Tropical Cheese Industries produces and distributes a wide variety of dairy products, including soft cheeses, drinkable yogurts, and other products. Headquartered in New Jersey, United States, it prides itself on providing authentic, high-quality dairy products aimed at their primarily Mexican, Central and South American, and Caribbean consumer base. Providing a safe and healthy working environment for its employees is a priority for Tropical Cheese and a key factor in its pursuing SA8000 Certification. First certified in 2018, Tropical Cheese recently achieved recertification in 2022.
Over 40 years of producing cheese comes with its share of challenges, including a growing workforce and adapting to new ways of working. First certified in 2018 by ABS Quality Evaluations, Tropical Cheese became interested in SA8000 certification at the direction of one of its largest customers, Walmart. Though adopting SA8000 certification was “scary at first,” according to Chief Financial Officer, Michelle Estornell, “…we already had many of the structures and management systems concepts in place in bits and pieces, we just needed to formalize them.” Formal, written procedures accompanied better health and safety processes and investments in new technology to assist workers, helping as the company grew from a few dozen employees in 1983 to nearly 400 employees today in its manufacturing plant in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.
Some of the obstacles Tropical Cheese faced in adopting SA8000 were related to vendor management, risk assessments, and various process improvements. They were also concerned, at first, about the additional burden of adding SA8000 on top of the other certification systems they have adopted. However, as Joe Vicini, Vice President of Manufacturing, says, SA8000 is different from other systems: “Other audit firms come in with checklists and focus on finding faults, but with SA8000, it turned out to be a partnership, building on what we’ve done and helping us set up methods to ensure follow-up and follow-through.” Tropical Cheese finds added benefits in SA8000 as a system to help them comply with U.S. federal labor standards.
Founded in 1982 by Rafael Mendez, a Cuban immigrant, Tropical Cheese has always encouraged a close-knit community among its hyperlocal workforce. Over 50% of the company’s employees live within walking distance of the factory and many started their first jobs at Tropical Cheese after immigrating to the United States. Tropical Cheese always aimed to foster an environment where all employees could feel comfortable sharing observations, concerns, or suggestions. The SA8000 certification helped them formalize that intention and bring it to a higher level. Routine departmental meetings are now being held with management and employees, during which management communicates current events and listens to employee feedback related to health and safety and productivity improvements. For Tropical Cheese, improved communication with employees and strengthened procedures have been one of the most significant benefits of the SA8000 Certification.
This is supported by strong sense of unity within the Social Performance Team (SPT). The team consists of managers and a few members of the company’s long-standing health and safety committee and serves as a forum to discuss ways to strengthen company structures, procedures, and standards. One of the members, Leopoldo Peña, has been on the SPT since the beginning. He joined because he felt that his experience in health and safety could add a lot of value in guiding improvements and for the opportunity to act as a bridge between management and his fellow workers. Also a member of the health and safety committee, Peña enjoys that the SPT provides opportunities to discuss good management practices, in addition to better procedures.
Through its endeavors to implement the SA8000 Standard, Tropical Cheese strives to proactively create a safe and healthy working environment for its staff that reflects the roots and core values of the family-owned business. Their commitment to doing business in a way that is fair and decent for workers has paid off. Tropical Cheese has been able to attract multiple generations of employees within the same family and retain a large group of workers for decades. Tropical Cheese will even celebrate their 40th anniversary along with the individual who made the first pound of cheese in 1982, who is still working each day with great pride.