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May 30, 2013 - 2:15pm

Where there's a will to make Greek yogurt, there's whey left over

posted by Howard B. Owens in business, environment, Alpina.

You can make Greek yogurt at home. About all you need is some yogurt culture, a whisk and cheese cloth.

After you strain your batch you're left with a watery white liquid known as whey. You will have about three ounces of whey for every ounce of yummy yogurt.

One Web site lists 18 possible uses for whey in your home, whether as a substitute for other liquids in cooking or as a skin care product. But for Alpina, which produces 245,000 tons of Greek yogurt a week, getting rid of the 455,000 tons of whey a week isn't that simple.

Right now, the whey is hauled to a facility in Wyoming County where it is digested into methane and used to generate electricity, but Alpina is exploring other options for dealing with whey.

Whey has become controversial in media reports over the past week or so. It started with a well-researched and reported story in Modern Farmer about the Greek yogurt boom with an unfortunate headline, given the substance of the story: Whey Too Much: Greek Yogurt’s Dark Side.

The story was far from frightening, but outlets such as Fox News and USA Today turned it into overblown headlines such as Toxic waste from Greek yogurt poses danger to waterways and Greek yogurt's dirty little secret.

What's this dark side, this toxic danger, this dirty little secret? 

If whey goes into a stream or lake, bacteria will boom and suck all the oxygen out of the water, killing all the fish.

But there are no reports of any whey from Greek yogurt being illegally dumped. In fact, the Modern Farmer story details both the responsible methods for disposing of it now and explores research into other possible uses.

Disposing of whey in a responsible manner is important to Alpina, said Roger Parkhurst, director of operations for the Batavia plant.

Labeling whey "toxic waste" is the kind of statement that could be said about a lot of substances, Parkhurst said.

"You could apply the term to gasoline," Parkhurst said. "We put it in our car and it's beneficial, but if it's abused it becomes a dangerous material. We handle whey right and in a responsible manner so that it isn't a danger."

Beneficial uses for whey include converting it to an energy source -- which Alpina does now -- or using it to supplement cattle feed, which Alpina is also exploring.

Alpina would love to sell its whey, so that the money spent to haul it off can instead become a source of revenue. A Cornell researcher is studying methods for turning whey into a baby formula supplement. That work is promising, Parkhurst said.

Whey could also become a direct energy source for the Alpina plant, saving the company money. 

Parkhurst said the company is interested -- though has no specific plans -- in finding a way to digest whey on site and convert the methane into electricity and convert the heat from the process into heat for Alpina's building.

Mark Masse, vp of operations for Genesee County Economic Development Center, said companies have contacted the agency about building a digester at or near the Genesee Valley Agri-Business Park, including working directly with Alpina, but it has never received a formal application.

"I am not sure why any of those projects haven’t moved forward yet," said Masse in an e-mail response to a question, "but my best guess is that they can’t secure a long-term contract for the waste product, and/or that these digester projects are very capital intensive and they usually try to secure NYSERDA grants to help defer these capital costs to shorten the payback period of the project and can’t secure those grants."

There are also concerns about any environmental risks associated with a digester located at a food processing park that sits above an aquifer.

Experts have told Masse, he said, that whey needs to be mixed with animal waste to be properly digested and any company proposing such a project would have to prove it could be done in a safe manner.

"We never got far enough along with any of the digester companies to have this conversation with them in depth or with our board," Masse said. "That issue would have to be discussed at length if any company wished to use animal waste in their process, and our board would have to approve it."

One local farmer has contacted Alpina about obtaining whey to mix with cattle feed, Parkhurst said. The farmer said he checked with Cargill, which provided him with a formula for mixing whey with his feed and now he would like to find out how to get his hands on some Alpina whey.

"That's just one farmer and he's not capable of taking on the whole thing," Parkhurst said. "But if it helps his business and it helps our business at least some, I would be more than happy to participate."

Alpina is actively exploring all options for whey waste, Parkhurst said, looking for the most economically sensible and environmentally sound solution.

"We've even worked a little bit with RIT and GCC," Parkhurst said. "There is money floating around to help research any practical application."

A local operation that may be able to take on all of Alpina's whey waste is Baskin Livestock.

Baskin, as we've reported before, specializes in taking food company waste and converting it into cattle feed.

Bill Baskin is eager to explore a partnership with Alpina to bring whey waste to his plant on Creek Road in Bethany. 

"We work with food producers all over the Northeast to get rid of their waste," Baskin said. "There’s no reason we can't do it right in our own back yard."

With any food production, there is a substantial amount of waste -- batches get mixed wrong, products are spilled or spoiled or unsold product goes bad. Baskin takes all that waste, dries, grinds it and turns it into cattle feed.

Quaker-Muller is already sending some of its product waste to Baskin, but the way the plant will make yogurt -- the Quaker-Muller plant officially opens Monday -- there is no whey waste.

"Our yogurt is consistently high quality because we add milk protein from strained milk to our yogurt to deliver the same delicious texture and taste every time," said Scott Gilmore, spokesman for PepsiCo.

Until recently, Baskin and Parkhurst hadn't spoken, but yesterday, Baskin's director of business development, Peter Klaich, met briefly with Parkhurst and Parkhurst said he's certainly interested in learning more about how Baskin can help with whey waste.

Parkhurst is proud that Alpina buys almost all of its raw ingredients from farmers in Genesee County and WNY. The potential of working with Baskin fits right in with that philosophy, Parkhurst said.

"We're always interested in working with local companies," Parkhurst said.

James T. Hansen
James T. Hansen's picture
Last seen: 1 month 1 week ago
Joined: Jul 30 2010 - 12:16pm

And now the real reason for yoghurt plants to come to Genesee county!

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