As someone who works on behalf of America’s dairy farmers, I understand the importance of moving a portion of their milk production into international markets.

This work is the mission of the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC), a nonprofit membership organization that was founded in 1995 to represent the global trade interests of dairy farmers, processors, cooperatives, ingredient suppliers and export traders. By working together, the collective industry has grown dairy opportunities beyond our borders. 

However, it’s not as easy as just shipping products into new markets and expecting them to sell. The dairy products we have come to love here in the United States don’t always appeal to the foreign palate or meet a country’s product specifications.

This is where the National Dairy Foods Research Center (NDFRC) program, supported by dairy farmers and industry partners, becomes important. There are six centers encompassing 17 universities that for more than 30 years have provided research, facilities, technical expertise and training programs. They have identified new ways to process dairy products and ingredients, while making U.S. dairy exports more competitive in the international marketplace. 

In my role with National Dairy Council (NDC), I have had the pleasure of working with staff and students at the centers and have witnessed how they have been a behind-the-scenes hero of the dairy industry.

One example is pizza in China. The Chinese prefer yellow pizza cheese that doesn’t stretch or brown, unlike the U.S. experience. By conducting work to better understand these preferences, NDFRC resources assisted cheese companies in creating and selling customized products to win over Chinese customers, creating more export opportunities.

Another example involved U.S. milk powders. In Southeast Asia, milk powders are imported, blended and reprocessed into recombined milk. Because of the region’s extreme heat and humidity, warehouse conditions allowed spores to germinate within the product and create spoilage issues. In response, USDEC and NDC initiated a multiple-center approach to address the defect. Researchers at Cornell University, California Polytechnic State University, University of Nebraska and South Dakota State University began exploring ways to measure and eliminate spores during processing. 

By implementing new testing, cleaning and processing methods in cooperation with the U.S. dairy powder processing community, the quality and consistency has improved, allowing U.S. milk powders to meet Southeast Asia’s specification and quality standards. As a result, sales have increased there, advancing the reputation of U.S. dairy products and ingredients.

Another great NDFRC asset is our Southeast Dairy Foods Research Center at North Carolina State, which features the Sensory Service Center. Their team of scientists help dairy companies interpret consumer opinion and preferences, including those in international markets, by offering analysis of factors such as flavor, texture and appearance. This work is impactful because it helps companies better understand and meet the needs of the international customer before making substantial investments into the marketplace. 

NDC, USDEC and the NDFRC program also collaborate on nutrition, product and sustainability research and technical support. Researchers routinely present at technical seminars that USDEC hosts overseas. David Montgomery from Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research (WCDR) recently presented on cheese functionality at USDEC’s ThinkUSAdairy cheese technical seminars in Jakarta and Manila. Additionally, representatives from USDEC’s Southeast Asia technical training delegation participated in a hands-on lab session at WCDR, demonstrating U.S. dairy ingredients’ functionality and sensory evaluation.

USDEC also utilized expertise from the research centers to develop prototypes for the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting. This year’s featured products were:

  • Lemon ginger ice pops with whey protein (from the Midwest Dairy Foods Research Center at the University of Minnesota).
  • Savory Asian granola with whey permeate and protein crisps (from the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research).

One final — and important — asset NDFRC creates is a trained and qualified workforce for tomorrow. Through research and application projects, the centers provide real-life training experiences to about 200 undergraduates and 35-plus graduate students who are ready to hit the ground running as employees for dairy processing and agricultural companies.

I’m always inspired and amazed to watch the ideas and energy that come from NDFRC to reimagine dairy products and ingredients for the good and future of our industry and farmers. 

Between research results, collaboration with the industry and workforce training and development, NDFRC continues to fill the knowledge gaps and create growth opportunities for dairy, not just here but around the globe.