Building on a Great Relationship: Dean Foods Northeast Discovers the Joys of Consolidation

THE OPPORTUNITY FOR positive change—in life, and at the plant—usually makes itself evident when necessity knocks. When the time came to start reprinting product labels, due to the Food and Drug Administration’s requirement to begin listing the presence of trans-fat and allergens on the ingredient panel, Dean Foods seized the moment to include the OU symbol on all its Northeast Region labels. “They needed the flexibility to produce their labels in the other Dean Foods plants that were (at the time) not under OU supervision,” says Rabbi Avroham Stone, RFR for the New Jersey/Pennsylvania region.

Dean Foods, one of the top ten largest food and beverage companies in America, serves as the country’s primary processor and distributor of milk and other dairy products. As the only fluid dairy processor of national scope, selling more than 50 familiar local and regional brands, plus an array of private labels, Dean Dairy Group’s customers can find its products virtually anywhere in the country. The company describes itself as proud to be in the business of enhancing and enriching the lives of its consumers. The fact that the OU shares these noble goals explains the Dean Foods Northeast region and the OU’s consummate connection.

The idea to consolidate surfaced several times during the OU’s longstanding history with a number of prominent dairy plants in the region (some of which were previously part of independent companies that later joined Dean Foods), including Tuscan Dairy Farms, Meadow Brook Dairy, Swiss Premium and Fairmont Products. Based on the OU’s solid track record within the plants and the need for increased uniformity in labeling and production, this was clearly an idea whose time had come.

“Early in 2005, we were in the position where we needed to start moving production from one facility to another,” says Kathy Gombas, Regional Director, Northeast, Quality Assurance, Dean Foods. “We realized that one of the obstacles was inconsistent kosher certifications and needed to consider whether or not we should have all of the facilities certified under the OU.” She took the first step to implementing the consequential change—convincing the sales and marketing group that “this was a good way to go.”

Ms. Gombas invited Rabbi Avram Ossey, the RC, and Rabbi Stone to meet with the company’s sales and marketing vice presidents, as well as the director of purchasing, to communicate the advantages of consolidating under OU kosher certification. Equipped with a detailed power point presentation, the OU rabbis spelled out the benefits of bringing all the plants under OU supervision.

“Consolidation centralizes the process and procedures,” says Rabbi Stone, “with the advantage of one set of rules for all facilities.” Rabbis Stone and Ossey spoke of the efficiency gained in standing united, under the OU umbrella with one kosher agency, one rabbinic coordinator, one certification renewal date, one set of packaging, and one overall private label fee structure. After much consideration, Dean decided to consolidate.

Surprising Savings and Welcomed Gains

Ms. Gombas admits that although she anticipated that the commitment to consolidate would generate a greater expense to the company, she was pleasantly surprised by the actual outcome. “Some of the facilities saw significant savings,” she says, “especially during Passover. It turned out to be a win/win situation.”

According to Donna Theroux, Regional Labeling Specialist for Dean, opting to go with the OU for all of the products would result in substantial savings on the cost of labels. “Rather than having five kosher symbols, we now have one,” says Ms. Theroux. “Being a company that has multiple plants, having one kosher symbol makes it much easier overall from a labeling perspective. It allows us to move products and labels to other facilities in a crunch. We knew the OU was the universally recognized symbol. That was the most important factor.”

The recognition factor was felt instantly. “Our customers were very happy that we went with the OU certification,” says Ms. Gombas. “We cover markets in the New England area, into New York City, New York State, Massachusetts and New Jersey; where there is a strong OU presence (throughout).” She says her customers realize the OU means quality and that gives the company a definite advantage.

With all its plants on board OU, Dean Foods Northeast enjoys pivotal gains including: having the OU, on a one-time basis, electronically register its products with the state of New York (a part of the New York State Kosher Law); renewing its kosher certificate as needed; becoming part of and having access to the OU’s UBD (Universal Database of Kosher products); having one private label fee structure; having a direct connection to leading supermarket chains, with selling potential for the Passover season the company would not otherwise have had; and access to the OU’s publicity arm, featuring press releases, OU publications, media, and the oukosher.org website.

As in all of life’s successful endeavors, a good relationship is everything and the Dean Foods/OU link fulfills that requirement. “I love dealing with the OU,” says Eric Bayer, Plant Manager of Garelick Farms, NJ. “They are so willing to work with us. The rabbis understand how the business and production work. Rabbi Stone asked me questions I was surprised to hear a rabbi ask. He studied the dairy process; he went over our blueprints, checked everything out, and understood it.” Denise Cavanaugh, Quality Control Manager at Shenandoah’s Pride, echoes Bayer’s positive sentiments. “When we call with a question, they get back to us immediately,” she says. “If one has never dealt with kosher (production) before, they will lead you step-by-step in the certification process, as well as (instructing as to) what one needs to do if there’s a change in products, or ingredients.”

Unity under the OU symbol has also improved the communication between Dean Foods’ plants. In addition to the monthly conference calls between the facilities and region quality assurance management, an additional call to the OU for the rabbinic administration’s invaluable feedback promptly solves any difficulty. “The company is able to address questions that come up system-wide as opposed to just on a plant-to-plant basis,” says Rabbi Stone. “They now have a common policy.”

This common policy affords the company a clearly defined program and expectations, thereby enhancing Dean Foods’ production quality and image. “The OU encompasses all the kosher rules,” says Mr. Bayer of Garelick Farms. “You may as well go for the one that is going to help your plant become as kosher as possible. The OU has become the kosher symbol of the Dean Foods Northeast region.”

Now that all 15 plants have enlisted the OU’s supervision, they are establishing solid working relationships with the rabbis. “Much was achieved by this consolidation,” says Rabbi Stone. “The marketing advantages, cost savings, portability of labels, all of these accomplishments, I believe, will not be lost on the decision makers in similar organizations.”

Dean Foods Northeast marks its first anniversary operating all of its region’s 15 dairy plants under OU supervision. “We’re getting kudos from our customers,” says Ms. Gombas. “We’ve contacted (them) to sign the private label agreement and they have acknowledged that they are very happy that we are going with the OU. It’s obvious it was a good decision.”