Dairy processing is an inherently challenging business — it’s heavily tied to margins and deals with a product that has a limited shelf life. More and more dairy producers and retailers are looking to extended-shelf-life (ESL) technology to increase the efficiency of their operations and longevity of dairy products.

Investing in technology that extends shelf life by even only five days can have a positive impact on the bottom line. ESL technology can deliver logistics gains, allowing milk to be transported longer distances.

From an operations perspective, it reduces product returns. And for consumers, a product that will last longer and give them more time to consume it before it spoils is an appealing proposition.

Creating an ESL product requires producers to look at every step of the process — from the time milk is received and bacteria are removed through processing and packaging.


Ensure the lowest bacteria count

First the milk needs to have the lowest bacteria count possible, and any bacteria remaining that will reduce shelf life need to be removed to make the heat treatment as efficient as possible. There are two ways this can be done: bactofugation and microfiltration.

Bactofugation uses a centrifuge to separate the bacteria from the rest of the product. It’s important to look for bactofugation technology that is airtight — this prevents more bacteria from being introduced to the milk throughout the bactofugation process. It also preserves the general quality of the milk by preventing oxidation.

Microfiltration, meanwhile, is the most effective and efficient way to remove bacteria, taking out 99.999% and allowing for an even longer shelf life. The microfiltration process uses pressure to push the milk through a membrane, allowing only certain particles to pass through and leaving the vast majority of bacteria behind.


Prevent contamination in processing

Once the bacteria have been removed from the milk, processors must take additional steps to ensure the milk doesn’t become recontaminated as it is processed. A well-designed plant is the best defense against this. If the product is exposed to air or transported through an area that wasn’t cleaned properly, this, in turn, reintroduces the milk to bacteria, which jeopardizes its shelf life.

When considering an ESL operation, choose an experienced plant designer who considers how the plant will function from beginning to end, ensuring every part can be cleaned thoroughly to prevent recontamination. Even the smallest section of pipe with too many bends that cannot be cleaned properly can cause a degradation of shelf life.


Preserve the product

Processors need to take two final steps to extend shelf life: a chemical or heat treatment and selection of a package that will protect the product.

Pasteurization temperatures are not sufficient to create an ESL product. But increasing the temperature too much will impact taste. Plants must look at different technologies to extend milk’s shelf life without impacting its taste. Look for heating technology that uses a quick burst of steam to achieve a very high level of bacteria removal and a minimal impact on taste.

Packaging is another key element to achieving a longer shelf life. Ideally, packages should be filled in a sealed environment without any contact with air. And the packages themselves need to be properly sterilized.

Sterilization is commonly done with hydrogen peroxide, but other methods such as eBeam technology, which uses electron beams to sterilize, can be used. eBeam technology also has added environmental and health advantages, as it does not produce environmental waste, and plant operators are not exposed to hydrogen peroxide during sterilization.

Investing in ESL processing is a smart way to add value. ESL technologies can work in dairy producers’ favor, allowing them to take advantage of the many efficiencies and cost savings that come with extending the shelf life of milk and other dairy products. It also adds value for the end consumer.