Milk: Processed to Death?

The U.S. dairy industry is pasteurizing the life out of the milk supply, says one engineer turned 'dairy evangelist.' Could Snowville Creamery's minimal processing approach hold the key to reversing the white stuff's 30-year market decline?

By Bob Sperber, Plant Operations Editor

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You wouldn't drop an extra couple ounces of breakfast cereal into each box just to make sure you meet the minimum package weight. You wouldn't set a filler to give away six extra ounces of milk with every gallon. So why are dairy plants pasteurizing milk far in excess of sterilization requirements, in the process wasting energy and degrading the taste of the finished product?

So asks Warren Taylor, a process engineer turned self-proclaimed "dairy evangelist" preaching the gospel of minimal processing. His small Snowville Creamery in Pomeroy, Ohio, pasteurizes milk at 165°F for less than 20 seconds, far below what conventional dairies do but safely above the FDA's Grade A Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO) minimum requirement of 161°F for 15 seconds.

Why?

"It's logarithmic," he says. "Every 10 degrees you raise your process temperature produces 10 times the heat effect, or 10 times the minimum pasteurization value." Strictly speaking, he says, any pasteurizing is a compromise to product quality because some desirable enzymes and bacteria are lost at the PMO-mandated pathogen-kill level.

Processors didn't always pasteurize their raw milk at such high temperatures – or at all. But for years, the trend in large dairies has been toward more intense, not more gentle, processing.

"I've seen higher temperature requests for standard HTSTs [high-temperature/short time pasteurization units] since Sept. 11, 2001," says George Tholl, director of operations/research & development for AGC Heat Transfer (www.agcheattransfer.com), Bristow, Va., a maker of plate heat exchangers. That's when processors became "even more cautious, and went above and beyond the requirements of the PMO, consistently bumping-up their time-temperature profiles."

Cook anything too hot or too long, and you risk some nasty results:

  • Degraded quality in terms of taste, color, texture, mouthfeel and healthfulness.
  • Reduced yields, throughput and capacity if a plant is running near its peak.
  • Spikes in energy use, and bills, due to wasteful heating and cooling.
  • Lost profits from over-spending, compounded by competitive disadvantage.

Meet the evangelist
"We don't consider ourselves to be a value-added processor. We are a value-preserving processor," says Taylor. The way he sees it, the dairy industry has for decades "focused on making the cheapest milk possible," churning-out a tasteless commodity that has led to a 30-year decline in U.S. fluid milk consumption.
After three decades as a dairy engineer for Safeway Stores' dairy division; supply-side firms Waukesha Cherry-Burrell and Ecolab's Klenzade Engineering; and later as a consultant to some of the nation's leading milk processors, Taylor could have set his career out to pasture and retired.

Instead, he set cows out to pasture, opening Snowville Creamery in December of 2007. A world apart from the high-volume dairies he worked in since the 1970s, it's a small operation in which cows are pasture-grazed, not confinement raised, and a "same day dairy" philosophy sends milk from udder to grocery shelf within 48 hours. This puts 18 Whole Foods stores in the metro-Washington market at the edge of his distribution range; a fine place for someone who wants to change the way milk is made, as well as marketed under federal authority.

Taylor's a small-scale producer-processor. Snowville's operation, currently packing about 9,000 gallons weekly, is a far cry from the plants he used to design. In the 1990s, for example, he designed the process at Santee Dairy in Los Angeles "to handle about 300,000 gallons of milk a day, and it was capable of being expanded," Taylor says. "Now my process room measures 600 square feet. Every major piece of equipment isn't much more than a few arms' lengths apart."

The milk he produces has a color closer to raw milk than the snow-white product on shelves today, and it's not homogenized; the cream separates to the top. He believes conventional pasteurization practices, which kill most of the good bacteria along with the bad, are cooking the quality out of milk.

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