Jeff Williams 

The Head Cheese at Glanbia Foods

Glanbia Foods, Inc., which is headquartered in Twin Falls, is the largest barrel cheese manufacturer in the world, processing more than 12 million pounds of milk everyday, which results in more than 400 million pounds of cheese and 110 million pounds of dairy ingredients annually. Glanbia Foods President and CEO Jeff Williams talked about Glanbia's Cheese Innovation Center, which opened in August 2013; the difference between American cheese and American-style cheese; what "cheese innovation" means; and why Glanbia would like the Chinese to eat more cheese.

Where are you from originally?

I grew up in Oregon. I've been in Twin Falls for 25 years.

How long have you been with Glanbia Foods?

Twenty-five years.

Glanbia is Gaelic for "pure food," right?

"Bia" is Irish for food and "glan" means pure. It's a new word.

Glanbia manufactures cheese and whey. What is the whey used for?

OK, so Dairy 101: take 100 pounds of milk. Milk is about 87 percent water, so that leaves 13 percent solids in the milk. We take 10 percent of those solids and make cheese. What's left over is the whey. If you remember your nursery rhyme: "Little Miss Muffet, sat on a tuffet / eating her curds and..."

Whey.

Right. So the curd is the cheese. The whey is what's left over. We take that and ... separate it into its protein and its carbohydrate source. Then the protein fraction goes into a number of different products, all the way from a 34 percent to a 90 percent protein product. Then there's the carbohydrate or lactose or milk-sugar, whatever you want to call it. It's the sweet part. We separate that and we dry it. [The] dried products go into a bag or into a 1-ton tote. On the protein side, we sell it to our own companies that put it into performance nutrition products. It used to be just bodybuilders that were eating this stuff. Now it's everybody, right?

Right. Everybody.

So there's a huge application there. Most of the lactose actually finds its way into infant formula. It is a milk sugar but it isn't that sweet.

How did the Cheese Innovation Center come about?

Close to 10 years ago, we opened a new center right in downtown Twin Falls--our Whey Collaboration Center. We would bring customers in to collaborate and work shoulder-to-shoulder with us on new products. It's a brilliant pilot plant: We have a [protein] bar machine, a drink machine, a bakery. We started looking at consolidating our corporate offices--over the years, we had spread out into six different buildings. My vision was to get everyone under one roof again. When the plans starting coming together, we said, "[Let's] build a Cheese Innovation Center similar to our Whey Collaboration Center so we can bring customers in and work shoulder-to-shoulder with them on new cheese ideas." We were able to work with the city of Twin Falls to locate both buildings in a pretty blighted area of Old Towne. ... It was a way to revitalize the downtown.

"Whey Collaboration Center" and "Cheese Innovation Center" are, say, sexier terms than...

R&D for sure--that phrase has been around forever. That's what we do there, but we felt like it had to be a little more encompassing and [indicate] that's where we're going to innovate and collaborate with customers.

What kind of cheese do you manufacture at Glanbia?

We're the largest manufacturer of what we call "American-style" cheese in the country. American-style cheese is cheddar, Monterey jack, colby, colby jack. Some people equate American cheese with processed cheese. We don't make that.

So Glanbia cheeses aren't packaged for stores?

No. We manufacture and sell to [customers]. The smallest piece of cheese we make is 40 pounds, so we would sell a 40-pound block or even a 640-pound block to Kraft, or Land O' Lakes, or Great Lakes, or Schreiber Foods. They would put either their own name on it, like Kraft or Sargento, or the store name like Great Value for Walmart or Essential for Albertsons.

Do you make it to customer specifications then?

Yes. Innovation to us would be a customer saying, "We'd like you to explore making this kind of cheese or with this application." Or looking at market trends. Right now we're seeing a big interest in heat: peppers. We've made jalapeno pepper jack for years, but now people are interested in habanero peppers, ghost peppers and other inclusions in the cheese. Then there might be some serendipitous innovation, like one of our guys had an idea for wasabi cheese. One guy ... said, "Let's make some kimchi-flavored cheese." It could be anything we think might show our capability or just resonate with our customer.

What's the oddest addition or flavor of cheese ever suggested?

I tried some chocolate processed cheese once. I didn't really care for it.

What's your favorite American-style cheese?

I like a sharp cheddar. I like the jalapeno pepper jack but the ghost peppers are too hot for me.

Is it true that places overseas like China are looking for more powdered dairy products?

With 1.3 billion people, China is the largest consumer of powdered milk. But I think the [annual] per capita consumption of cheese per person there is about 4 ounces. Americans eat 33 pounds per capita per year. Greeks eat like 60 pounds. Whenever I'm giving a public talk, I have 4 ounces of cheese in one hand and a 2-pound block in the other. I say, "Knowing we eat 33 pounds, it's probably not too difficult to get your head wrapped around the fact that we could move the Chinese from 4 ounces to 2 pounds." We're already exporting a lot of our whey products into the Asian market and have been for 30 years. That's not new to us, but exporting cheese in the last five years is.

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