THE first shipment has gone out and continuous production of infant formula for the Chinese market is about to begin in earnest at the ViPlus Dairy Pty Ltd factory at Toora.
The Mirror was given exclusive media access to the factory last week. We toured a squeaky clean, smartly renovated plant with state-of-the-art stainless steel machinery which has already seen some small runs and is now being readied for steady production.
“We anticipate pumping out 30,000 tonnes of product a year,” said the factory’s office manager, Marion Hannon.
Two container loads of infant formula left the factory in December. They were trucked to Melbourne and then shipped to China, where they were, said Ms Hannon, very well received. Since then Christmas and the Chinese New Year have intervened to halt production for some time, and the factory has had to wait for more base product to arrive.
“There has been a lot of interest in our product in China, where there is, of course, a huge market,” said Ms Hannon.
Even as The Mirror toured the factory last Wednesday there was a group of Chinese business representatives being shown around by Dajian Li, the Melbourne-based Chinese/Australian owner.
The factory sources base milk powder from Australian (such as Murray Goulburn) and New Zealand manufacturers and adds nutrients and minerals to produce infant formula. Three different batches are produced – Stage 1 for infants 0-6 months of age; ‘Follow-on’ formula for infants 6 – 12 months; and ‘Growing up’ for 12 months and older. The formulations change accordingly.
The factory has to ensure the highest standards of hygiene are met, in line with the requirements of Dairy Food Safety Victoria and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF).
The huge complex at Toora has already undergone extensive renovations, starting with replacement of the old asbestos roofing, and more are planned.
When The Mirror toured last Wednesday, the finishing touches were being made to the replastering and painting of the front office. In the factory’s enormous warehouse, pallets of milk powder were laid out in rows, with space for much more.
In the pre-production area nearby, Ms Hannon explained that the task of the glistening stainless steel machine currently lying idle was to remove the outer paper from the powder and then sterilise it in its plastic by putting it through a UV tunnel. The powder is then shunted through the wall on a conveyor belt to the blenders in the next room, a totally sterile environment. The workers have to be kitted out in protective clothing to ensure the highest hygiene standards in the ‘Red Zone.’
The empty, pre-painted cans are also sterilised with UV treatment before they are filled with the blended product and an expiry date is added.
It is a highly automated process, although there are staff on hand to oversee it.
There are currently about a dozen people working at the factory, a mixture of Mandarin-speaking Chinese with the necessary skills, such as mechanical engineers, and locals.
Ms Hannon said that as production increases and the company expands there should be more opportunities for locals to be employed. The second stage of the project is in the planning stage. It will include the installation of a new spray driver and accompanying machinery, an on-site waste water treatment plant and a facility for producing UHT milk. In the long term Viplus plans to produce its own milk powder, but that is still at least 12 to 18 months away.
Ms Hannon acknowledged there had been teething problems at the factory and the start of full production was running later than anticipated, but any problems, she said, had been resolved and everyone who was owed money had been paid in full.
“We’re starting the new year on a positive note, excited to be starting continuous production any day now,” she said.