Tag Archives: spoilage

Megan Nichols
FST Soapbox

COVID-19 Led Many Dairy Farmers to Dump Milk

By Megan Ray Nichols
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Megan Nichols

Much of the news coverage surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic mentions infection numbers and fatalities. Those are undoubtedly important for showing parts of the overall impact. However, it’s easy to overlook the ramifications felt by some professionals. One recent example concerns the instances of dairy farmers dumping milk.

Numerous Factors Contributing to the Problem

The pandemic drastically and dramatically disrupted life. Many of the associated changes affected milk producers, but perhaps not in the ways people expect. As schools closed and restaurants operated on delivery or a takeaway-only basis, the demand for milk typically consumed in the food and educational sector went down.

Consider, too, that the pandemic forced the closure of enterprises that did not necessarily serve large quantities of milk every day but still likely placed ongoing orders with suppliers. For example, a daycare center might give toddlers boxes of dairy beverages each day during snack time. Coffee shops often add milk to their lattes or set out bottles for people who want to put some in their coffee.

When coronavirus cases emerged in the United States, many people panicked and flocked to grocery stores for essentials. Milk is often one of the staples people buy before winter storms hit, and they wanted it to prepare for the pandemic, too. One Target store in New Jersey sold out of its entire stock of milk in only five minutes. Stores responded by imposing per-person limits on the product.

If the demand exists, what caused the milk surplus? Part of it boils down to a lack of space at milk processing plants. A related issue is that processors typically serve particular markets. One might cater to retail buyers while another primarily addresses needs in the food service sector. They lack the infrastructure to pivot and begin accepting milk orders from a new type of customer, particularly if the milk-based product is substantially different, like sour cream versus ice cream.

A First-Time Phenomenon

Farmers discarding milk is not unheard of, but it’s not something many producers do regularly. Andrew Griffith, a professor at the University of Tennessee, said that some farmers had to do it recently for the first time in careers spanning decades. He explained, “It’s not that [dumping] hasn’t occurred from farm to farm.” Adverse weather conditions can delay pickups, and unexpected supply spoilages might lead to too much milk.

“But we’re talking about a level of dumping that is not common at all. There [are] a lot of farmers that are experiencing dumping milk for the first time in their 30- or 40-year careers,” Griffith said in an article published on The Counter.

The highly perishable nature of milk poses another problem contributing to the milk surplus. That aspect hit dairy harder than some other types of agricultural goods. People could put grain into silos, but storage is more complicated for dairy products.

Any exposure to higher-than-recommended temperatures causes spoilage. The subsequent risk to consumers means farmers must throw it away. Cold storage facilities are essential for the dairy industry. Statistics from 2018 indicated an average of 10.67 cents per kilowatt-hour for energy consumption at commercial facilities. However, cold storage facilities operate 24/7, so their energy needs are often higher than those of other commercial buildings.

Cows, dairy, farms
The coronavirus is only one of the challenges likely to impact the dairy industry in the coming months and years. Dairy consumption has been trending down for years. (Pexels image)

The delicate nature of the product is another unfortunate aspect that may lead to dumping milk. If a processor has no room to accept the raw goods, there’s nowhere for them to go. In April The Wall Street Journal reported that in one week, producers threw out as much as 7% of the milk in the United States from that period. The same story highlighted how a specialty cheese factory saw sales of its chèvre and ricotta drop by 95% in one day.

Coping With Dairy Industry Fluctuations

The coronavirus is only one of the challenges likely to impact the dairy industry in the coming months and years. A Statista chart profiles the progressive decline of milk consumption in the United States. The average amount of milk per person in 1975 totaled 247 pounds. It plunged to 149 pounds by 2017.

There’s also the issue of people showing a growing preference for plant-based milk alternatives. One industry analysis tracked sales of traditional and oat milk during mid-March. Purchases for the first category rose by 32%, while oat milk sales soared by 476%. A potential reason for that huge increase in the latter category is that supermarkets sell shelf-stable milk alternatives. Those often stay in date for months when unopened.

People can get them in the refrigerated section, too, but they may have preferred not to as they cut down their shopping trips due to COVID-19. Consumers also noticed the increasing number of milk-like beverages made from hemp, hazelnuts and other options. If a person tries one and doesn’t like it, they may try a different option.

Despite those challenges, some dairy farmers anticipated favorable trends—at least before the coronavirus hit. Producers get paid per 100 pounds of milk. Katie Dotterer-Pyle, owner of Cow Comfort Inn Dairy, said 2013 was a particularly good year for the rates. Back then, farmers received about $30 for every 100 pounds, although the price has stayed at approximately $17 per 100 over the past two years.

When Might the Milk Surplus Ease?

This coverage emphasizes the lack of a quick fix for the dairy industry strain. As restaurants reopen, that change should help address the problem, but it won’t solve it entirely. Some enterprises refocused their efforts to better meet current demands. One Dallas-based plant that handles dairy products more than halved its output of cardboard milk cartons and increased production of whole and 2% milk for the retail sector. It is now back to normal manufacturing runs.

As mentioned earlier, though, many processors can’t make such changes. Dumping milk becomes a heart-wrenching practice for hard-working producers. Many tried to compensate by selling their least-profitable cows for slaughter or making feeding changes to reduce the animals’ production. Some private entities committed to purchasing milk from farms and getting it to food banks. Other analysts say the government should step in to help.

People in the farming community support each other with tips and reassurance, but most know they could be in for a long struggle. As supply chains recovered from the initial shock of COVID-19, most people stopped panic buying, and stores no longer set product limits. Things are moving in the right direction, but the impacts remain present.

A Complicated Issue

Many state leaders have let businesses reopen, and others are following. Any step toward a new kind of normal is a positive one that should gradually help the dairy sector. However, much of what the future holds remains unknown, mainly since this is a new type of coronavirus, and scientists still have plenty to learn about mitigating it.

Marc Pegulu, Semtech
FST Soapbox

Increasing Food Safety and Spoilage Prevention in the IoT Era

By Marc Pégulu
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Marc Pegulu, Semtech

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, it is estimated that nearly one third of the food produced (about 1.3 billion tons) globally is not consumed. To help tackle this billion-dollar problem, an innovative solution is being deployed to detect one of the key factors driving food waste: Spoilage due to fluctuations in temperature.

To get to the dinner table, food must travel great lengths to preserve that farm fresh quality. Refrigerated shipping units and storage facilities are essential to reducing bacteria growth and by using an automated smart-refrigeration solution, a food-safe environment can be maintained throughout the journey with little supervision. Traditional food temperature monitoring is reliant on staff to periodically check temperature levels and make adjustments as necessary. This process is not scalable, meaning that with a larger facility or an increased number of food displays, it becomes increasingly labor intensive and inefficient. If employees are preoccupied, periodic check-ins may be delayed or missed entirely, leading to gaps where temperature fluctuations are not addressed, opening the door for increased bacteria growth and food waste.

LoRa fights food waste
LoRa devices and LoRaWAN protocol are being integrated into smart refrigeration solutions to fight food waste. Image courtesy of Semtech.

To solve this issue, Internet of Things (IoT) sensors can be deployed in shipping vehicles, displays, refrigerators, and storerooms to provide accurate and consistent monitoring of temperature data. When a temperature fluctuation occurs, the sensors will send a signal to a low power, wide area network (LPWAN) gateway application. The information is then relayed to a network server, where it is routed to application servers or Cloud IoT services. The data is then processed and sent to the end user through a desktop or smartphone application. What’s more, in the event of a power outage, these long range, low power wireless enabled IoT devices are battery powered and consume minimal energy, allowing for consistent off-grid temperature tracking.

These connected devices can be found globally in a variety of use cases ranging from quick service restaurants to full service grocery stores, with an end goal of ensuring appropriate temperature levels for food. To support connectivity for these devices, an open network protocol is used to ensure the devices can be scalable and globally deployed. Two recent use cases where the long range, low power wireless devices and LoRaWAN protocol were used to actively monitor temperature fluctuations are Axino Solutions (Axino) and ComplianceMate.

Axino recently integrated LoRa devices and LoRaWAN protocol into its line of smart refrigeration solutions with the goal of combatting food waste. The solution combines sensor technology with automated data communication providing a substantial increase in measurement quantity and quality. Additionally, stores found a significant reduction in metering and operating costs after sensor deployment. This smart refrigeration solution has been globally deployed and is currently used by Switzerland’s largest supermarket chain, Migos. Axino’s sensors can be quickly installed, utilizing a magnet to attach to a refrigerator’s infrastructure. The sensors monitor temperature in real time, are accurate to one degree Celsius and can be pre-programmed to adjust refrigerator temperatures to ensure that food is stored in a safe environment. By having access to real time data and automatic temperature adjustment, supermarkets were able to eliminate human error, prolong shelf life and pass energy savings off to the customers.

The challenge for any wirelessly connected device is the presence of physical barriers that will block signals. Steel doors, concrete and insulation are some of the key considerations when developing a smart solution, especially in restaurants using large freezers. ComplianceMate partnered with Laird Connectivity and found that devices on a LoRaWAN-based network produces a more reliable signal than its Bluetooth counterpart. This IoT solution has been deployed in some of your favorite restaurant chains such as Shake Shack, Five Guys, Hard Rock Café, City Barbeque, and Hattie B’s and has already proved to be a huge asset. For instance, a sensor deployment saved $35,000 to $50,000 worth of inventory in a Hattie B’s location when downtown Nashville experienced a sudden power outage in 2018. The LoRa-based alert system immediately notified store management, allowing them to act quickly and prevent food spoilage.

Reducing global food spoilage is a monumental task. From farms to grocery stores and restaurants, technology must play a critical role, ensuring food remains at a safe temperature, preventing unnecessary spoilage. In the era of connectivity, businesses will turn to LoRa-based IoT deployments for its flexibility, durability and ability to provide real-time information to employees and decision makers to not only maintain strict industry standards in food safety, but to also pass savings on to their valued customers.

#m, Petrifilm Lactic Acid Bacteria Count Plate

Lactic Acid Bacteria Test First to Earn Independent Validation

#m, Petrifilm Lactic Acid Bacteria Count Plate

The Petrifilm Lactic Acid Bacteria Count Plate is the first commercial method of its kind to win validation from a third-party scientific organization, the AOAC Research Institute.

#m, Petrifilm Lactic Acid Bacteria Count Plate
3M’s Petrifilm Lactic Acid Bacteria Count Plate

Launched last August, the ready-to-use plate streamlines the testing process for lactic acid bacteria spoilage organisms. By assessing the bacterial levels acceptable for foods, the test can help companies extend product shelf life, reduce waste (the plates produce 66% less waste by weight and volume compared to certain agar methods), and potentially minimize recalls by allowing them to modify processing conditions or change cleaning and sanitation procedures. The test also provides accurate results in a shorter timeframe.

The AOAC Performance-Tested Method, Certificate #041701, is intended for a variety of foods (lactic acid bacteria is a concern for manufacturers of foods such as meat, fish, poultry, processed foods, produce, dairy products, dressings and sauces). Manufactured by 3M, the plate was tested on an environmental surface and a variety of food matrices as part of the validation process.

Phil Coombs, Ph.D., Weber Scientific
In the Food Lab

Rapid Detection of Spoilage Organisms: The Forgotten Bad Guys?

By Phil Coombs, Ph.D.
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Phil Coombs, Ph.D., Weber Scientific

As rapid microbiology methods have been increasingly adopted by the food industry during the past 30 years, much emphasis has been placed on the detection of foodborne pathogens and  reducing test times as much as possible. Novel methods such as PCR, along with other molecular approaches, have done much to find these organisms more quickly and identify the source of an outbreak. Quite rightly so: We all have to eat, and we all prefer to eat safe food.

What is often forgotten, however, and what has been less fashionable in the development of novel methods, is the impact of spoilage organisms on the economics of food production and the lack of more sophisticated methods to detect them.  While media headlines may scream “Salmonella outbreak affects hundreds!”, the same outlets are less likely to report how much food is thrown away on any given day because of mold growth. “Penicillium spoils bread” is hardly an attention grabber on the 6 o’clock news.

A closely–related issue is that of food wastage, which together with spoilage accounts for billions of dollars of food that is thrown away. Estimates are in the region of $29–35 billion per year, and that doesn’t take into account the billions of dollars of wasted produce because of cosmetic imperfections—the so-called “ugly” fruit and vegetables that are still safe and nutritious to eat. In other estimates, it is suggested that in U.S. landfills, 21% of the contents are comprised of wasted food.

Another source of the problem is the confusion created by date labels–“best by”, “use by”, “sell by”.  What do they really mean? This has become such an issue that Walmart is leading an effort, spearheaded by Walmart’s VP of Food Safety, Frank Yiannas, to rationalize date labels so that consumers are far less likely to throw away perfectly wholesome food. In this aspect, he has worked closely with the Institute of Food Technologists, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute to address the problem.

The amount of waste and spoilage has reached almost scandalous proportions and the issue must be addressed, as the planet’s human population is estimated to grow to 9–10 billion by the year 2050. Improved agricultural practices and biotechnology will help to improve yields and increase the food supply, but greater efforts must be made to reduce wasting the food that is produced.

Weber Scientific
The PCR Yeast and Mold Qualitative test is distributed by Weber Scientific in North America.

In the overall context of facing these challenges, new technologies are being developed. One such technology is a four-hour PCR Yeast and Mold Qualitative test, manufactured by Germany-based Biotecon, for use in dairy products. Genetic methods are typically associated with identifying bacterial and viral pathogens. But the same approach may be taken with groups of microbes responsible for spoilage, if there is a unique gene sequence common to the target organisms.

Typical test times for yeast/molds are historically five days, although more recently incubation times have been reduced to three days with some new “rapid” plating media. Still, this is a relatively long time compared to four hours. And it is worth noting that the PCR Yeast and Mold test is a “true” four-hour test, as it does not require any pre-enrichment.

The protocol follows a standard PCR protocol for DNA extraction and amplification with an important inclusion—a treatment step that allows discrimination between viable and non-viable organisms. Another important aspect is the inclusion of UNG (Uracil-N-Glycosylase), which greatly reduces the chance of cross-contamination between one sample and the next.

The method is remarkably robust. 100% specificity has been demonstrated with more than 300 strains of yeasts and molds representing 260 species covering all the phylogenetic groups. Conversely, 100% exclusivity has been shown against 60 strains of non-targets—comprised of microbes typically found in similar ecological niches; plant DNA; and animal DNA from human, mouse and canine sources. Sensitivity of the method for yeasts/molds is 101 – 102 cfu/g.

The method is also quantitative, and PCR cycle threshold times can be very closely correlated with plate counts on agar media. Thus, once a standard curve is generated, subsequent samples need only be tested by this new PCR method. Equivalent counts are then determined from the standard curve.

The rapid detection of yeast and molds is a much-needed analytical technique for the dairy industry. For producers of yogurt and similar fermented milk product with a typical shelf-life of 60 days, having the ability to release product to market four days earlier will help with operational efficiency. More importantly, knowing early on of any possibility of product spoilage will help deliver superior product to consumers. The method won the Institute for Food Technologists’ Innovation Award, with one of the judges commenting, “a four-test versus five days for spoilage organisms is a major breakthrough.”

In view of the level of wastage and spoilage that currently occurs, this new PCR method is a step along the way to using more sophisticated methods for the detection of the organisms responsible. Guardians of the food supply should see this as an important development.

PCR Test, weighing milk powder

Spoil No More: Rapid Test for Dairy Products Goes Beyond Detecting Microbes

By Maria Fontanazza
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PCR Test, weighing milk powder

Detecting yeast and mold is one of the most time consuming parts of the testing process for dairy products. With more pressure to move products that have a short shelf life out the door as quickly as possible, time really is money. Having a rapid, real-time test that enables companies to make immediate production decisions can provide a significant advantage. “[This technology] brings test time within the same timeframe as other microbiology tests, so a test for yeast and mold is no longer the outlier. That’s a huge savings right there,” says Phil Coombs, product specialist at Weber Scientific.

biotecon_diagnostics_starprep
Weber Scientific was one of three recipients of the Food Expo Innovation Award on July 17, 2016 at the IFT Annual Meeting in Chicago.

Coombs is referring to Weber Scientific’s recently released PCR Yeast and Mold Quantitative Test, which has been validated for finished dairy products. The company was asked by Germany-based Biotecon Diagnostics, the creator of the newly developed PCR method, to be its partner in introducing the test to the U.S. market. The technology reduces testing time for yeasts and molds from five days to four hours or less—from sample prep to the time-to-result, with no pre-enrichment required. “We make a big deal out of this, because sometimes [companies] with a pathogen test will say they have a four-hour test but it’s not truly, from start-to-finish, a four-hour test—you have to do some form of pre-enrichment, and so it’s a 24–48 hour test,” says Coombs. “When looking at fermented milk product like yogurt, it might have a shelf life of about 50 days. There’s much more time for the yeast and mold (because they’re typically slower growing organisms) to get busy and spoil the product. Yeast and mold can tolerate the lower pH, so that’s been the biggest sector of interest so far.”

One of the features of the technology is its ability to protect against false-negative results from non-viable DNA and false-positives from previous PCR test runs, which greatly reduces the chances of cross-contamination as well.

PCR Test for dairy products
The PCR Yeast and Mold Quantitative Test conducts analysis on milk powder. Image courtesy of Weber Scientific.

Achieving a shorter time-to-result means that if a company uncovers an issue, it can take immediate remedial action rather than waiting several days. This can have a big economic impact on production and warehousing, along with releasing product into commerce and distribution, especially when dealing with products that require refrigeration. In addition, the PCR test goes beyond detecting microbes that will spoil fermented milk products and offers advantages in the broader context of reducing food waste and spoilage. “It will be attractive to many companies that are developing a broad range of sustainability measures,” says Fred Weber, president of Weber Scientific. “And to cut down on food waste at the consumer level is a big deal.”

The company expects AOAC approval next year.