Two members of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet joined Gov. John Hickenlooper in Greeley on Thursday, recognizing the local Leprino Foods cheese-processing plant as a shining example of food safety and innovation that the rest of the industry should be following.
Present was U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who also applauded the Leprino facility for being a job creator and source of opportunity for the region’s farmers, ranchers and dairymen at a time when lack of action in Washington is creating uncertainty for agriculture.
U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius was on hand as well to address a small crowd outside the Leprino facility, which went into operation in the fall of 2011 and is still ramping up production.
She said everything about the plant — from its structural layout to the material built into the floors — was designed with the intent of producing safer food.
Leprino officials said they’re trying to raise the bar in terms of pathogen control efforts and other food-safety measures.
“Sometimes the affordable, safe food supply we have gets taken for granted,” Vilsack said. “But we really should not take for granted facilities like these.”
After making presentations, Hickenlooper, Vilsack, Sebelius and Leprino Foods President Larry Jensen were joined by others for a tour of the Leprino plant, although media including a Tribune reporter were not allowed to go inside.
In attendance was Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar and representatives from the offices of Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., among others.
Vilsack and Sebelius are part of Obama’s Cabinet that pushed through the Food Safety Modernization Act, the most sweeping reform of food safety laws in more than 70 years, which was signed into law Jan. 4, 2011.
It had been more than two years since Vilsack — the nation’s leading agriculture official — had paid a visit to Weld County, which ranks eighth in the nation for the value of its agricultural production.
It was the first time in Greeley for Sebelius, who admitted that the trip was bittersweet.
When serving as the governor of Kansas, she said she recruited Leprino in hopes of bringing the company to the western part of that state, before Leprino officials instead settled on the Greeley location for a new plant.
“I never thought I’d be here to congratulate you,” she said, laughing. “It drove a little stake in my heart.”
The Leprino cheese plant in Greeley, one of 10 Leprino plants in the U.S., entered its second phase of operation four months ago, when it increased its daily milk-intake capacity to about 4.8 million pounds — up from the 1.5 million pounds of milk it could handle when it opened less than two years ago.
The plant, located on 1st Avenue in east Greeley, is about 600,000 square feet, employs about 300 workers and, according to Leprino officials, includes the longest brine belt in the world at 250 feet.
Once running at full capacity, the Leprino plant is expected to take in about eight million pounds of milk per day, produce more than 700,000 pounds of cheese daily, along with other dairy products, and employ more than 500 people.
When Leprino made the announcement in 2008 that it would build a new facility in Greeley, company and agriculture officials said an additional 50,000-70,000 dairy cows would eventually be needed in the area to supply the plant’s milk needs.
According to local dairy officials, the region’s dairy industry is about halfway there, with 10 new dairies now in the works — most of which are in Weld County.
While the growing Leprino cheese plant in Greeley is providing opportunity for the region’s producers, Vilsack acknowledged that Washington is doing little to provide any support, describing lawmakers’ inability to pass a new farm bill as “unconscionable.” ❖