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Lab director: More space, better service
Courtney Olson of Monroe conducts lab work at the Foreign Type Cheesemaker Association Laboratory last week. The lab tests cheese made by area cheesemakers for bacteria counts to ensure the product is up to code. (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)
MONROE - The Foreign Type Cheesemaker Association Laboratory has expanded over its 82 years and created a need for a 5,000-square-foot addition planned for this year.

Zach Tollakson, director of laboratory operations, said more space translates to a better means of providing test results to area cheesemakers.

"We will have more room and that will allow us to have more technical abilities," Tollakson said.

Founded in 1935 by area cheesemakers, each business pooled $100 to begin the facility where milk quality could be accurately tested. Cheese factories pay farmers for milk quality.

Executive Director Gail Zeitler said the facility now conducts more cheese testing, but milk is still a key aspect of its research. Milk fat determines the quality of cheese and companies throughout the area want to know if their milk producers are providing an adequate amount.

"We will definitely be able to accommodate our existing customers and potential new ones," Zeitler said. "Things have really grown for us."

A cooperative corporation of 18 total employees, Zeitler said work has "outgrown the space threefold," necessitating the need for the planned addition. The population of workers doubled in four years, and Zeitler expects another six people to be employed within two years.

The microbiology lab, an enclosed space located in a room attached to larger testing areas needs an upgrade, Zeitler and Tollakson said. Its employees will be moved to the addition planned for the east side of the facility.

In the modest area which can only hold three or four employees, cheese samples either physically brought in to the laboratory or shipped in through an online ordering system are tested for specific attributes. These particular tests are requested by area cheesemakers. Specifically, cheese is plated and tested for E. coli, yeast, mold and staphylococcus bacteria. Zeitler said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has focused tests on pathogens such as lysteria and salmonella. The facility even tests sponges used on specific areas in cheese factories, including drains and certain surfaces to see if contamination is present.

The Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services is in the process of reviewing submitted plans for the expansion.

Zeitler said the growth has been a natural progression. Before these plans, the association purchased a house directly west of the building, razed it and installed an asphalt parking lot for employees.

The addition will be built on the corner of 17th Street and 16th Avenue. Completion is scheduled for this fall.