The problems at Dairy Crest’s loss-making Stilton and speciality cheese business at Hartington were partly due to its decision to invest in unproven technology, bosses at its new owner have revealed.
Martin Taylor, chief executive at farmer-owned co-op Long Clawson Dairy, which acquired the creamery in a £3.5M deal last week, said: “Everyone making speciality cheese is suffering at the moment as consumers trade down and raw materials and energy prices rise. Milk prices have gone up about 35% in the last eight months and if you haven’t recovered most of that, you’re out of business.
“But Dairy Crest has also lost business because it has been trialling a new technology that has not really worked. It invested in an automated, continuous coagulator plant back in 2001 and has had problems ever since. The technology was not proven for Stilton production and some major customers exited the business. In fact, we picked up some of the trade they lost as a result.”
Long Clawson Dairy, which has a Stilton production and packing unit in Long Clawson, a cheese maturation facility in Harby and a blended cheese facility in Bottesford, plans to “partially or fully consolidate” the Hartington creamery (which employs 180 staff) into its existing operations, said Taylor. “A consequence of these proposals may ultimately be the closure of Hartington Creamery in due course.”
He added: “Given that the continuous coagulator has consistently produced sub-standard product, which has resulted in the loss of customers, it is extremely unlikely that we will be using this technology in future. The technology we use is based on traditional vat manufacture, although with modern technical and hygiene standards. Thus, the likely investment needed [to integrate Hartington] would be to accommodate additional vats. At this stage I cannot put a figure on the amount of spend as this is subject to further work.”
Long Clawson, which has invested heavily in robotics to transfer product from cutting lines to packaging machines, is also in the process of upgrading its material requirements planning system, said Taylor: “In the current climate of inflation and associated fast changing input prices, it is essential that we monitor product profitability as we have over 350 stock keeping units.”
It has also pioneered the application of radio frequency identification (RFID) tagging in the cheese industry via the trial of hygienically designed reusable RFID tags that are pinned into some of its cheeses. However, this has been on the back burner while IT systems have been upgraded, says Taylor.