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MADISON - One of the conditions putting Wisconsin and U.S. dairy processors at a disadvantage, compared to their competitors around the world, is the fact that our federal regulators haven’t kept up with technological advances in the industry. A delegation from the dairy industry, including Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Sheila Harsdorf, hopes to change that on a trip to Washington, D.C. next week.

Harsdorf will be joined by Dr. John Lucey, a food scientist at the UW-Madison who is director of the Center for Dairy Research on the Madison campus. He explained that they want to talk to the Food and Drug Administration about micro-filtration of milk, a process that is widely used in European dairy plants but can’t be used here because of regulations, putting our cheese makers and dairy processors at a distinct disadvantage.

Lucey spoke about the process and its implications at a Dairy Exchange meeting in Madison July 23, which brought together industry leaders at DATCP headquarters.

There are several different kinds of filtration that can be used in the processing of milk. One is reverse osmosis, a process that many people have heard about as it pertains to filtering water. In addition, Lucey explained there is micro-filtration, ultra-filtration and nano-filtration that are all based on filtration through a membrane and can all be used in processing milk. But that’s only if regulatory approvals are in place to do so.

These various systems can be used to fractionate milk — take it apart for the value of its components — or to concentrate it before processing into a finished dairy product.

Filtering milk before cheese making could be used to increase the yield of the cheese vat by removing water, which would mean there would be more cheese per vat, he said. It could also provide the cheese plant with a more consistent product going into the process.

“Standardizing the fat and protein levels of the milk going into the vats would mean that coagulation, cutting and texture could be standardized too,” he said.

The United States is far behind on its regulatory stance with regard to these kinds of filtration systems, Lucey said. Because of what are called “standards of identity” for finished dairy products, the use of these filtration processes is not allowed.

The FDA opened the door just a crack on ultra-filtered milk in August 2017, issuing a statement that the agency wasn’t going to enforce “labeling” on it, but that applied only to UF milk and not to micro-filtered milk, he said.

Micro-filtration offers cheese plants so many more advantages, Lucey said, allowing them to dial in on casein content and filter off some of the whey proteins before the cheese making process begins. In Europe, the use of this technology has allowed the creation of a whole new product – “milk whey protein”.

This milk-derived whey is low in fat and clear because it comes out before the cheese making process. That means that it has no residue of rennet or starter culture enzymes or the color used in making yellow cheeses. All of these residues make the whey less valuable on the market, he said. As a solution to the residue problem, some whey producers have turned to bleaching the product with chemicals, which buyers don’t like, Lucey said.

Without the FDA approval of this process, “we are really in a bit of a pickle with these high-end whey users,” Lucey said. “We are losing out entirely on this new market.”

In its own way, micro-filtration is similar to cheese making; both are a way to take various fractions out of the milk. It’s just a matter of when and how it is done.

According to a study from the U.S. Dairy Export Council there are 50 to 60 plants in the European Union that are using this micro-filtration technology and an additional 10 will be putting it in within the next year.

“This technology allows them to dial in their cheese making and corner entire markets among high-end whey buyers and we’re not even there yet,” Lucey said. The reason U.S. and Wisconsin processors are not close to being in that market is regulations — something he and Secretary Harsdorf hope they can change when they meet with FDA regulators and other dairy industry leaders next week.

As he sees it micro-filtration offers a way to increase productivity in dairy plants as well as providing new economic value to the dairy stream. “We have been studying this intensively for years and micro-filtration has no impact on quality. There’s no change in nutritional profile. If it did that we wouldn’t want to use it.”

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Harsdorf said that even with regard to ultra-filtration, for which the FDA has issued “discretionary” approval, there’s the problem that if a processor invested in equipment and got into this kind of processing, the regulatory “discretion” could be rolled back and all that investment would be lost, along with potential markets.

“We are concerned that there needs to be certainty,” Harsdorf told Wisconsin State Farmer. 

At the Dairy Exchange, Lucey also talked about the $47 million refurbishment of Babcock Hall and an upgrade and addition to the CDR. The Babcock addition will amount to over 23,000 square feet of space and the CDR addition will be 33,145 square feet. The project includes a new milk intake — which hasn’t been upgraded since it was built decades ago — and a new auditorium.

Since Wisconsin has focused on artisanal and specialty cheese, which accounts for 24 percent of the state’s production, the plant will include nine individual ripening rooms and “caves” designed to age certain kinds of cheese. There will be spaces in the new facility for processing natural, processed and specialty cheeses.

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