Last year's report by the National Farmers' Union (NFU) on the state of the UK dairy industry would have struck a chord with anyone involved in most other manufacturing sectors in the country. According to the NFU's 'Vision for the Dairy Industry', both dairy producers and processors need to address and improve efficiency levels across the whole supply chain. Essentially, the industry stands accused of lacking strategic direction and investment.
In particular, the report calls for more investment in the increasingly high added-value product trends in cheese, yoghurt, probiotics and flavoured milks. Current investment levels, argues the NFU, are "short-sighted" and "too little of sufficient scale and clout to compete with overseas companies"
To some extent, that view is shared by Charles Todd, md of dairy processing equipment manufacturer Carlisle Process Systems (CPS). "Compared with some European countries," he says, "the UK dairy industry hasn't been particularly good at investing over the years. It's not too late, but some have a lot of lost ground to make up." That said, however, he does see an encouraging trend among many dairy customers towards investing in more efficient process plant and equipment "with the aim of trying to drive down their unit costs"
According to Todd: "It's those processors that have more flexible plant and equipment -- designed and engineered to produce different products -- that are meeting that demand."
"We're finding more and more customers are coming to us for that flexibility," says Todd. He also notes the increased demand for kit made in higher quality 316 stainless steel. Traditionally, CPS would only make mixing systems, for example, in 304 stainless steel. Although 316 is a lot more expensive, Todd says some customers recognise the higher corrosion resistance it offers and hence the flexibility for processes that might not yet be commercialised.
This drive to improve the productivity of dairy processing can be seen in a couple of processes that have been recently commercialised by Invensys APV.
According to the company's vice president for technology, Paul Skudder, the first process converts whey protein -- previously a by-product of cheesemaking, but now a valuable resource in its own right -- into a fat replacement for use in the manufacture of half-fat cheese. "It uses a combination of ultrafiltration plant and a special shear agglomeration system," he says.
The agglomeration unit is similar to a scraped-surface heat exchanger but with special design features that produce a fairly high shear at 75-85°C. "What happens," he explains, "is that the protein denatures and forms agglomerates, which are then broken down into particles of a similar size to fat globules -- and surprisingly it tastes like fat."
This ersatz fat is then added back to milk to make 'half-fat' cheese with a taste and appearance similar to full fat cheese, "but without the rubbery texture you associate with low-fat, skimmed milk produced cheese", Skudder adds. Launched last October, the process has already notched up four plant sales.
In a similar vein, APV has collaborated with Ingredia, the French functional food ingredient company, to develop a new process for fresh fromage frais style cheese.
Already sold to a producer in China, with other orders likely from the Middle East and Turkey, this process effectively avoids the production of whey by adding concentrated milk protein powder to cheese milk.
The protein powder has a high casein concentration and is said to significantly increase curd yield, while reducing whey production. In terms of reducing costs, the savings really come from the far smaller volumes of milk that need to be handled. Skudder estimates a 40% reduction in capital costs is achievable through the reduced milk reception capacity that's needed, together with the absence of whey separators and heat treatment equipment for the curds.
The growing demand for specialist cheese production facilities has also been good news for CPS. "We've been particularly successful with our cottage cheese business," says Todd. "It's a niche area but quite good for us." And this is shown by the £500,000 complete processing line installed last year by subsidiary company CPS Damrow for Emmi, the Swiss dairy producer of brands such as Benecol and Aktifit.
Consisting of two 15,000l enclosed cottage cheese vats, a drainer-washer and a drum drainer, this specialist plant nevertheless shares one thing in common with all other dairy processes -- the need for increasingly strict levels of hygiene in its operation.
New food hygiene rules
New European Union regulations on food hygiene that came into force at the beginning of this year, for example, have sharpened the focus on this important area of process operations.
According to Ed Komorowski, technical director of the industry organisation Dairy UK, under the new regulations "all companies will be required to apply the principles of hazard analysis critical control points (HACCP) together with the application of good hygiene practice, to identify all hazards in their processes and the controls necessary to ensure that the measures are working effectively"
To a large degree, the regulations are merely formalising what is already current practice among the major producers, says Rowena Marshall, UK technical manager for Arla Foods. "The latest legislation requirements are in line with our current policies following HACCP principles ensuring the food safety of all our products."
Not that Arla is content to leave it there. "The main challenges," says Marshall, "have been to find new methods to improve food safety and product integrity even further through increased automation. The more automation, the less risk there is of mistakes, which are often caused by manual intervention. We employ on-line weight control systems and in-line leak detection and further capital investment is being made in this area."
As with most dairy processors, Arla acknowledges the role played by the European Hygienic Engineering and Design Group (EHEDG) in the specification of process equipment. A good example cited by Marshall is the recently designed milk filler from the German manufacturer Krones.
"Arla Foods and Krones worked together to create the very high hygienic standard required for extended shelf-life (ESL) products," she says. "These hygiene requirements not only relate to liquid milk but to all other dairy products." The new Krones fillers have been installed at Arla's 250M l/year dairy at Stourton in Leeds. Krones has also now added the PET-Asept-D dry sterilisation process to its filler range -- using hydrogen peroxide rather than the peracetic acid featured in its wet sterilisation process.
As well as increasing automation of its processes, Arla Foods is also improving its plant performance by using microfiltration to reduce the bacterial count of the milk it processes, moving more towards aseptic and pharmaceutical standards of hygiene. Microfiltration is said to remove 99.7% of all bacteria in its Cravendale PurFiltre brand milk, compared with the 97% achieved in conventional pasteurisation.
According to the EHEDG, up to a quarter of production costs in the food industry in general could be saved by using machinery and plant designed and built to hygienic engineering standards instead of traditional designs. But further savings are possible by using that plant and machinery as efficiently as possible. As with most food production, cleaning-in-place (CIP) systems are essential to enable dairy processors to maintain the required levels of hygiene. However, as APV's Skudder points out, standard CIP operating procedures may have been in place for years without any attempt made at optimising the system's performance.
"Perhaps the biggest advance we've seen lately," he says, "is that it is possible to drastically reduce the concentration of the cleaning chemicals if we increase the mechanical velocity of the CIP solution." By increasing the size of the recirculation pump, he says, there is potential to reduce sodium hydroxide concentration to around 0.25-0.5% from the normal strength of 1-2%.
The trade off, of course, is between the investment cost of a larger pump against reduced chemical and effluent treatment costs, not forgetting the operational benefit of more efficient cleaning. For an industry that stands accused of a lack of investment in the past, the answer seems obvious. FM