Following sabbaticals of Dr. Gary Richardson, Utah State University,
and Dr. Bill Sandine, Oregon State University, to New Zealand, interest
began to materialize in using defined single strain cultures.
During the same time, two major developments began to change the manufacture
of bulk starter media. One bulk starter media development came out of academia,
the other from industry.
It was the mid 1970s when Dr. Gary Richardson began working with external pH
controlled bulk starter and defined single strain cheese cultures.
It was also this time that Dr. George Weber of Galloway West (now DSM Food Specialties)
initiated the concept of internal pH buffered bulk starter media. Galloway West
brought the concept to Oregon State University for development and funded the
ensuing research. Both of these developments were major turning points in bulk
While these two concepts were being developed, Chr. Hansen’s and Marschall Dairy
Products (Danisco USA) were making major investments in the first phase of direct
to the vat cheese cultures. The development of highly concentrated cultures required
major investments for equipment and manufacturing facilities, and a complete
philosophy change on how to approach the cheese industry in sales and marketing
While direct to the vat cheese cultures provided ease of use, flexibility, reduced
labor cost to the manufacture and some other reduced cost to manufacture bulk
starter, the two major drawbacks were the cost compared to other culture alternatives
and the fact they required about one hour longer make times because the culture
had to thaw, repair their cell wall, become acclimated to the cheese milk and
begin to produce acid; basically, required more ripening time.
The convenience factor and the flexibility to switch strains at any given time
really favored the direct to the vat cultures. Although this was also a time
when factories were expanding at an alarming rate, make times were being compressed
and a 30-40 minute ripening time was difficult to fit into the make schedule.
After all, when becoming time efficient, time equals money. The first run of
direct to the vat cultures had 4-5 years of glory but soon became a mere convenient
back-up program to the internal and external pH controlled bulk starter programs.
pH-Controlled Bulk Starter
pH controlled bulk starter programs featuring defined single strain cultures
grew in favor by the cheese manufacturer by 1985. Every efficiency presented
to a cheese factory that would improve growth to the bottom line direct cost
and consistency were easily marketed and sold.
Consider the fact that pH controlled bulk starter programs substantially cut
cost of conventional bulk acid ripened media systems and provided a healthier
and higher cell concentration. Add the bonus of defined single strain cultures,
bacteriophage could be easily monitored, you had a program that fit into the
expanding cheese plants’ plan for growth, efficiency and consistency.
The cost savings of pH controlled bulk starter media were recognized in several
areas. First, the acid ripened media are generally mixed at 11.5 percent solids.
pH controlled media are mixed between 5.8-7 percent solids media.
The original concept of external pH control bulk starter systems, developed by
Dr. Richardson, actually used the plant’s own whey source with a small amount
of stimulants and buffering salts to produce the finished starter. I had the
opportunity to work in one of the original factories utilizing this technology,
Ward’s Cheese, Richfield, ID.
Anhydrous ammonia was used to neutralize the acid in the bulk starter during
fermentation. The gaseous ammonia would be released into the starter, forming
ammonium hydroxide and neutralizing the lactic acid forming ammonium lactate
and water. The fermentation would be dictated by lactose content.
When using the plant’s own whey, two problems were encountered; first, quality
of the raw whey would vary; and second, the potential of bacteriophage introduced
into the starter room could be devastating.
Actually, the second problem was the resulting issue at Ward’s Cheese. However,
they did convert to a pre-tested complete media and soon improved their process.
Once the pH controlled bulk starter is ripened the amount of culture added to
the cheese vat is typically 0.7-0.8 percent. The reason for the 50 percent reduction
of pH controlled versus acid ripened culture was because there is a higher concentration
of healthy cells and the growth environment is always maintained within a favorable
With all of the advances in pH controlled bulk starter and defined single strain
cultures the cost to the cheese maker was drastically reduced. So much that the
cheese factories that had converted to direct to the vat cheese cultures could
easily justify a new bulk starter culture room with as little as a six-month
payback. And convert they did.
Two small start-up companies, Biolac, Inc. and Nordica International, Inc. challenged
the big ingredient suppliers with their introduction of defined single strain
cultures and pH controlled bulk starter media systems. I had the opportunity
to go to work for Nordica International.
The success was great with little time to rest. In hindsight, the reason for
the busy schedule in converting cheese plants to the new technology was probably
due to the fact that we were not charging enough for the technology provided
to the end user.
However, the new wave of technology did prevail and within a few years of growth
and success both Biolac, Inc. and Nordica International, Inc. were acquired by
The cheese manufacturer benefited with both a lower cost bulk starter system
and more consistency. The cost of starter was becoming the least cost ingredient
in converting milk into cheese.
This was very good news to the cheese plant from a cost standpoint but not good
when considering the big picture. The big picture, how can the ingredient manufacturer
invest in research and development in a market shrinking in sales to the tune
of 50-75 percent?
Investing in R&D
While the average pay price for milk has been steadily increasing in price since
1975 we have seen the direct opposite happening in the price of the most crucial
ingredient in the cheese manufacturing process.
In the 40 or so years of commercialization of starter cultures in the
US, pH controlled bulk starter has dominated in its brief existence.
Huge developments and efficiencies have occurred to benefit the cheese
maker. As technology has increased the value of the bulk starter market
has decreased nearly three-fold relative to milk price.
It amazes me that the ingredient suppliers continue to push research dollars
into the shrinking cheese culture market. But, the new research dollars are being
marked to develop the second phase of direct to the vat cultures.
About six years ago Chr. Hansen began to market a direct to the vat culture program.
Several other ingredient suppliers are following the success of the new technology.
I will review some of these successes and include how the technology will possibly
change the US cheese market in a future article.
I said earlier that I would address economics of the cheese culture market over
the past 30 years. The best illustration I can provide shows the cost of starter
culture as relates to the cost of milk. My calculations only include energy,
labor, starter ingredient cost and cleaning cost. Any cost above the mentioned
needs to be further addressed by your specific situation.
I did not factor in the efficiency of use related to milk volume. Many
times milk efficiency is overlooked in cost comparisons. It is very easy
to calculate. For instance, assume you run 1MM pounds of milk per day,
seven days per week using 1.5 percent starter versus 0.5 percent starter
you would displace 70,000 pounds of starter with cheese milk per week
(105,000 pounds of bulk starter - 35,000 pounds of bulk starter) or about
3.6MM pounds of milk per year or 360,000 pounds of cheese per year. Manufacturing
cheese using direct to the vat cultures would allow you another 35,000
pounds of milk per week or additional 1.8MM pounds of milk per year.
In conclusion, I will leave you with one final graph indicating the percentage
cost of culture systems relative to the pay price for a hundredweight of milk.
You can decide yourself to thank your culture supplier for the efficiencies.
Finally, I estimate that advances in culture technology in the US have
saved the cheese maker approximately $600-800 million since 1975. It
always makes me wonder if even a portion of this savings were reinvested
in research and development towards starter culture development what
our technologists may have developed.
Mike Comotto will be writing several articles on culture technology for Cheese Reporter. In addition to his many years of dairy ingredient representation, he has served as cheese judge and grader for a number of international, national and regional cheese contests. You can get in touch with Mike by e-mailing: email@example.com.
The views expressed by Mr. Comotto and other columnists that appear in Cheese Reporter do not necessarily reflect those of the editor and Cheese Reporter Publishing Co. Inc.
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