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Eating In, a series examining food and food culture in New Hampshire, ran May 17-21, 2010.

More Than a Bag: The Complicated Supply Chain of Mozzarella Cheese

All this week New Hampshire Public Radio is following some of the most commonly eaten foods back to their source.

So far, we’ve heard about potatoes, pasta and the source of ground beef.

In our next installment NHPR’s Dan Gorenstein looks at the cheese that melts so good- mozzarella.

Ok, so you have a few friends over, like NHPR reporter Josh Rogers did a few weeks back.

Have a few drinks.

Do a little cooking.

And Barbara Gannon of Sargento says odds are somebody is bound to sprinkle some mozzarella on something.

“Meatball sandwiches...stuffed shells, cantaloni.”

Mozzarella is so popular the USDA says it’s become America’s favorite cheese, surpassing cheddar a few years ago.

Sargento’s bags of shredded mozzarella make it into kitchens all across America.

“We shred more than 10 million pounds of mozzarella a year...How many bags is that....well, since most is sold in an 8 oz. bag, that would be 20 million packages of mozzarella.

Sargento calls Wisconsin home- the state that boasts ‘America’s Dairyland’ on every license plate.

But what is weird- or at least a little surprising- is that the country’s second biggest seller of shredded mozzarella cheese actually doesn’t make cheese.

“We are shredding and packaging and slicing the mozzarella that we bring in.”

It turns out that innocuous bag of cheese, is part of a complicated supply chain.

Sargento contracts with cheesemakers.

“A lot of them are in Wisconsin. But there are also dairies in Idaho and Vermont, and New York, and Minnesota and even California.”

Sargento sends cheesemakers like Earl Wilson a specific recipe he must follow.

Wilson runs the cheese division at the Burnett Dairy Cooperative, in Wisconsin.

The Coop employs 150 people and makes tons and tons and tons of mozzarella.

“About 95,000 lbs. of mozzarella on a day we just make mozzarella.”

On lighter days he says the factory churns out 50-60 thousand pounds.

They are so prolific because- at least at the Coop- it doesn’t take too long to convert milk into cheese.

“From the time we start filling the vat until those molds are formed and ready to go into the brine is roughly four hours.”

But to make so much of the stuff you need an unbelievable amount of milk.

“We have on average coming in every day 900,000-950,000 lbs. of milk every day. The biggest thing with cheese is you take ten pounds of milk and you only get one pound of cheese....It’s a huge investment in buildings and equipment....and cows....And cows.”

Ah, yes, the cows.

That’s where dairy farmer Chris Peterson comes in.

“When I graduated from college in 1972 I traded 33 sorority sisters, for 33 cows.”

Today, Peterson is the Burnett Coop’s biggest milk supplier, driving nearly 60,000 lbs of milk a day down the road to the Coop.

When it comes to dairy products there’s concern in some corners over what cows are fed, specifically if there are given growth hormones.

The policy at the Burnett Coop is to segregate the milk so if a customer wants hormone free product they can get it, at effectively the same price.

But Cheese Division Director Earl Wilson says most don’t bother asking.

For NHPR News, I’m DG.

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