No fresh milk for Australians? Is UHT the next big thing?

It’s been an amazing week. First, milk processor Lion, came right out and said the unthinkable – that a milk price below the cost of production was “fair” and that there need to be fewer dairy farmers in Queensland and New South Wales.

Then, yesterday, Sue Neales (follow her @BushReporter on Twitter) of The Australian reported that “Desperate Australian dairy farmers are looking to fly fresh milk directly into Asia to deprive Coles and Woolworths of their unassailable market power.”.

In Sue Neales’ story, Dairy Connect farmers’ group president Adrian Drury said: “We are telling the supermarkets that they mightn’t always have easy access to fresh milk and that they take us for granted at their peril in their push to force milk prices down.”.

What does that mean for you, the milk drinker?

To put it bluntly, you might find yourself drinking UHT milk rather than fresh milk sooner than I expected. Rumours are rife in dairy-land that Coles is keen to shift you from the fridge to the aisles when it comes to picking up your milk. Coles has quite a contingent of European executives these days, where the move from fresh to UHT has been spectacularly successful for the supermarkets. According to Wikipedia, 7 out of 10 Europeans regularly drink UHT rather than fresh milk.

Why UHT? For supermarkets, the benefits of stocking UHT are huge. It lasts longer, it doesn’t need to be refrigerated and, best of all, it can be sourced from far away, increasing their range of supply.

What’s wrong with that, you may ask? After all, there’s evidence that UHT is greener (given it doesn’t need to be refrigerated) and it is still good for you (read more about UHT here, if you like). Question is, do you want to be able to choose?

PS: If The Australian won’t let you read Sue’s story, Google the headline Farmers’ bid to end duopoly milk run and you should be able to read the lot.

Milk from the farm to the table

Ever wanted to know what happens to milk between the farm and your glass? This lightly edited story from the Gippsland Murray Goulburn newsletter explains it all really well.

Separation and standardisation
Separation of animal milk, be it goat, sheep or cow is a naturally occurring phenomenon, which has been observed and tinkered with by man for many centuries. Indeed, as recently as the mid-1900s, milk was separated on farm and consigned as cream in cans to the dairy processor, with the whey by-product being fed to the farm’s pigs (MMM note: We had cream cans until the early 1960s when power finally arrived here and a refrigerated vat took their place).

These days, separation of cream from skim milk is done via multi-level centrifugal force separators in a process refined in 1879…Cream, which is lighter than milk, is driven by centrifugal force (MMM note: the same “spinning” force that pushes water out of clothes during the spin cycle of your washing machine) to the surface of the milk and flows off to a holding vessel. Standardisation of milk involves the adjustment of the fat content by addition of cream or skim milk as appropriate.

Along with correct cooling, pasteurisation is one of the most important processes in the treatment of milk. If carried out correctly, this process will supply milk with a longer shelf life. Simply, the process of pasteurisation is to heat milk to 70-75 degrees C but for only five to seven seconds, upon which most bacteria will be killed.

Ultra High Temperature (UHT)
Like pasteurisation, UHT treatment is heat treating milk for a given time at a given temperature…UHT takes the temperature to 135-140 degrees C but only for five to seven seconds. Importantly, the UHT process for milk is a continuous, aseptic (fully enclosed and sterile) treatment and packaging process. Shelf life of six months or more can be obtained if the milk is of the highest quality.

Homogenisation is a process invented in 1899 to stabilise fat emulsion against gravity separation. Essentially, milk is forced through a small passage at great velocity, causing the fat globules to fracture into much smaller ones. The newly-created fat globules will stay free and more stable and be less likely to separate out. This process will also enhance whiteness, flavour and mouth-feel of the milk. The downside of homogenised milk is its restriction in other processes such as cheese making. Also, the product is more susceptible to light damage.

There’s a bit more to the article, including a discussion of ghee, milk powder, casein and yoghurt – topics for other days!

About UHT milk

Here’s an interesting AAP newswire story about UHT:

Despite the supermarket heavyweight’s price war on fresh milk, sales of UHT milk are on the rise and now account for nearly 10 per cent of total milk sales. However, statistics from Dairy Australia show that most Australians still prefer fresh milk on their cereal.

UHT milk sales increased eight per cent from 195 million litres to 211 million litres in 2009/2010 over the year before, accounting for 9.3 per cent of total milk sales for the same period.

Associate Professor Frank Zumbo of the University of NSW, said the rise of UHT milk sales was currently not a threat to the big supermarkets as the long life product was low maintenance and did not require refrigeration costs.

“If the trend continued, it would be troubling, but at the moment it’s clear consumers have a strong preference for fresh milk,” he said.

The number was off a low base, where UHT had traditionally had a very low percentage of the market, he told reporters on Friday.

“But we are seeing the owners of UHT brands trying to lift their profile through increased advertising.”

A survey of 2,500 milk drinkers by consumer research centre Canstar Blue found that out of all Australians who had purchased milk in the past six months, those drinking Devondale UHT milk said they were happier than consumers of other brands, based on overall satisfaction, taste, health benefits and packaging.

Canstar Blue manager Rebecca Logan said the results were surprising, given the attractive prices offered by major supermarkets on fresh milk.

“There’s no doubt long life milk has come a long way over the years and consumers are responding to its convenience and long shelf life,” Logan said in a statement on Friday.

The average Australian drinks 102 litres of milk a year, according to Australian Dairy Farmers.

So, what is UHT milk?

UHT stands for Ultra-High Temperature and refers to the pasteurisation process – the heating of milk to ensure it is free from nasty bugs. Rather than being heated at 74 degrees Celsius for about 15 seconds, it is heated at about 140 degrees Celsius for just two seconds.

There is little nutritional difference between “fresh” and “long life” milk and according to Curtin University scientists, UHT milk is more environmentally-friendly than “fresh” milk.

Which milk do we drink at the farm?

I’m often asked whether we drink milk straight from the vat. Well, no, actually we drink Devondale UHT milk, which is where some of our milk ends up, anyhow. It’s safer than raw milk and easier to get out of the pantry than out of a 17,500 litre vat!