The 'Magic' in Cargills ice cream
By Akhry Ameer
A near 90-minute drive along the Negombo Road into the outskirts of the town leads to what is described as "virgin land". This description was once used by multinational Unilever as part of the site selection criteria for some of their fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) production plants.

The MagicChoc, stick-based ice cream production in progress. Pic by J. Weerasekara

We approach this site through a narrow, winding road, giving no indication of what awaits us, at the end of which we discover a beautiful landscape with a building in the centre. The place is dotted with once familiar brand names superseded by a very familiar brand name - "Cargills". We are at the newly-acquired production plant of Cargills Quality Dairies (Pvt) Ltd (CQD) where the company makes 'Magic' ice cream, the latest venture by the pioneering local food retailer.

Cargills (Ceylon) Limited bought the ice cream production plant from Unilever that once made Walls ice cream and within two months has put it back on track with its own brand of diary ice cream - "Cargills Magic". Welcoming us Ranjit Page, Deputy Chairman and Managing Director of Cargills Group exuded much confidence to face the challenge of competing with the established manufacturers of ice cream. We realised that he had every reason to do after a comprehensive tour of the complex.

The survival of the ducks and fish in the pond confirm the quality of the waste water treatment process.

Bathing compulsory
When we requested a complete guided tour of the factory Dr. Jagjit S. Punjrath, Managing Director of CQD quipped: "Are you willing to take a bath?" He said that unless we comply we will be denied a tour of the facility. This requirement was deemed necessary due to the demarcation of the factory complex as clean and ultra clean areas.

We begin our tour by removing all metallic items such as watches, rings, etc. and donning disposable overalls and wearing non-slippery shoes designed for visitors. After our hands are washed we visit the mix preparation room and the testing lab that are part of the clean rooms.

Expectations of seeing workers actively involved in the mixing process turn to disappointment when we find only a few employees seated in front of computers. The manufacturing process is fully automated from the very moment the raw materials are loaded into these machines he explains. The mix room consists of a series of tanks connected by tubes.

Every single aspect from activating the various machines to transferring the contents along the tubes and even cleaning of the tubes between different mixes is computerised.

The controller simply moves the mouse and clicks on the various areas and loads different screens to change settings.

And literally at the touch of a button, the mix is prepared and stored in what is known as an 'ageing' tank. The duration of storage varies depending on the mix for certain flavours, etc.

Next we visit the lab that plays a significant role in the day-to-day operations of the plant. This is because every single raw material that is brought in is not unloaded from the transport vehicle until a sample is tested and certified for use.

The lab also has a microbiology unit which tests every item that forms part of the manufacturing process. This includes samples taken from the production workers, the floors, machinery, etc.

The officer heading the unit points out that they have set for themselves standards that are even higher than Sri Lanka Standard specifications. In addition to these tests, the lab conducts research and further tests at critical points during the production process as part of quality assurance. In the event a problem is detected the production of that particular batch is stopped forthwith.

NASA-style overalls
Before entering the ultra clean area our guide Dr. Punjrath decided not to impose the compulsory requirement of a bath "because we had come direct to the plant and had not been in contact with any polluted atmosphere". However, he insisted that we wash every exposed area of our body. When we enter a room that is somewhat like an obstacle course a senior supervisor whispered into Dr. Punjrath's ears. I figured it was about the bath. Having sorted that out we remove our overalls and footwear while sitting on a steel box. We are then given yet another set of overalls that remind me of the overalls worn by engineers at NASA. While wearing these we are told to keep our feet off the ground and turning over to the other side of the box we put on the non-slip boots. After washing our hands and face we are allowed into the production room. Yet another request and this time to wash our hands once again, this time using a special detergent.

Inside the airtight ultra-clean production room, the mixture is pumped via tubes into a special freezer that cools and adds air into the ice cream. This is then pumped into one of the four lines meant for bulk, stick, cone and cup-based ice cream.

There are also machines that load wrappers, other additions such as fruits, chocolate, cream, etc. The entire process is automated. The workers are not very active but most of the time wait motionless observing the production line. They observe the production line so sharply they detect production flaws in a twinkling of an eyelid. Suddenly one of them pulls out what looks to be a perfectly packed 'MagicChoc' ice cream on a stick. He tells me that the wrapper did not seal properly on that one, and indeed it was true.

Towards the bulk line, a belt carries the home use boxes in and out of two slots in the wall. This is where the secret of a good ice cream lies. A fully prepared ice cream has to be hardened as quickly as possible so that the texture is of a high quality and is creamy. The belt carries the prepared ice cream into a 'hardening tunnel' and comes out 45 minutes later frozen at minus 35 degrees centigrade. The speed of processing is also something we found hard to believe, but this high capacity plant produces as much as 3,200 litres of ice cream per hour.

Cold rooms
The final products are directed through metal detectors and into the cold room where it is stored. Inside two workmen are busy sorting out the packages but for only 20 minutes at a time as they cannot stay too long in this room which is at about minus 45 degrees centigrade even though they wear special clothing.

They take turns after 40-minute breaks outside before they re-enter for another 20 minutes. From the cold room the products are finally loaded into special freezer trucks that dock like space shuttles into the cold room in such a way that there is no possibility of any external air seeping in or the cold air seeping out.

Then we go outside the factory for a tour of the complex. The 15-acre property is regarded as a self-contained site as there is no waste. Fresh water is collected from 80 metre deep bore wells and after the process the waste water is treated to be used for gardening, etc. Proof of cleanliness is evident as fish and ducks in the pond thrive in the waste water. As for the balance residue from the treatment, it is used as manure and is also given free to farmers around the area.

The environment is so calm you do not realize the passing time. Even the 1.5 MW generator operates silently. 'Computerized automation' are the appropriate words to describe the plant. I found it amusing when the chairman was once requested to leave the premises to smoke a cigarette.

Having looked around, one wonders what could be the single biggest factor that CQD has got right and Unilever got wrong.

The reason given by many, even the minor staff who have been employed at this factory since its inception, is price.

The other reason is that Magic ice cream is made from pure milk unlike other ice creams in the market that use vegetable fat or animal fat. Cargills obtains pure milk from dairy farmers in the vicinity and continuity of supplies is ensured.

Is it no wonder then that Cargills is able to wave a wand and produce ice cream that is truly magical in quality?

Back to Top
 Back to Business  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.