With a centuries-long heritage of providing nutrient-rich products, the dairy industry has an unwavering commitment to the health and well-being of future generations.

That’s why organizations at every step of the supply chain—from dairy farms to the local grocer—are working together on research and innovation in entirely new ways. The shared vision is for all segments of the industry to continue to provide consumers with the dairy products they want in a way that is socially, environmentally and economically sustainable.

The dairy industry accomplishes this level of collaboration through the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, which serves as a forum for the industry to work together precompetitively to foster innovation and increase sales. Innovation Center priorities include health and wellness, sustainability, globalization, consumer confidence, food safety and research and insights.

In 2011, the Innovation Center launched a Food Safety Operating Committee (FSOC) that was formed to maintain consumer confidence in dairy products as well as to reduce the risk of reputation damage and financial loss to the dairy industry due to a dairy food safety incident. The committee’s objective is to improve manufacturing conditions in all dairy processing facilities in order to help prevent food safety incidents and recalls.

Food safety and sustainability are interrelated such that in order for innovative technologies and practices to be economically viable for the industry, they need to safely deliver dairy products to the enduser. Sustainability initiatives currently under way by the Innovation Center will directly improve the quality and safety of dairy products.

Both food safety and sustainability use the life cycle approach (LCA) to understand a product’s impact. Assessment of the product is from “farm to table”—starting with raw materials extracted from nature and ending with consumer use and disposal. This process provides a system-level view from which to identify opportunities for innovation and improvement (Figure 1).

Modernization of Food Safety Oversight
According to The White House Blog (www.whitehouse.gov/blog), foodborne illness strikes 48 million Americans each year, hospitalizing 100,000 and killing thousands. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) builds a new system of food safety oversight, one that is focused on applying, more comprehensively than before, the best available science and good common sense to prevent the problems that can make people sick.

The idea of prevention is not new. What is new is the recognition that for all the strengths of the American food system, a breakdown at any point on the farm-to-table spectrum could harm the health of consumers, as well as cause disruption and economic loss to the food industry.

In terms of the FSMA, processors of all types of food will now be required to evaluate the hazards in their operations, implement and monitor effective measures to prevent contamination and have a plan in place to take any necessary corrective actions. Additionally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will have much more effective enforcement tools for ensuring those plans are adequate and properly implemented, including mandatory recall authority when needed to swiftly remove contaminated food from the market.

Moreover, with the signing of the law, FDA for the first time will have a congressional mandate for risk-based inspection of food processing facilities. For example, all high-risk domestic facilities must be inspected within 5 years of enactment and no less than every 3 years thereafter. The legislation significantly enhances FDA’s ability to oversee the millions of food products coming into the United States from other countries each year.

Very importantly, the FSMA calls for the strengthening of existing collaboration among all food safety agencies, whether federal, state, local, territorial, tribal or foreign. Among other provisions, the legislation directs the secretary of Health and Human Services to improve training of state, local, territorial and tribal food safety officials and authorizes grants for training, conducting inspections, building capacity of labs and food safety programs and other food safety activities. Building and leveraging the capacity of these food safety partners is how a well-integrated national food safety system can be developed that is as effective and efficient as it can be.

Dairy’s Focus on Food Safety
The dairy industry takes food safety very seriously. Throughout the years, dairy farmers and processors have worked closely with FDA and state regulatory officials to establish safety regulations and practices. For example, the federal Pasteurized Milk Ordinance is a set of requirements for milk production, milk hauling, pasteurization, product safety, equipment sanitation and labeling. It is one of the most effective tools to ensure the safety of milk. It is very effective; today, less than 1 percent of foodborne illness outbreaks in the United States involve dairy products.

Another example is the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points system, a structured and scientific process used throughout the food industry to help ensure food safety. Processing plants identify critical steps throughout the manufacturing process and establish plans to monitor and minimize any risks.

The Innovation Center’s FSOC is taking this commitment to food safety to the next level. In line with the FSMA’s focus on applying comprehensive food safety oversight measures, the committee has developed an education and training program for controlling pathogens within dairy processing plants. The program aims to help prevent food safety recalls that could compromise the reputation of the industry by providing processors and suppliers with knowledge and applications of food safety best practices they can implement to reduce the risk of an incident.

Parallel to the training launch, the committee is establishing work teams to 1) adapt the training for the supply chain, 2) strengthen voluntary internal audits to a common standard and link to the Global Food Safety Initiative and 3) create two standing annual exchanges between government regulators (e.g., FDA) and FSOC executives to enhance the industry’s relationship and dialogue with regulators.

“The members of the Food Safety Operating Committee bring tremendous leadership and technical knowledge to the committee’s work,” said Tom Hedge, chair of the FSOC and vice president of technologies for Schreiber Foods Inc. “What has been particularly impressive is the spirit of collaboration and sharing of food safety experiences and best practices to build this dairy industry education initiative. The industry’s best interests are clearly front of mind with this team: It’s about food safety performance that maintains consumer confidence in dairy products.”

The Role of Packaging
The primary role of packaging is to protect the product from external influences and to keep it safe from contamination, both deliberate and inadvertent, from point of production to point of consumption. Packaging must convey the producer’s marketing message clearly and concisely and must allow the inclusion of any necessary labeling, such as product credentials and dietary information. Print should be of a size the consumer can read regardless of life stage.

Currently, packaging labels must include nutritional information. In the future, they might also have to take into account regional demands for multilingual labeling, the facts behind any supplements included and other information deemed important for consumers, such as details of possible food allergens.

Information about food allergens is particularly important when it comes to labeling. Industry data on recalls indicate that as much as 55 percent of food product recalls can be caused by improper labeling involving allergens. Consumers with some food allergies, particularly a peanut allergy, have to be extremely careful what they eat. Food labeling is very important to these consumers because the consequences of eating the food they are allergic to could be very serious.

Packaging must be as cost-effective as possible and must be in accord with changes in consumer lifestyle trends; for example, increased mobility and on-the-go consumption require packaging that can be easily transported by the consumer and must also allow for one-handed consumption.

Packaging must also satisfy current environmental legislation and consumer demand. Environmental concerns are increasingly pressing and important to consumers. Research shows that the marketplace is already responding to this trend. According to the Mintel Global New Products Database, there were 454 new claims for environmentally friendly packaging in the beverage market in 2009. This is more than double the number of claims in 2008. Most of these were for existing beverage products that modified their packages in some way.

Packaging will play an integral role in the future of the liquid dairy market. Until recently, most emerging markets used only basic packaging. The trend toward an awareness of hygiene and food safety issues coupled with higher incomes and urbanization has led to a sustained requirement for quality packaging solutions throughout the world.

The environmental impact and food safety quality of packaged milk is about more than just the container. It includes the complete dairy delivery system, spanning the production of the packaging material through processing to consumption and disposal of the package.

From Farm to Table
An LCA studies the life of a product starting with raw materials extracted from nature and ending after consumer use and disposal.

It also calculates an accurate baseline for measuring environmental and social impacts, provides a system-level view from which to identify opportunities for innovation and improvement, scientifically informs decision making on future options and provides a common benchmark and language.

“Life cycle assessment is all about radical transparency of the supply chain, and applying key learnings from the LCA data will greatly improve the traceability across the whole value chain of a product or service,” said Ying Wang, Ph.D., director of sustainability research for the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. “By utilizing such a powerful tool, the dairy industry will be able to understand and address the environmental issues as well as the food safety quality of dairy products.”

The Innovation Center is conducting multiple LCAs in a comprehensive, science-based approach to measure and improve the environmental footprint of U.S. dairy across the entire supply chain. In 2010, the Innovation Center completed a greenhouse gas (GHG) LCA of fluid milk and is currently completing a comprehensive LCA of fluid milk that measures additional environmental impacts, including water stress, water quality (eutrophication, acidification), human toxicity and land use.

Also under way is an LCA of white and value-added milks and coffee creamers across usage occasions (e.g., at home and on the go), pack sizes (e.g., gallon configurations to single serve) and methods of distribution (e.g., chilled and ambient). The data will equip milk processors, packaging material manufacturers and retailers with science-based information that will help them make informed decisions with regard to innovation and opportunities to reduce GHG emissions in milk processing and packaging. The Processing and Packaging LCA also will help identify areas for improvement and innovation.

New, improved and more sustainable packaging formats can offer long-term cost reductions, primarily from material and energy savings. Sustainable packaging also provides an opportunity for dairy industry innovation by expanding the diversity of packaging alternatives in the dairy case. These innovations will attract retailers as well as the increasing number of consumers conscious of the environmental impact of their purchases.

Key findings of the LCA will be published in peer-reviewed journals toward the end of 2011, and detailed models will be made available to stakeholders to populate with their own data. The results of this study will allow manufacturers and retailers to benchmark environmental impact and drive innovation in both packaging and processing rooted in sound science.

While conducting the GHG LCA of fluid milk, the Innovation Center developed a road map to reduce GHG emissions based on the opportunities for improvement identified by the LCA. The road map includes projects that reduce GHG emissions and improve business value at every step of the supply chain. One processing project in particular, the Next-Generation Processing: UV project, described in more detail below, directly benefits sustainability and food safety efforts.

An Added Measure of Quality
The Next-Generation Processing: UV project is a GHG reduction project that is exploring ultraviolet (UV) illumination as an adjunct to pasteurization to produce safe, nutritious, great-tasting milk products. Food safety assessments are currently being conducted with a view to subsequent pilot studies.

The project team includes more than 35 leading national and international institutions and organizations, including the University of California–Davis, California Polytechnic State University, California Dairy Research Foundation, Institute for Food Safety and Health, International Dairy Foods Association, Dairy Innovation Australia Limited, SurePure, Dean Foods, LALA USA, Prairie Farms Dairy, Leprino Foods, Saputo Inc., Wal-Mart and Safeway.

Prepasteurization UV illumination, which combines new and older technologies, has the promise of inactivating spores and pathogens that might occur on farm or in plant and cause public health concerns. The work thus far seems to provide that added measure of quality necessary to extend shelf life and lower spore counts in powder.

This technology is of interest not just because of the additional measure of quality it might confer on dairy products, but also because of possible food defense applications and compliance with the recently enacted FSMA.

“We live in a microbial world, and we must implement seamless, innovative solutions to the challenges facing all of us,” said Dr. James Cullor of University of California–Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “This collaboration between the University of California–Davis Dairy Food Safety Laboratory in Tulare with private industry and the Innovation Center is the prototype for moving things forward in a timely fashion.”

Working Together for a Healthy Planet
The changing societal, environmental and economic landscape of the planet, the United States and the dairy industry calls for a unified response from all participants in the dairy supply chain.

As with nutrition research, the dairy industry values science as the foundation for its commitment to sustainability and food safety. Peer-reviewed scientific research grounds the industry’s decisions, informs the development of best management practices and helps establish goals and measure accomplishments for every segment of the dairy value chain.

Taking a holistic view of the supply chain and the life cycle of each product enables the industry to utilize both sound science and transparent processes to foster continuous improvement. The result is the preservation and enhancement of the health and wellness of all people.

Gail Barnes, Ph.D., M.B.L., is vice president of technology and packaging for the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and Dairy Management Inc. In this position, she helps the dairy industry realize its sustainability goals by working as an expert resource internally and directly with processors, manufacturers and transporters.