041919-wsj-news-dairy1

John Lucey, director of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research on the UW-Madison campus, says production of dairy beverages that won't need refrigeration could lead to "a completely different way of drinking milk." 

The plastic milk jug is familiar to most consumers but its days may be numbered as a newly announced grant will allow experts at UW-Madison’s Center for Dairy Research to begin working on producing dairy beverages that won’t need refrigeration.

Among the $1 million in grants the center is receiving from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, $650,000 is being used to create a pilot program that will produce and bottle unrefrigerated dairy products for testing by businesses interested in the technology, CDR director John Lucey said Thursday.

“I don’t know if this is going to replace our gallon jugs, but it could be a completely different way of drinking milk,” Lucey said.

Lucey believes the program, called the Beverage Innovation Center, could be a game changer for the dairy industry, which has been suffering through a prolonged economic downturn fueled, in part, by decreased demand for products like fluid milk. Demand will increase because the research work done at the CDR will lead to a bevy of new products that “meet the needs of the modern consumer,” he said.

The pilot program uses aseptic technology that sterilizes milk and packaging so that all bacteria, contaminants and mold that could sour milk are killed. That allows the products to have a longer shelf life in a store and won’t require refrigeration until after they are opened, Lucey said.

The technology has been used for years in other countries, especially in Europe. It had been slow to gain acceptance in the United States, mostly because consumers didn’t like the taste of the milk sterilized at a high temperature, Lucey said.

But that has changed with the advancement of technology — most consumers cannot taste the difference now — plus the addition of more products, he said.

New forms of milk as well as recovery and sports drinks — some that simply incorporate dairy as an ingredient — are among the products the CDR will help develop that won’t require refrigeration until after they are opened, Lucey said. That will erase the competitive advantage that non-dairy beverages have had over the years.

“I think our goal is to get into a whole bunch of new types of products that are customized and have some dairy in it and have some dairy proteins or some dairy nutrition in it,” he said. “So I don’t think we’re trying to just replace milk with another process. Some of that may happen, but I think the opportunities are here for a lot of innovation, a lot of entrepreneurs to come up with brand new types of products that have high nutrition and that are going to meet demand.”

Gov. Tony Evers told a group of cheesemakers at the Alliant Energy Center Thursday that the timing for the Beverage Innovation Center couldn’t be better because small businesses and entrepreneurs in the state need affordable resources to help them turn their ideas and dreams into commercial products.

The Beverage Innovation Center is a new avenue for the world-renowned Center for Dairy Research, but the center has a history of helping revitalize the state’s dairy industry. It is best known for creating programs in the 1990s that paved the way for Wisconsin’s cheesemakers to focus more on making specialty cheeses, now the state’s best-known product. It also has done notable research that led to new uses for whey and other products.

The CDR already has been doing aseptic technology research and collaborating with clients that include fairlife, a fast-growing company that makes high protein, high calcium and low lactose products, Lucey said. But it has been forced to go off-site to complete some of its research because it lacked the equipment it needed.

That led the CDR to apply for the grants so it could buy the equipment and become the only facility in the United States that can do research for small-scale quantities that most businesses or entrepreneurs require, he said.

“We looked at this as a way to drive innovation growth in the state and within our industry,” Lucey said. “We know that we have low milk prices at the moment and it’s affecting our farmers and our communities. We were continuing to innovate at the center for our specialty cheese and other value-added products, but we certainly see value-added beverages as a key as well.”

Grant money for the program includes $400,000 from WEDC and $250,000 from the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin — formerly the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board — to buy equipment.

Lucey is hoping another $150,000 needed to complete the equipment purchases for the program will come from within the dairy industry. He said he hopes it will be installed within the next 12 months.

Besides the $400,000 for the aseptic technology, the CDR also is receiving $350,000 in grant money from WEDC to help small dairy businesses hire consultants for business planning and advice. The CDR will use the grant money to reimburse the businesses for a portion of the consultant’s bill for services.

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Rob Schultz has won multiple writing awards at the state and national levels and covers an array of topics for the Wisconsin State Journal in south-central and southwestern Wisconsin.

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