While dairy has maintained a strong presence throughout the history of human diets, its nearly universal appeal in the modern world was not inevitable. Milk—and dairy products in general—have only maintained their consumer appeal through a constant cycle of innovation in line with market demands.
Even today, we are discussing a radically different dairy landscape than the one that existed 30 years ago. Dairy, a product that was once predominantly centered around Europe and North America, has seen massive growth in production and consumption across the world, especially in Latin America and Asia. It has also seen a transformation in how it is perceived, reinventing itself as a health food to target contemporary consumer concerns and evolving to encompass plant-based milk products that extend the market “beyond the cow.”
This traditionally dynamic marketplace has only been made livelier by the COVID-19 pandemic, accelerating trends that were already underway and introducing new challenges to processors.
All of these changes and the “new normal” of the last two years during the pandemic have highlighted the need for novel and advanced testing and analysis technologies. Equipped with these, processors can adapt and seize new opportunities presented by this ever-evolving marketplace.
In this article, we will break down five key trends currently affecting the dairy industry and explore how, backed by robust testing technologies, dairy processors can best capitalize on these trends.
1. Plant-Based Products
A growing number of people, predominantly in Europe and North America, are identifying as vegan or attempting to reduce animal product consumption. This intensifying demand, paired with the novel formulation technologies that allow processors to better simulate the taste and feel of dairy products, has led to plant-based milk products commanding a growing market share.
As with any novel product, safety and quality assurance should be at the top of the agenda for any processor. While ensuring safety in all milk products is critical, it introduces some distinct challenges for plant-based offerings.
For example, plant-based milk products tend to hold more suspended particles than their animal counterparts, which can lead to processing difficulties in instrumentation originally designed for animal-based products. Plant qualities such as stickiness can lead to processing disruption and an increased need for maintenance. The suspended solids also cause issues in characterizing these products when using certain analytical techniques. The nature of these formulations means that the density of the products is not always clear, making it difficult to judge which products are fit to be used in specific instrumentation.
When analyzing a plant-based sample, we can apply what we know in traditional dairy products, where formulations higher than 30% solids require near-infrared instrumentation. Therefore, in solid-rich plant-based milk products, near-infrared is usually best suited. Alternatively, in those lower than 15% total solids, Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) liquid analyzers can test samples in less than 30 seconds and with lower than 1% coefficient of variation (CV). Furthermore, diode array-based instrumentation, which can fit directly across a belt or pipeline, can provide rapid spectra of a product sample within six seconds. And for high-detail analysis, Fourier transform near-infrared (FT-NIR) can separate wavelengths in the near-infrared range within 30 seconds.
This is an area that is rapidly growing in response to market demands, with many instrument manufacturers beginning to roll out calibrations specific to plant-based milk products.
2. Dairy Industry Testing Is Traveling Upstream
Across the broader dairy industry, testing technologies are being applied further upstream in the supply chain by processors. With more stringent global food regulations, a growing clean-label product demand, and rising competition between brands, processors are requiring or intensifying early stage and raw ingredient testing in order to have more control of product quality.
The change to upstream testing can be most clearly seen in antibiotic residue testing. Veterinary drugs, such as antibiotics, are used on farms to prevent infections and promote health in cows. To prevent antibiotic residues from accumulating upstream and seeping into dairy supplies, processors rigorously test samples to ensure compliance.
Lateral flow strip tests, for example, can be used to test throughout the dairy creation process: from field and farm to contract and in-house processing labs. This easy-to-use, accurate technology can detect a broad range of antibiotics found in cow’s milk both at or below European Union and Codex Maximum Residue Limits. Better yet, they often require almost no sample preparation and produce results within minutes.
FTIR is also being applied more widely at milk collection points. Using solutions that ensure easy installation and minimal moving parts for easy transportation, these instruments can test for both composition and untargeted adulterants.
By routinely applying these technologies, processors can more easily adhere to regulations and continue to provide consumers with safe products. They can also more confidently assure safety in their products, as well as prevent the large-scale losses incurred when contaminated ingredients are mingled with healthy supplies. As testing continues to move upstream, easy-to-use and transportable technologies such as these will be important.
3. Intuitive Instrumentation
The food processing industry generally sees high staff turnover. With broader labor shortages across several industries, dairy processors are also seeing more intense staff shortages. The specific and lengthy training requirements within the dairy processing industry in particular means that these shortages are leading to workflow breakdowns and reduced productivity. To keep profit margins stable, processors need to embrace technologies that can help remedy these issues.
Intuitive instruments and software that delivers real-time learning can reduce training times and keep workflows optimized, even as staffs change. Through clever design, manufacturers can integrate useful features like touch screens, one-button operation, and automation to lower barriers to use for operators and scientists alike. They can also ensure that maintenance on the equipment is simple to perform, thereby minimizing downtime. These collective modifications can add up to big benefits in workflow efficiency.
4. Responding to Regulation in the Dairy Industry
A hallmark of the modern food industry is tightening regulation. Across the world, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is driving higher standards. This, combined with greater customer expectations of ingredient transparency, means that dairy farmers, collectors, and processors need to understand their product compositions and safety profiles better than ever before. To do this, the dairy industry needs robust instrumentation that can help provide proper antibiotic, mycotoxin, and pathogen detection across a wide range of products.
By leveraging FTIR and FT-NIR systems, for example, processors can perform adulterant pass/fail screening in one minute or less; using liquid chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry (LC/MS/MS), processors can thoroughly test for antibiotics and veterinary drug residues in milk; and with inline NIR systems, they can understand their dairy powder compositions in less than 10 seconds with no sample prep.
For efficient mycotoxin testing in complex dairy matrices, processors can also use DON ELISA kits, in which the workflow is designed for users to “set it and forget it,” minimizing manual intervention and manual error. Solutions like these are also highly efficient, helping lab teams process up to 192 samples in fewer than 90 minutes.
Equipped with the latest instrumentation and assay kits, manufacturers can best inform customers as to what’s inside their products, as well as help keep them safe from any possible adulterants.
5. Data in Dairy
While testing data solutions are currently being rolled out across almost every industry, they remain generally underused in the dairy industry, offering processors an opportune chance to get ahead.
One way data solutions can help processors is through synchronization of their workflows to achieve improved efficiency. Some solutions can give access to visualizations and predictive analytics, helping to provide a more complete overview of workflows, ingredient quality, and product performance. Modern software tools can also pull out areas where workflows can be made more efficient, with the overall goal of leveraging data to help managers make more informed and faster decisions that can reduce time, cost, and waste demands while increasing product quality.
Data solutions in dairy are undoubtedly going to scale up in the future. As sensors become more sophisticated, two areas within data solutions in particular will see advancement. First, more user-specific visualizations and information will be available for processors, and second, tailored automation when leveraging data will become widespread.
Looking to the Future
As with many industries, the dairy industry is currently undergoing a period of change. Adapting to this is fundamental if the industry wants to maintain dairy’s near-global appeal as a popular, reliable, nutritional, and tasty product. From plant-based milk products to tightening regulations, there are no signs that the dynamic dairy industry is slowing down. Further, with milk becoming ever more global and differences in product demands continuing to diverge, it’s highly possible we will see an even more varied and distinct marketplace in the future.
Smart, robust testing and analysis technologies are key when trying to stay on top in the quickly changing landscape of dairy. With innovative testing and analysis solutions and best practices, processors can add new firepower to their value and quality and continue to create competitively exciting and customer-driven products to the global marketplace.
Beukema is senior manager of R&D for PerkinElmer, Inc., Food Segment. Reach him at [email protected].