Fluid milk

Milk has been taking a considerable hit lately. A Mintel report from last year found that sales of dairy milk dropped 7% in 2015 and are predicted to drop another 11% through 2020.

In addition, how FSMA will impact the dairy industry is still being worked out. Specifically, there are questions surrounding how the new regulations fit with the Grade “A” Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO), which has been in effect in some form since 1924.

To gain clarity on these and other challenges facing the fluid milk industry today, we talked with Steven Murphy, a recently retired Senior Extension Associate in Cornell University’s Department of Food Science. Murphy served as a PROCESS EXPO Expert in Residence last semester, contributing articles on dairy food safety, vitamin D fortification, shelf life, and milk flavor.

Murphy trained in as a microbiologist and has a master’s degree in food science. He has been with Cornell for 37 years, working his way up from “lab rat” to an academic position in the Dairy Foods Extension Program in 1991. His work has focused on the fluid milk industry, primarily quality and safety. He has led trainings in traditional HACCP concepts for more than 10 years. He's also a registered lead instructor for the FSMA Preventive Controls Qualified Individual (PCQI) training course. Murphy retired from full time service at Cornell in August 2016. This year, he joined the Dairy Practices Council.

He is also an expert in the sensory evaluation of dairy products, having served as a milk judge and a cheese judge on many occasions. As Murphy puts it, “I’ve tasted a lot of milk.”

Our conversation touched on several trends and challenges Murphy sees facing the fluid milk industry today:

  • The decline of fluid milk consumption
  • The meshing of FSMA and the PMO
  • Milk processors’ quest to extend shelf life

American consumers are drinking less milk

“People just don’t drink milk like they used to,” Murphy says.

This trend is nothing new. Dairy milk consumption has been steadily declining. A 2013 USDA report found that, since 1970, per capita fluid milk consumption has dropped by about 36%, from 0.96 cup-equivalents to about 0.61 cup-equivalents per day. They also found huge generational differences. The report states that “all else constant (e.g., race and income), succeeding generations of Americans born after the 1930s have consumed fluid milk less often than their preceding generations.”

Fortunately, there is some good news in all of this. Fluid milk sales in April 2016 were roughly the same as they were in 2015, suggesting that perhaps the decline might be coming to an end.

There are several reasons milk has become less popular. Here are a few from the Mintel report:

  • Health concerns and the rising popularity of non-dairy milk. Many people believe that non-dairy milk is healthier than dairy milk, and they’re more likely to consume non-dairy than dairy milk for heart health and weight loss. In addition, more people believe non-dairy milk is healthy for kids (69%) than believe dairy milk is healthy for kids (62%).
  • Fewer people drink milk by itself. More people drink dairy milk as an addition to other food, like cereal, (69%) or as an ingredient (61%) than drink it by itself (57%).
  • Consumers simply prefer non-dairy milk. About half of Americans drink non-dairy milk, and of these almost all also drink dairy milk. According to Mintel beverage analyst Elizabeth Sisel, this “reveals that consumers are turning to non-dairy out of preference as opposed to necessity.”

The big question, of course, is what dairy milk producers can do to win their audience back. Murphy has a few suggestions:

  • Make milk taste like milk. Having tasted a lot of milk and worked extensively on milk quality, Murphy is something of an expert in this area. He writes in “Shedding Light on Milk Flavor” that milk should be “pleasantly sweet with no foretaste or aftertaste other than the natural richness due to milk fat or other solids.” Any other flavor, such as plastic or chemical-like, medicinal, scorched, mushroom, or burnt hair/feathers is a defect. These off flavors are light-induced, which is why Murphy recommends “[keeping] milk in the dark, totally, from start to finish (packaging, cooler, load-outs, delivery docks, retail storage, retail display, consumer transport, and consumption).”
  • Add value and focus marketing on the nutritional attributes of milk. Murphy notes that dairies are looking at ways to add value to their milk, for example, increasing calcium and protein and reducing lactose. The FDA recently increased the amount of vitamin D that can be added to milk, providing an opportunity for dairy processors to offer more value-added products. The Mintel findings support this idea: 34% of respondents said that vitamin/mineral content is the top attribute they look for when purchasing dairy milk.

It’s impossible to know exactly what the future will bring. One thing we do know is that change is constant — and that holds particularly true for consumer food and beverage preferences. Dairy processors can give themselves an advantage by making sure they are keeping up with current trends and looking forward to what might be coming around the bend.

FSMA and the PMO – What will change?

FSMA continues to be the main challenge facing the food industry overall. For the dairy industry in particular, many things are still up in the air.

The biggest question for fluid milk producers is how the new regulatory system will mesh with what’s already in place. Murphy notes, “Grade A dairy products have been regulated under the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance for a long time, and it has been very successful. Currently there’s a drive to make the PMO compliance document compliant with the FSMA Preventive Controls Rule.”

While that’s being worked out, Murphy says it’s important for all processors to be aware that they need to have someone onsite who has been through PCQI training.

He believes that most of the large processors are in good shape because many already operate under a GFSI scheme, and those requirements are “pretty much in line” with the FSMA Preventive Controls Rule.

The main issue, as he sees it, is tweaking language and making sure they have the correct documentation and records to go along with their processes. For example, under a traditional HACCP plan, cleaning and sanitizing was a prerequisite program (PRP). There was less emphasis on records. Under FSMA, these things are preventive controls (PCs), which require written programs, specific monitoring information, verification activities, and so on.

A detail processors need to watch out for, Murphy says, is that some terminology is different between HACCP and FSMA, even if the things themselves are the same. To be safe, he suggests “just adjusting to call things what FSMA does.”

For smaller processors, there is “still a lack of clarity about who might be exempt from certain parts of the rule and what they are required to do. Most of that is based on size and sales volume.” For more information about these issues, see Murphy’s two articles on dairy food safety.

Finally, Murphy suggests that processors start preparing now for the FSMA rules that haven’t yet come into play. He notes that the dairy industry will need to pay special attention to these two rules:

  • Sanitary transportation. Dairies are receiving facilities, and there are stipulations for receivers. Many dairy companies are also directly responsible for transporting foods, so they will have to comply with the rules for transporters.
  • Intentional adulteration. This rule, whose intent is to prevent the potential for wide-scale impact from an adulteration event, will primarily affect larger processors. But all processors need to take steps to protect their product from intentional adulteration. While the rule does not specifically address farms, Murphy suggests that for dairy, the “challenges will go all the way back to the producer and FDA has expressed concerns in this regard.” For now, he recommends that companies develop a separate plan for food defense.

The two sides of shelf life

One of the biggest trends in the fluid industry right now is to extend the shelf life of cold milk. But, Murphy warns, it’s important to look at both sides of shelf life.

First, you need to protect milk from the bacteria that will spoil it quickly. This is one of the goals of traditional pasteurization, but Murphy says “protecting milk from contamination after pasteurization (Post-Pasteurization Contamination or PPC) with microbes that grow relatively rapidly under refrigeration (e.g., Pseudomonas spp.) is critical. This requires stringent cleaning, sanitization and preventive maintenance programs.”

The second step is to protect milk from the bacteria that will survive conventional pasteurization — the spore formers that will grow under refrigeration. Cornell is a leading institution for research in this area.

The goal is to minimize the risk of spore formers to a level that will extend the shelf life of the products. The challenge is that contamination with this type of bacteria can happen anywhere in the process, including on the farm, and that it takes only one bacterium to eventually cause a milk product to spoil.

Murphy notes that a few plants are looking into developing very clean systems on the post-pasteurization side. The strategies they’re using include reducing spore loads in incoming milk supplies through bacterial clarification, using separators designed to remove bacterial spores, and microfiltration. Ultra-pasteurization will eliminate most spores that will grow, giving products a shelf life of up to 120 days. But many consumers object to the taste.

Innovations in this area are important, because without them, processors are unlikely to achieve the results they’re looking for. Murphy puts it bluntly: “You have to look at the whole system. Investing in pre-pasteurization technologies without an absolutely clean system after pasteurization is a large waste of money.”

If you’re in the dairy industry, how are you dealing with these challenges? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Share them with us on Facebook or Twitter.