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Successful Collaboration on Warm Whey

Imagine a world where regulators charged to protect public health and safety join with industry and academia to use the best available science and experience to craft effective, reasonable regulation.

Too utopian?

It’s happening in Wisconsin, with a collaborative research project between Center for Dairy Research (CDR), Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (WCMA) and the food safety team at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade & Consumer Protection (WDATCP).

This is not to say that industry and regulators don’t continue to debate many aspects of regulation.  But this year’s detailed study of the safety of warm cheese whey displays cooperation and shared food safety goals between industry and its regulators, and the teamwork and transparency in this collaboration has further strengthened a good working relationship.

During the past two years, WCMA, CDR and regulators at WDATCP have addressed the food safety aspects of cheese whey shipped warm to processors.  A preliminary measure – a prescription from WDATCP to use 100 ppm hydrogen peroxide in whey to destroy any potential pathogens – allowed industry, CDR and the agency to construct a definitive whey research project in early 2016.

Food Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin joined a series of project planning meetings in the spring, and WDATCP, CDR and WCMA worked together on parameters to test the effectiveness of hydrogen peroxide in whey, cheese starter cultures in whey and even whey without starter cultures in defeating the food pathogen of most concern: Staphylococcus aureus.

  1. Aureus itself does not cause illness, but if found in raw whey in very high concentration, it can produce a toxin that is heat stable and is not eliminated by further processing of whey.

Kathy Glass, Associate Director and Distinguished Scientist at Food Research Institute (FRI), took up the project and executed multiple research trials this summer and fall with funding from WCMA.

Throughout the project, FRI used fresh whey produced at Center for Dairy Research, just two blocks away.  Researchers inoculated fresh, warm whey with S. Aureus, then watched for growth in whey held at 90F and 70F.  The whey at these temperatures was monitored in samples with no added hydrogen peroxide, 10 ppm hydrogen peroxide and 100 ppm hydrogen peroxide.  The study even ran unique trials using cheese whey with mesophilic starter culture, thermophilic starter culture or no culture at all, mimicking some Hispanic cheese styles.

Preliminary results find that in 90F raw whey with starter culture, S. Aureus dies off with no addition of hydrogen peroxide or with the addition of hydrogen peroxide.  Initial speculation from researchers at CDR is that the beneficial dairy bacteria successfully outcompete this pathogen.  In 70F whey with added starter cultures, S. Aureus fails to grow and dies off with addition of 100 ppm hydrogen peroxide.

Study results will be submitted for publication in peer-reviewed food safety journals this winter. The most recent edition of Dairy Pipeline, published by CDR, includes a complete write-up on this warm whey research project. Visit www.cdr.wisc.edu/pipeline to view the issue.

In the end, these study results provide long-sought answers on the safety of fresh, warm whey.  Both state and federal regulations can be revisited with published findings on the effectiveness of starter culture and low levels of hydrogen peroxide in defeating S. Aureus.

Good, defensible science is the common ground where the dairy industry, regulators and academia can meet to solve problems.  WCMA looks forward to more cooperative efforts that assure the safety and wholesome of dairy products.

Or, as CDR concluded in its Pipeline article: “It is important to note that this work was only made possible by the collaboration of DATCP, WCMA, FRI and CDR. By working together these four groups were able to construct a study that would reflect real life conditions in the cheese/whey industry with the end goal of ensuring cost effective methods for producing a safe, high quality product.”