Technical Training Supervisor Alisa Kennedy looks into one of 16 vats that separates curds from whey at Roswell’s Leprino Foods Cheese Plant. (Amy Vogelsang Photo)
Cheese. We use it for so many things: pizza, pasta, Hot Pockets. But where does it actually come from and how does the process work? If you’ve ever watched “How It’s Made,” then you may already know. But for those of you who didn’t watch the Science Channel, Leprino Foods’ cheese plant on Omaha Road will be giving tours as part of the annual Chile Cheese Festival.
To get an inside peek of the plant firsthand gives one an even greater respect for cheese. As one of the world’s largest mozzarella cheese plants, Leprino Foods introduces visitors to a new world evolving around the dairy product.
With a net over the hair, a hard hat on the head, covers over shoes and a long white lab coat to cover civilian clothes, an outsider becomes ready to enter the inner sanctum where cheese is processed and created.
Some aspects of the plant were different than usual due to construction. In an expansion costing $18 million, the company has added new equipment to increase the capacity and efficiency of production. One such improvement is conveyor belts that clean themselves instead of needing foaming chemicals and hoses to be washed.
“It’s a better design for cleanability, food safety and efficiency,” said Plant Manager Pete Mayadag.
With 600 employees at the plant, the facility produces roughly 600,000 pounds of mozzarella a day. The plant is also the leading producer of whey and whey products, bringing production from one million pounds to six million over the past 20 years.
But with all the production comes intense cleaning procedures before entering rooms. In what is known as the Red Line Room, sanitation and preparation takes place. One of the most sensitive rooms is the Bulk Powder Room, and this is because a lot of the whey powder goes into baby formula.
After putting on new foot covers, washing and hand- sanitizing hands, and then wiping down or relinquishing any unsanitary items, access can be gained to the Bulk Powder Room. The powder is achieved by evaporating other ingredients out of the whey: whey cream, which is re-used on other products; and water, which is then recycled for cleaning, said Technical Training Supervisor Alisa Kennedy.
The powder is only one product created. The plant also produces Little Miss Muffet’s classic curds and whey.
To make the curds and whey, 55,000 pounds of milk is used and spun in 16 vats to separate out the ingredients. The curds are then tossed and taken to the next step of becoming cheese.
“Curds don’t have salt yet so they don’t taste very good,” Kennedy explained. “But then you put some salt on them and all of a sudden, they are delicious!”
It’s these curds that are taken to make mozzarella cheese. In order to get the stringy texture, the cheese must first be heated to about 145 degrees and then cooled back down to about 30 degrees in a brine tank where it is sprayed with salt water.
Once the cheese has been cooled, it is loaded into boxes and prepared for shipping. In some cases, there can be 2,000 pounds on a pallet, all filled with cheese.
“That’s a lot of cheese,” Kennedy stated simply.
Even as visitors, all who enter the facility are held accountable for following sanitary procedures. For the Chile Cheese Festival, there will be four tours given, all leaving from the Convention Center and taken to the plant by bus. Tourists will be asked to follow “good manufacturing procedures,” Mayadag said.
But the plant is excited to show what they are capable of to those in the area, as well as start using the new equipment in the first week of October as it finishes up a 10-week project.