minimal human involvement at FAGE, as wastewater and acid whey both are transferred by underground pipelines directly to the Gloversville-Johnstown WasteWater Treatment Plant.

Despite the robotic precision of the FAGE plant, the charm of tradition is not lost. Ioannis Ravanis, as well as Ioannis Papageorgiou, FAGE USA's President and COO, were both relocated from Greece to the NY plant to oversee the plant construction.

The highly-automated Greek plant was replicated and improved upon in the Johnstown facility, and the U.S. plant sticks strictly to the Greek yogurt recipe, as well as its proprietary straining technique. FAGE multiplies its own cultures at the plant in order to have a uniquely controlled fermentation process that yields a live yogurt which is distinctively flavorful and almost sweet.

Ravanis notes that some yogurt processors use powdered milks and creams in their process, but FAGE refuses, as this is not part of the original recipe. In addition, FAGE Total yogurt contains no added sugars, artificial flavors, sweeteners, thickeners or preservatives. "Our yogurt is no-nonsense," he assures.

Commitment to quality
Despite a wounded American economy, FAGE has not lost faith in the American market. Perhaps this has to do with the company's tremendous faith in their own product, and strict commitment to quality. So strict, in fact, that aside from rigorous laboratory-based quality-assurance, Ravanis personally taste tests all four types of yogurt produced in the plant every day.

The plant runs five days a week, in three shifts until 11 pm at night, and then ends with a cleaning (CIP) shift. Piping, processing equipment and tanks are steam sterilized nighly.

"We have modeled our facility after a biotech plant," notes Ravanis.

Indeed, the plant's filling room resembles a pharmaceutical plant, utilizing sterile air forced down vertically, ideally to drive any particulates past the filling process line, to the floor. Sterile air forced inside filling machines protects against bacteria, water or dust. All plant floor operators wear white gowns, hairnets, beard guards (when applicable) and latex gloves – even if they have no actual contact with the yogurt.

Future growth
Since establishing the NY plant, FAGE no longer has to ship product from Greece to the United States. The Johnstown plant successfully fills the demand for the 2.0 percent market share that FAGE has captured from the estimated $3.9 billion U.S. yogurt market. But they have no plans of stopping there. Empty space on the plant floor will soon be filled with new equipment.

"We plan to expand our plant and warehouse capacity enough during this year and in the next year in order to have the ability to double our yogurt production," says Ravanis.

FAGE's emphasis on uniqueness is evident in everything from their automated plant floor processes to their thick-style yogurt. The new plant has proven successful in its somewhat uncommon quest to marry traditional recipes with modern technologies.

"In order to be unique, you have to do unique things," says Ravanis.