Ben & Jerry's: Quality is innovation, employee-focus, local sourcing – with lots of big chunks

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By: Lisa Lupo, QA Magazine

Imagine Whirled Peace. Coffee, Coffee BuzzBuzzBuzz. Phish Food. Scotchy Scotch Scotch. Everything but the ...

If you are one of the few who has never experienced Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, you are likely to be wondering what these odd-sounding phrases have to do with anything QA would be writing about.

If, on the other hand, you are extensively familiar with this unique brand, perhaps even work at one of the Vermont plants, you know that different is normal here. In fact, very little follows what most would consider to be the norm—from its 1978 founding by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield based on a $5 Penn State University correspondence course on ice cream-making (for which, incidentally, they split the cost) to its innovative flavors, such as Scotchy Scotch Scotch honoring Ron Burgundy of Anchorman and Anchorman 2.

Perhaps Plant Manager Robert Bellezza said it best when he stated, “We’re Ben & Jerry’s, so we’re supposed to do everything differently.” It is an extra-ordinary difference evident in the company’s quality, safety, and supply practices as well as its “lots of big chunk” flavors.

Quality Flavors

Known for its innovative flavors, Ben & Jerry’s ice creams have a rich history of quality development based on intuition and what tastes good. In the beginning ... Ben wanted big chunks, Jerry wanted lots of chunks. So they compromised: their ice cream would have lots of big chunks. In developing their flavors, the pair went with what they liked, not with flavor standards of the day. “It was more their intuition rather than trying to market a product,” said PR Extraordinaire Elizabeth Stewart. As stated on the company’s history web page, “Using an old-fashioned ice cream freezer, they began churning out all the rich & creamy, fun & chunky ice cream flavors they’d always dreamed about, flavors loaded with all their favorite chunks of fruits, nuts, candies, and cookies.”

Today, the company follows the same rich & creamy, fun & chunky standards, with each new flavor having to pass a full range of quality tests before it reaches the retail shelf:

  1. Once a year, in late fall, the marketing team gets together to discuss flavors for the next year. The team looks at consumer trends and reviews submissions made on Ben & Jerry’s Suggest a Flavor web page to determine what consumers are eating and requesting. Then the group brainstorms a list of potential new flavors to pass along to Research and Development (R&D).
  2. Meanwhile, the R&D food scientist “Flavor Gurus” also are reviewing emerging trends and their own tastebud tests to develop unique flavor combinations. Each guru creates about 20 potential concoctions, then the group tastes and tests each other’s flavors to narrow it down to 20 that it will bring to marketing.

    Or, as Ben & Jerry’s website describes the process, the Flavor Gurus “spend their days and nights tasting the best food in the world, then they mix, blend, chop, whip, fold, puree, and taste, taste, taste until they come up with an unrivaled pint of pure ice cream euphoria. They boldly go where no ice cream makers have gone before. From sweet potatoes to sugar plums, no ingredient goes unconsidered for the next irresistible, completely unexpected Ben & Jerry’s flavor.”
  3. From there, the teams review, test, and generate a short list to be trialed in the plant. “Once they whittle down the flavors, there’s the concept of ‘How do we make it, and make it great?’” said Bellezza.
  4. In the in-plant trial, numerous tests and considerations are undertaken. Do the inclusions have an impact on worker ergonomics and line speed? Will the quality make it through the cold chain and hold up in the retail and consumer freezers? Are there any food safety or other consumer concerns? Is there an impact on overall safety or quality? And ... does it taste good?
  5. Even if a new flavor holds up to all of the above, it will not be produced unless the workers on the line are in agreement. “We look at it through every lens,” Bellezza said. The end quality of the ice cream has to stand up to Ben & Jerry’s standards, but “our employees also have to be happy making it. If it is painful to make, we don’t do it,” he said. “This is the employees’ company. They always have a say.”

Some of the employees have been with the company 15 to 25 years, so are able to provide input through the lens of experience. They have seen R&D try things—flavors, inclusions, etc., and they will say, “We tried that and it didn’t work then because ...” Depending on the reason, the flavor may be scrapped, or R&D may try to develop it in a different way.

Employee Engagement

Extraordinary employee engagement is not just evident in food safety at Ben & Jerry’s, it is a part of the culture. Despite the fact that much of the ice cream process and flow is through closed piping, Ben & Jerry’s has one of the most extensive sets of employee and visitor food safety requirements as encountered in the author’s 35+ food plant tours—and employee engagement in the requirements.

As we started our walk-through of the plant with Bellezza, Quality Manager Melissa Corcia, and Manufacturing Manager Randy Aiken explaining the process, we began hearing murmurs from employees we passed by. Soon thereafter, Aiken appeared beside me holding out a pair of vinyl gloves. “The workers noticed that you have on nail polish,” he said.

Although it is fairly ordinary for plants to ban the wearing of nail polish and require that visitors with polish wear gloves, the fact that it was the line workers who caught and commented on this was a less-than-ordinary example of employee ownership of food safety—particularly since it was not a glaring red color but a light pink that could easily have passed notice. Many manufacturers say, “Everyone owns food safety,” but at Ben & Jerry’s, it is tangibly demonstrated. “We’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years raising the awareness that we are custodians of that safety,” Bellezza said. As a result, he said, “260 employees walk with the attitude that they own the safety and the quality of this plant.”

Another out-of-the-ordinary food safety practice at Ben & Jerry’s is its newly installed vacuum system. “Hair was our number one complaint,” Bellezza said. So, in January 2013, the plant placed a wall-mounted, hose vacuum system at the entrance to the processing area. Now, in addition to donning a hairnet, helmet, and coat; removing contact lenses (which can absorb the ammonia used to clean the system); washing hands; and stepping into boot-cleaning equipment, all who enter the area must vacuum down their clothing to remove as much loose hair as possible.

Employee empowerment is a legacy of Ben & Jerry’s that was not lost when it was purchased by Unilever in 2000. Although it is now a wholly owned subsidiary, Ben & Jerry’s maintains an independent board of directors which is tasked to “make sure our social mission is living and breathing,” Bellezza said. The board is responsible for preserving and expanding Ben & Jerry’s social mission, brand integrity, and product quality by providing social mission-mindful insights and guidance to ensure the company is making the best ice cream possible in the best way possible. “We believe in linked prosperity and giving back to the communities we work in, sell to, and buy our ingredients from.”

“More than anything else,“ Stewart added, “they make sure that our social mission is being continuously reinvigorated and not at risk of being compromised. Because it is so easy to get wrapped up in the business, it’s good to be grounded by those who are focused on the social mission.“

The board is chaired by Jeff Furman, who has been an advisor for the company ever since Ben and Jerry first ponied up their $5 for the online class. “He’s the ampersand in Ben & Jerry’s,” Stewart said.

Supply Management

Local and Fair Trade sourcing of ingredients is integral to Ben & Jerry’s sustainable corporate concept of linked prosperity. All the milk used in the ice cream is sourced from the local St. Albans Cooperative Creamery in Vermont through a Caring Dairy program of sustainable practices.

Ingredients that are not available locally, including vanilla, sugar, cocoa, bananas, and coffee, are purchased through Fairtrade.

The Fairtrade Mark on the Ben & Jerry’s label not only shows evidence that the supplying farmers are following good agricultural practices, it also certifies that the farmers are paid a fair price for their harvest. For example, Stewart said, minimum wage for the farmers from whom Ben & Jerry’s sources its bananas is $9/day; in reality, the workers are paid about $3/hour. But through Fairtrade, farmers are paid $15 to $30/day.

Quality for Food Safety

While the quality steps involved in the flavor combinations of Ben & Jerry’s are critical, they are just one aspect of the ice cream’s final quality and food safety. With pasteurization and metal detection at the heart of the company’s CCPs, the process includes essential operational prerequisites such as the 10-micron screens in the processing line to filter the cream, pest control to eliminate potential contamination, and finished product testing as a final check, Corcia said. In November, both of Ben & Jerry’s U.S. plants in Vermont were certified to FSSC 2200 standards.

Other key quality and food safety measures at Ben & Jerry’s include:

  • Incoming Supplies. Whether sourced locally or across the sea, all incoming supplies are required to have a Certificate of Analysis (COA) and meet micro standards for pathogens and indicator organisms based on analytical guidelines. Additionally, before any truck is unloaded, it is inspected. If anything doesn’t pass or the seals are not intact, the load is rejected.
  • Quality Check. Each load then undergoes a full quality check. “Once completed, it is labeled as quality checked. We don’t use any ingredient until it is micro tested and off quality hold,” Corcia said. “All that needs to be cleared before any ingredient is used.”
  • Allergen Management. “We know that allergens are one of the higher risks for our product,” Corcia said. “So allergens have been an area of great focus.” Annual training is conducted for all employees, and any line that is running allergens has a sign posted declaring the allergens in the product. “We list the allergens that are running that day for employee awareness and to drive safety,” she said. Additionally, if an employee moves from an allergen to a non-allergen line, he or she completely changes uniforms and gloves.
  • Control Room. From recipe validation and time and temperature monitoring to tracking of the clean-in-place (CIP) system, everything is monitored electronically in the control room. But Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t rely on the electronics alone, it also conducts manual testing as a “second check.”
  • Lots of Big Chunks. Every run includes tests to ensure that each flavor is meeting the “lots of big chunks” standard. From automated data collection and analysis with InfinityQS software to pulling physical samples off the line—some melted down to weigh the inclusions and others subjected to product cut-ups for a visual viewing—Ben & Jerry’s can identify variability across its production lines and easily correct processes in real time that are not meeting the company’s high quality standards.
  • Minus 10. At certain points in the system, the ice cream reaches temperatures of -40°F. But at Ben & Jerry’s, the magic number is -10°F. Supplies from the cold dock must be -10°F to go to the floor. Once packaged, the ice cream is run through a spiral freezer to -10°F, maintained at that temperature through transportation, and some grocers are now trying to maintain that temperature as well.
  • Consumer Relevant Quality Standard (CRQS). As a final check, samples of the packaged product are pulled and the exterior inspected to ensure it has no scratches, dents, or other aspects not within the company’s CRQS.

Ben & Jerry’s Success

As important as is all of the above, the real secret to Ben & Jerry’s success is its three-pronged approach to business:

  1. Make a fantastic product.
  2. Have a strong social mission.
  3. Be profitable—but don’t let that be the reason you go into business.

Ben and Jerry didn’t go into the business to get rich, and they don’t push social values to be controversial. They went into business to make an ice cream that they’d want to eat and they voice the values in which they believe. And that is the way that Ben & Jerry’s still operates and thrives today.

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