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More than milk and business

Although there is very little difference between the biotechnological methods used in the dairy industry and those used in other industries, nevertheless biotechnology operates differently here. Why can certain goals sometimes be reached more effectively without academic research?

Erwin Kitzelmann is head of the Staatliche Milchwirtschaftliche Lehr- und Forschungsanstalt (State Dairy Education and Research Institute; MLF) in Wangen (Allgaeu). Kitzelmann, a 47-year-old with a PhD is a man of few words – particularly when it comes to the use of biotechnology in the dairy industry. Why not? The processing of milk has always been a biotechnical process. Biotechnology is a matter of course whereas new developments in chemistry are much more exciting. These include new gas chromatographic and spectrometric methods which can be used to detect the smallest traces of environmental toxins such as polychlorinated biphenyls, or new electronic machines that show, for example, exactly when a valve needs to be exchanged or when a plate heater needs to be cleaned. Previously these things were often done without being really necessary.

The picture shows Erwin Kitzelmann standing in front of a variety of cheeses.
Erwin Kitzelmann can be proud of what he has achieved. © Wolf G. Kroner

“Modern” biotechnology is also part of the dairy industry. A good example is chymosin, a protease used in cheese production for protein cleavage and thickening. Nowadays, the majority of cheeses – not only the industrially produced ones – are produced with chymosin derived from genetically engineered microorganisms rather than being extracted from the stomach of butchered calves. The enzyme is used to make cheese. The cheese itself is not genetically modified. “There is not enough natural calf chymosin available for the total needs of the cheese production industry. Chymosin causes a real bottleneck in cheese production, to the extent that we cannot do without genetic engineering,” said Kitzelmann. An organic cheese dairy which processes 500 litres of milk daily and a big dairy with a throughput of about 700,000 t of milk are equally important for him.

Improvements through services

MLF Wangen - Receiving Goods Department © Wolf G. Kroner

"As analytics are able to detect the smallest traces of pesticides and antibiotics and as institutions such as the MLF exist, problems with pesticides and antibiotics in milk supplies have considerably decreased," said Erwin Kitzelmann. "The quality of the milk is already very high." The need for timely hygiene controls and consulting on how milk processes can be adjusted to optimise production is more than ever apparent. MLF carries out chemical/physical as well as microbiological examinations of the quality of milk and milk products. There is a growing demand for such services. The clients come from all over Baden-Württemberg, and also from the Allgaeu in Bavaria and the Voralberg region in Austria. The MLF's work begins when the fresh milk is delivered at the processing company. MLF chemists, food technologists and vets all keep a close eye on the production of dairy products right up until the point they are delivered to the transport company or the retailers. This involves consulting and analyses as well as writing marketability and export certifications that are accepted by the authorities of the target countries.

MLF Wangen: Number of samples analysed © MLF Tätigkeitsbericht 2007: 8

The MLF is proud of its testing laboratory that is certified according to the European EN/ISO 17025 norm. In contrast to ISO 9001 or 9002 certification, ISO 17025 also documents the laboratory’s professional competence. Since the quality of the analysis is a continuous improvement process, the MLF participates in ring tests – in Germany at the muva kempten, and internationally at FAPAS (i.e. the Food Analysis Performance Assessment Scheme of the British Central Science Laboratory). Even though the MLF does not publish any financial data (in common with many other analytics service providers in this field), it is clear that business is excellent. The MLF business figures are so good that it has been able to spin off a new company. A former MLF employee offers milk analysis services and consulting for the ecological sector, in a company located close to the MLF.

Transportation and rapid sale used to be more important than hygiene. © Wolf G. Kroner

The importance of analytics and its economic dimension is best illustrated by a product recall of Schreiber Foods, one of the largest food and cheese processing companies in the USA with a worldwide revenue of 2.2 billion € (Germany incl. export 72 million €). The European subsidiary of the company is located in the city of Wangen from where the company supplies the fast food market and discounters. In 2005, the recall of a cheese product cost Schreiber Foods Europe 955,000 € (incl. high laboratory costs). The butter used for the processing of the soft cheese was not, as was required, produced with pure milk fat but contained several foreign fats.

Research of practical relevance: Are there clients if a solution is found? Is the price right?

Schreiber Foods Europe were not in infringement of their obligations when they recalled the product. The butter that had been delivered and was then recalled was investigated with methods that were usual in the market, said Schmid, Managing Director of Schreiber Foods Europe. Reviews confirmed that the supplied product was fit for human consumption. Nevertheless, the product had erroneously been declared as “soft cheese”. Erwin Kitzelmann from the MLF therefore recommends examining the raw material and end products not only for the value-giving ingredients, but also for illegal supplements. When milk fat is tested for foreign fat, scientists investigate the triglyceride composition of the butter. The test identifies foreign fats from a concentration of about 5 percent. This is due to the fact that fresh milk can contain a broad range of fatty acids, which can vary according to feeding conditions. The variation becomes obvious when producers use milk from numerous different producers from different regions.

The determination of the type of (illegally) added foreign fats becomes a challenge if the raw material is purchased from different regions. Should a specific test be developed? Kitzelmann is against such a test on economic grounds. Research on such an issue needs to be practically applicable, and this means that potential researchers first of all have to answer two questions: “Are there any clients for the solution? Is the price right?” It needs to be a problem which a processor considers vital to find a solution to, said also Ulrike Weyrich, assistant head of the MLF’s microbiology laboratory.

MLF cultures available for educational purposes, cheese dairies and cheese producers who sell their cheeses themselves
MLF cultures available for educational purposes, cheese dairies and cheese producers who market their cheeses themselves © MLF Tätigkeitsbereicht 2006: 14

Therefore, it is no surprise that the MLF scientists do not see a demand for biochips, miniaturised DNA test systems in chip format. Something that biotechnology developers and scientific researchers often call “revolutionary” is often far too “academic” for food sector users, says Weyrich hinting at the fact that focus is being put on “Research of practical relevance”.

The MLF has for a long time worked with its neighbour, Austrian Alpine Dairy Industry Institute in Tyrol (Österreichische Bundesanstalt für Alpenländische Milchwirtschaft), and the Agroscope in Switzerland. As the dairy industry is rapidly becoming a globalised sector, the MLF is also working hard to establish relationships with non-EU partners. Since 2003, the Wangen scientists have been sharing their know-how on cheese and yoghurt production with the Dairy Centre at the Agricultural University in Poltava in the Ukraine. The MLF has also initiated contacts with the Brazilian Univates University in Lajeado.

A practical problem, which mainly affects cheese dairies, concerns biogenic amines. These protoalkaloides develop during the decarboxylation (CO2 cleavage) of amino acids in fermented milk products such as big-hole cheeses. Even when eaten at low concentrations, they can lead to pseudoallergic disease symptoms and blood pressure changes. Factors that determine the content of biogenic amines in cheese, are for example the number and growth conditions of amine-forming microorganisms, the content in free amino acids, temperature treatment of the cheese milk, temperature, pH value and salt content. In addition to the requirement for more efficient analysis methods, business risk management systems are gaining in importance. The MLF offers interested milk-producing farms “Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point” consulting. The concept, originally developed by a producer of astronaut food on behalf of NASA, has become a European-wide hygiene standard in food production since 2004.

Speed is not everything

MLF Wangen - laboratory building © Wolf G. Kroner

Regardless of the conservatism vis-à-vis technological innovations, modern biotechnological methods are increasingly being used by the dairy industry. The MLF is a good example of this. The MLF has been working with multi-parameter assays (e.g., enzyme-linked fluorescent assays) enabling the high-throughput detection of Listeria monocytogenes or Staphylococcus enterotoxin. This leads to the expansion of DNA analytics. At present, MLF researchers are working on the introduction of real-time PCR which is a particularly efficient method. Although the traditional detection of Salmonella or Listeria in culture takes about 3 to 4 days, PCR only requires half as much time. Rapid end product control is important when the client is waiting for his product and each day that the product is on the shelves reduces the producer's profits.

Nevertheless, the speed with which molecular biological tests come up with results is not always the first priority. For example, hygiene at smaller milk processing companies is only randomly checked. This means that there is time enough to carry out microbiological tests using cultures. In any case, it is still necessary to verify a positive result with a classical test like this. Nevertheless, genotypic tests such as those using PCR are of superior sensitivity. The culture tests only detect proliferative microorganisms. The biggest advantage of the new PCR tests is of course that they are cost competitive compared to the culture method. PCR tests require fewer people and media and can achieve high throughput. Nevertheless, the tests cannot replace traditional microbiology since DNA tests are not yet validated for applications in food production.

Slightly ahead of the competitors…. in Germany

The MLF trains and teaches. It runs a university of applied sciences and a training dairy. The students and trainees at the MLF come from all over Baden-Württemberg, from the German states of Hesse, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland and from one company in North-Rhine Westphalia, the MLF representatives tell us with some pride. In 2007, about 250 people took part in the training courses and 9 people successfully qualified as dairy masters. At first sight, the topics and curriculae are not that different from those offered at other institutes. However, a closer look at the school’s environment, shows that the MLF brings together dairy-related value creation in the catchment area.

List of selected dairy companies in Baden-Württemberg (2007) © 2009 BioWorld Europe

The aforementioned companies, as well as others, send their students and dairy technologists to the MLF in Wangen. The researchers from Wangen know where the dairies have problems as there is constant feedback. They know where the frequent problems are, what solutions have been developed, who cooperates with whom and on which projects. This is not only an advantage for the school and its students and trainees. It also increases the quality and competitiveness of services the MLF offers.

Nevertheless, a larger number of Wangen students and scientists is going abroad compared to the number of foreigners coming to the MLF. This is not self-evident considering that the regional cheese dairies also produce foreign cheese specialities (e.g., feta) as well as managing distant subsidiaries in Russia, joint ventures with Japanese companies or tapping into Arab markets. The MLF does not want to rush and is confident about the future.

Further reading:

Landesanstalt für Entwicklung der Landwirtschaft und der Ländlichen Räume LEL (2009): Agrarmärkte 2008. March, Schwäbisch Gmünd: www.landwirtschaft-bw.info/servlet/PB/show/1242023/Agrarmaerkte 2008 BW_1.pdf

Wangen macht's - Short portrait of the Staatliche Milchwirtschaftliche Lehr- und Forschungsanstalt. www.landwirtschaft-bw.

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/more-than-milk-and-business