Soccer team in a huddle

Tradition Meets Modern Food Politics in Swiss Dairy Industry

August 31, 2016 by John Ward 13

Dairy farming in Switzerland seems as old as the Alps themselves.

Swiss farmers have moved their herds up and down the mountainsides with the changing of the seasons for countless generations. Every September, dairymen still celebrate ‘désalpe’ – the annual event where cows, decked out in colorful flower crowns and clanging bells, are led ceremoniously down from alpine meadows for the winter.

But make no mistake. Dairy is big business in Switzerland. More than half a million cows produce around 3.4 million tons of milk each year.

Yet even as these cows graze peacefully in the bucolic Swiss countryside, there are changes ‘ahoof.’

It appears that the country’s dairy industry is being reshaped by new software and a generation of consumers who demand to know more about the food they eat.

The dairy industry is being reshaped by a generation of consumers who demand to know more about the food they eat

An Industry Leader Explains

Heinz Hodel can tell you a lot about these changes.

“I think our industry will see a digital transformation in the next three to five years,” says Hodel.

He should know. Hodel is the CIO of Emmi Group – the largest milk processor in Switzerland.

Emmi is an international company based in Lucerne that exports to about 60 countries around the globe. It operates some 25 production sites in Switzerland alone, including six major processing centers that turn raw milk into a host of products ranging from cream and butter to ice cream, cheese, yogurt and milk drinks.

Emmi was the first company in the world to implement a new industry-specific dairy management solution from SAP and its partner, msg.

Hodel explains that Emmi decided to upgrade the business systems at its Swiss production facilities in order to consolidate systems, streamline processes, and gain efficiencies in the core dairy processing operations.

Emmi, for example, now has a greater ability to track and manage different milk deliveries based on their specific fat, protein, and lactose content. This helps the company determine which products the raw milk is best suited for – say, butter, mozzarella, or an Emmi yogurt drink.

“Using the same processes at each of our processing plants lets us get more value out of our milk,” says Hodel.

Exactly What are We Eating?

In addition to supporting greater efficiency, this level of traceability also dovetails nicely with fast-growing consumer demand and regulatory pressure to ensure greater transparency in our food supply.

An article earlier this year in Food Safety News quoted Dr. David Acheson, former Chief Medical Officer for both the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

“Consumers want transparency on labels more than anything else,” said Dr. Acheson. “What are they eating; where are these ingredients coming from?” He believes that consumers will want more visibility into the manufacturing processes as well.

Hodel agrees, and both Switzerland and Emmi appear ahead of the curve. (Switzerland is among a select number of countries recognized as having superior food traceability practices.)

“People are demanding more and more transparency in their food, and that includes dairy,” says Hodel. “In the near future, we could show consumers where their milk is coming – from which region, which farm, or even which cow.”

The Answer is in the Data

This kind of insight, however, will depend a lot on how well Emmi can process all the available data.

Acheson points out that one of the biggest challenges facing food companies is data management. “Whether a company uses 10 or 1,000 suppliers, it has a constant stream of information coming in that needs to be analyzed,” Acheson says.

Again, Emmi is taking a proactive approach. Hodel is currently looking at in-memory computing and the SAP HANA database as a way to drive better performance in the company’s data analysis.

Let’s Keep the Bells

Hodel notes that the larger dairy industry in Switzerland has yet to experience a full digital transformation, but imagines industry-specific business software is just the beginning.

“In the next few years the dairy industry will benefit from many of today’s emerging technologies,” Hodel predicts. “This could be robotics, 3D printing, IoT, and even drones.”

This sounds all well and good. Just as long as the Swiss cows get to keep their bells and flower crowns.

Please follow me on Twitter @JohnGWard3.

You might also like to learn more about what’s happening in consumer products by visiting Consumer products: Reimagined for the new economy.

This post orginally appeared on SAP Business Trends.

 

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