Seriously, whey is probably the most under-appreciated success story in the dairy business today.
It doesn't have its own lineup of gleaming, multi-colored cartons in the refrigerated case. It doesn't have cartons of multi-flavored indulgences stacked up in the freezer case.
It is, however, in both the refrigerated and freezer cases. In fact, whey is on every shelf and in every nook and cranny in the grocery store. It's just hidden away in the fine print of the ingredient label.
Whey is garnering more and more shelf space in health food stores and nutrition centers as a stand-alone product. It is also starting to show up on the shelves of traditional grocers. Whey also is the leader of the pack as U.S. dairy businesses establish a growing and profitable beachhead in overseas market.
Over the past 25 or 30 years, whey has moved from a line item in the expense ledger to a value-added line on the income statement.
In its previous life, as the liquid left over after making cheese, whey had all of the characteristics of becoming just another commodity. It wasn't even on the radar screen of the genius who created the price support program. It didn't get a market of last resort - a government warehouse - like American cheese, butter and skim milk powder.
When it became abundantly clear that cheese makers shouldn't be "dumping it in the creek because it killed the fish," government regulators put cheese makers up against the wall. As we all know, that's when the creative juices start to flow.
Last year, U.S. manufacturers of dry whey shipped more than 139, 000 metric tons (that's 307 million pounds in USA speak) to overseas customers. At an average price, by the way, of $0.2625 - about a dime more than the domestic price.
Another 25,000 metric tons of whey protein concentrate was shipped out. Shipments were up more than 50% vs. five years ago. Whey protein isolate exports have increased more than ten-fold during the same time frame; totaling more than 8,000 metric tons last year.
A lot of lactose, a ‘by-product' of the whey refining process, was also exported last year-173,000 metric tons to be more exact; more than twice the volume of five years earlier. Lactose, like whey, has found a home in thousand of products from hog chow to pharmaceuticals.
Is this a great success story? Hopefully, it is better appreciated. The fishes are happier, cheese makers are happier, milk producers are happier and a lot of end users are happier. Yet, the story isn't even over.