US scientists quadrupled milk’s shelf life using Soviet technology

Milk matters.
Milk matters.
Image: Reuters/Neil Hall
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Thanks to an idea started in the old Soviet Union and perfected at Purdue University, the dairy industry now has access to technology that helps retain the taste of fresh milk while quadrupling its shelf life.

It marks one of the biggest advances in the pasteurization process in decades, and it’s already making a difference in the Puerto Rican dairy market, which is dominated by two companies duking it out for market share. The new method, pioneered by a company called Millisecond Technologies, is working with Tres Monjitas to deploy a new line of fresh milk with a shelf life that has been extended, it claims, from 13 days to about 40.

Orlando Gonzalez, general manager of Tres Monjitas, says the company plans to launch its new fresh milk product in the US Virgin Islands within the next month, and then expand to Saint Martin and eventually the Dominican Republic. The surrounding islands are natural target markets: Shipping milk to them will be easier given the extended shelf life.

The act of milking cows is one of the oldest and most elementary aspects of farming. It’s a process venerated in children’s picture books and a frequent attraction on primary school field trips in the United States. But the business of milk is anything but simple. Today it’s replete with robots, high-tech insemination methods and genomics, sometimes big floating apparatuses—and now the technology to substantially extend shelf life.

Milk laws around the world vary, but in the US the country’s Food and Drug Administration bans the interstate sale or distribution of milk that has not been pasteurized. That’s because raw milk can contain dangerous bacteria—including Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, and Campylobacter—that can lead to food poisoning. In the pasteurization process, heat is applied to milk to kill off a lot of the bacteria. This typically involves temperatures around 63 degrees Celsius (145 degrees Fahrenheit) maintained for 30 minutes.

The process developed by Millisecond Technologies, paired with pasteurization, more effectively kills off bacteria by applying pressure to the liquid milk. As explained by the company’s chief technology officer, Phil Frechette, by using pressure, the company is able to push the microbes to the edges of individual droplets of milk. Closer to the edge, heat applied to the milk is better able to zap the bacteria.

The idea, first developed in Russia during the Soviet era, stalled when research money dried up during tough economic times following the Cold War. The scientists moved to the US to further develop the technology—which is when Frechette, Purdue University professor of food science Bruce Applegate, and now-Millisecond Technologies CEO Andrei Arofikin started collaborating. In 2016, scientists working on the project at Purdue published research on the technique’s efficacy, noting its potential for sustainably shipping dairy around the world.

“What we’re trying to kill in the case of the fresh milk is anything that can make you sick,” Frechette explains. “Also, the bacteria because it can cause the milk to go sour.”

The risk of milk going sour was punctuated after Hurricane Maria—a deadly category 5 storm—ravaged Puerto Rico in September 2017. The damage knocked out power to the island for months, and in some areas up to six months. Because refrigeration was disrupted, Tres Monjitas and its main competitor La Suiza took substantial hits.

Gonzalez says the entire dairy industry lost close to 20% of its market, spurred in large part by swaths of the island population that opted to move to mainland America.

“The industry has recovered a little bit, but we are not at the level previous to the hurricane,” he says. “The producers are basically fully recovered. The demand for the milk is still a little bit hurt.”

Tres Monjitas says it spent close to $1 million enlisting Grammy-nominated and Latin Grammy-winning artist Daddy Yankee to market its new milk. The singer is well-known across the island, and his song “Dura” was incorporated into company’s jingle touting the longer-lasting milk.

A year ago, Tres Monjitas had about 40% of the market share, Gonzalez says. Since launching its new line in May, the company claims it is gaining additional market share. In all, Tres Monjitas produces about 65 million quarts of milk each year, which amounts to about 1.4 million quarts weekly; Gonzalez says close to 13% of that milk is the new line made possible by Millisecond Technologies.

“We have the exclusive rights of the technology for Puerto Rico and the Caribbean,” he says. “Our plans are to export elsewhere.”

It’s relatively inexpensive to install the new machinery into the company’s existing process, says Gonzalez. And it has major implications for Tres Monjitas to expand its footprint across a network of island nations that is particularly vulnerable to storms, where a longer shelf life could especially come in handy for consumers.