Whey-ing Greek yogurt’s environmental impact

Posted at 8:10 PM, Jun 12, 2013

By Molly Hart, CNN

(CNN) — The Greek yogurt industry recently made headlines after a Modern Farmer article claiming companies are “scrambling” for a solution to the “dark secret,” of a byproduct’s potentially toxic effects on the environment.

The ballooning demand for Greek yogurt in the United States has created a $2 billion industry, as well as a huge surplus of acid whey. The article suggests that disposal or accidental dispersal of the byproduct could, “turn a waterway into what one expert calls a ‘dead sea,’ destroying aquatic life over potentially large areas.”

But according to John Lucey, director of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, “The suggestion that acid whey is some toxic material is just plain silly.”

Let’s strain out the facts.

The toxicity of Greek yogurt production is on par with a lot of other cultured dairy products in the United States. Sweet whey, for example, is the byproduct of manufacturing cheese. It has higher protein levels, so its waste is much more commercially useful than the acid whey in yogurt. It, too, can become an environmental issue if handled improperly.

The straining process used to make Greek yogurt products creates a natural byproduct called acid whey, which contains lactose, lactic acid from the fermentation and a small amount of dairy proteins and milk salts like calcium. If you’ve ever opened up the product, you will notice some of the whey still topping the cup. That’s because it’s healthy to eat within certain amounts. The rest is removed, and particular care must be taken with its disposal.

“No food product can be just dumped into streams,” Lucey wrote in an e-mail to CNN. All foods contain organic matter and the decomposition of this organic matter involves oxidation. Putting a lot of organic matter into a stream would end up exhausting all the oxygen and dissolved oxygen is what fish need to survive.

“Acid whey is no different from any other food material in this regard,” Lucey continued, noting that dairy facilities are subjected to stringent regulations and testing from agencies like the Department of Natural Resources. An accidental leak from a dairy plant could result in a fine and loss of plant license, so producers pay particular care to leak prevention when building their facilities.

Lucey sees the whey situation as “a complete red herring, a non-issue.” The U.S.’s major yogurt producers agree.

Chobani, a leading producer, uses three pounds of milk to make one pound of yogurt. The company returns the majority of the acid whey to farmers, who use it as part of a fertilizer or as a protein supplement in their animal feed. A small percentage is also sent to community digesters, where the whey is used to produce energy.

Dannon, which produces Oikos, Activia Greek yogurt, and Dannon Light & Fit Greek, has a similar production ratio, and the process to make one cup of yogurt leaves two cups of acid whey. Michael Neuwirth, senior director of public relations for Dannon, told CNN: “There is nothing environmentally hazardous about it when it is re-used or disposed of properly. Most of our whey is used for animal feed for local farms, about one-third is used for land application as fertilizer, and the majority of the rest is treated in a biodigester.”

Scott Gilmore, director of global communications for Müller Quaker Dairy, claims that the company’s yogurt making process doesn’t produce whey waste because it adds in milk protein from strained milk to maintain consistency.

But James McWilliams isn’t on board. “Producers typically hire farmers to haul it off and dispose as they see fit. The damage could be much worse than we know,” he said.

McWilliams is a food and agriculture writer as well as a history professor at Texas State University. He argues that, “Anything is potentially toxic. But the acid whey that’s a byproduct of the Greek yogurt industry is, at the level at which it’s produced and disposed, toxic enough to rob aquatic ecosystems of enough oxygen to harm fish and other species.”

“Consumers can take action by limiting or eliminating animal products from their diets, as virtually every aspect of animal agriculture has profoundly negative ecological impacts.”

Walter Jeffries, the owner of Sugar Mountain Farms in Vermont, who calls the recent headline a “scare article.” Jeffries has between 200 and 400 pigs at his farm at any given time. He feeds them acid whey delivered from a local dairy farm.

In an e-mail to CNN, Jeffries says his pigs can clean out his 4,000 gallons of whey storage easily, “The pigs would drink up to 2,000-3,000 gallons a day if we had that much available.”

He also added that the dairy farm reports its whey deliveries to the government, who once paid him a visit. “We had someone come check it out at one point. Realize that it is not stored for long. Basically it comes off the truck, goes into the tanks and then gets fed out to the pigs. Each load of whey is fed out to the pigs within about 24 hours or less. The pigs eat it and grow. It’s like feeding milk.”

Chobani and Dannon say they are looking for better ways to utilize their growing whey waste. As Neuwirth put it, “We believe there are nutritional and water uses for whey that are potentially an even greater use than that of animal feed and fertilizer.”

Lucey places his faith with the yogurt makers. “Greek yogurt plants will invest in facilities and processes to derive more uses for this whey as they move forward. We have a very inventive industry,” he said.

There is no telling when the industry will develop a better solution for the acid whey, but until then, consumers will eat Greek yogurt until the cows come home.

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