Milking new consumer trends

Tapping into consumers’ thirst for new ways to drink milk is spurring investment in processing and changing production practices on the farm

A national standard is being developed for grass-fed milk because of demand. Coca Cola committed to spending $85 million on a new plant in Peterborough for its specialty milk product and Saputo has now announced a competitor.

It’s almost as though the Canadian milk market is having its Chobani moment. The American yogurt maker proposed building a plant in Canada and that spawned an intense flurry of activity among Canadian processors that resulted in an explosion of Greek yogurt innovation in Canada. Unlike Chobani, which had several roadblocks to overcome, Fairlife Foods, the Coca Cola company, will be importing American product until it gets its Peterborough plant built, at which point it will be switching to Canadian milk.

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However, like the Chobani case, Canadian processors are moving to compete, with Saputo recently announcing its Joyyo milk brand, which, like Fairlife milk, will be ultrafiltered, containing more protein and less lactose sugar than regular milk. Saputo’s marketing is heavily promoting the fact that it is using Canadian milk. Ultrafiltered milk stays fresh longer before it is opened than regular milk.

Why it matters: The fluid milk market has been declining for years in Canada. With the recent USMCA trade agreement allowing more U.S. milk into Canada, growing the domestic market is a priority.

Art Hill, a professor and chair of the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph, says the technology to produce these new milk products isn’t new. There have been other ultra-filtered and high protein milks in the market before, but he said consumers are interested in experimenting with new foods.

“This is part of an overall trend right now in the industry. Consumers are interested in trying new things. This is catching up on that wave,” he said in an interview.

The other factor is that consumers appear willing to pay for diversification.

“They are willing to pay a pretty good premium for milk that contains more Omega 3. There’s a crazy premium on milk that’s grass fed right now,” he said.

Settling standards for grass-fed milk

Hill is working with dairy farmer organizations to develop the standards that will replace the current temporary standards that are in place for the 14 grass-fed producers in eastern Ontario, 13 in northern Ontario and six in southwestern Ontario.

Bita Farhung, Dairy Farmers of Ontario’s manager of research and market development, said that since DFO started to develop its grass-fed standard, there has been more interest across the country. Dairy Farmers of Canada is now leading the creation of national grass-fed standards using DFO’s grass-fed standard as a template.

The goal is to have a standard that will be accepted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). A DFC technical committee set in December 2017 including processors, provincial marketing boards and technical experts, recommended two studies, which are still ongoing.

The first is on consumer perception and the second on the cost of producing grass-fed milk.

Producers currently get a premium of eight cents per litre, based on estimated cost of production.

Farhung said the goal is to submit the national standard to the CFIA by March 2019.

The consumer research aims to find out what consumers expect when they see a “grass-fed” milk label – especially related to animal welfare and access to grass.

DFO has developed a logo for use on the grass-fed products. The standard deals with feeding and farming requirements, but there is work being done on biomarkers for the ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 and minimum conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) levels that will help farmers know when feeding changes are needed.

This logo is being used temporarily on grass-fed dairy products until a national standard – and a new logo – is developed.
photo: Dairy Farmers of Ontario

Canada’s climate naturally limits cows’ access to fresh grass for part of the year so setting grass-fed standards is a challenge, Hill said.

That creates many options for the standards. Is hay acceptable? What about haylage, a fermented product? What about corn silage? Some grass-fed farms feed sprouts to cows in the winter in order to get them some fresh greens.

High-energy diets also influence what nutritionists and consumers are looking for in grass-fed products – such as higher levels of Omega 3 fatty acids.

It’s not just the Omega 3s that are the issue relating to health, said Hill. Grass-fed milk is usually lower in Omega 6 fatty acids (an unhealthy fatty acid) and higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a healthy trans fat.

“For so many years, dairy fat was going to kill us,” said Hill. “Now dairy fat might not be such a bad thing. We need saturated fats. We replaced them with oils high in Omega 6. We’d be better with lower amounts of Omega 3 and saturated fats versus elevated Omega 6.”

Hill has preliminary results from new research on Omega 3 levels in grass-fed versus certified organic milk. He said so far they aren’t seeing much difference in fatty acid profiles between the two. That’s not surprising, as organic farmers have a requirement for their cows to be put outside and have access to pasture. Organic farmers feed less concentrate in their diet. The grass-fed standards are more stringent on days required on pasture than organic, but Hill says at this point there doesn’t appear to be much difference in the end result.

Organic Meadow is among the companies that have embraced the grass-fed trend, with its new grass-fed milks, including a “cold-brewed coffee” milk.

Other brands selling butter from grass-fed cows in Ontario include Rolling Meadows Dairy and Emerald Grasslands.

The processors pay for the extra transportation costs for segregating the milk.

What’s next?

Hill said filtering systems to separate the whey from casein have become more efficient and that could lead to more innovation in the fluid milk area, including milk high in whey versus casein. It could also help with plant efficiency. Fluid milk plants are usually separate from cheese plants, but that could change in the future.

About the author

Editor

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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