Kleinpeter Farms Dairy said it has spent “in the neighborhood of $3 million” over the past few months, including replacing equipment, hiring a full-time sanitation manager and sending employees to rigorous national training programs, to address recent customer complaints of some milk having a funny taste and turning sour before its expiration date.

“It’s been quite an ordeal,” said Jeff Kleinpeter, president of the family-owned dairy. “But I’m proud to have spent that kind of money on upgrading our facility.”

Earlier this year, the dairy started to hear complaints from customers about the quality of its milk. Kleinpeter said sales dropped as much as “15 to 20 percent” as some grocery stores even briefly discontinued stocking the company’s products and food manufacturers cut back on how much they were buying from the dairy.

“This issue took its toll on us. We got slapped to the face pretty hard,” Kleinpeter said. “I’m so proud of the teamwork that resulted from that. I think before we had a touch of complacency in the organization. But we had some wonderful people step up here and take charge.”

The company launched an aggressive program to find out what was causing the problems and implemented new systems to prevent the problems from happening again.

Kleinpeter said an inspection he conducted found that an equipment malfunction was letting diluted soapy water remain in tanks after they were cleaned, which was causing the strange taste. The equipment was replaced and new procedures were put in place to ensure soapy water was not remaining, he said. Those procedures involve employees conducting a visual inspection to make sure tanks are empty and not just relying on what equipment is telling them.

Worn valves that may have been causing refrigeration issues that led to the milk spoiling earlier than expected also were replaced, Kleinpeter said.

A full-time sanitation manager has been hired to make sure equipment is being cleaned properly, milk is being kept at the proper temperature and the proper concentrations are being used for cleaning.

“We had so many things that we corrected and upgraded, the list is a mile long,” Kleinpeter said. “The stuff that we were doing was the industry standard, but we went above and beyond to make sure that it was better than ever.”

The company also conducted a campaign to win back shoppers, even sponsoring milk tastings in grocery stores to assure shoppers that Kleinpeter’s flavor and quality are back.

After about four months, the dairy is starting to see results. “We cannot express the gratitude to all of our customers — stores, restaurants, hospitals, schools — who stuck with us,” he said. “It’s been painful to us; we lost a lot of sleep and worked a lot of nights and weekends.”

Kleinpeter said sales are “not quite” back to what they were before the problems, but in the next 30 to 45 days, they should rebound to the original level.

“We think in another three or four months, we’ll be beyond where we were,” he said. One of the factors that Kleinpeter said will drive increased sales is the company’s decision to seek certification in the Safe Quality Food Program. SQF is a rigorous food safety management system, based on scientific measures.

Kleinpeter said the dairy should be SQF-certified by November. Five employees, including his daughter, Taylor, have recently been certified in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Food Points program. This covers food safety through the analysis and control of hazards from raw material production, procurement and handling, to manufacturing, distribution and consumption.

Taylor Kleinpeter, who jokes her title is “fifth-generation cow hugger,” said a dairy is a high-risk area, because it’s producing highly perishable goods. “We’ve got to go above and beyond for our customers,” she said. “If we can improve the product to make our customers happy, we’re doing it.”

Kleinpeter said he expects the new investments will pay off in increased sales. “This will put us well beyond where we need to be,” he said.

Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter, @TCB_TheAdvocate.