Today, he oversees the CDR, which provides training for dairy industry professionals across the U.S. and assists dairy companies with cutting-edge product development and technical support.
“Going back over the past 30 years, one of our guiding philosophies has been to encourage dairy plants, especially small to medium plants, to try something new — value-added or specialty products — so they can make more of a return from their products,” Lucey says.
As a matter of fact, a focus on innovation has always been the key to success in the dairy industry.
THE EVOLUTION OF PRODUCTS.
Before World War II, U.S. dairy producers primarily provided milk, butter and cheddar cheese to consumers. But the war brought growth in mozzarella production.
“There was massive growth in pizza in the second half of the century, with the return of soldiers from Italy, as well as more Italian immigrants. Pizza continues to be an important category of food in the U.S. for its convenience,” Lucey says. “Mozzarella started as a specialty cheese, and grew to become one of the top cheese varieties.”
Through the 1970s and ’80s, Lucey says, the U.S. cheese offerings primarily consisted of American-type cheddar, mozzarella and cottage cheese, with an introduction of muenster and provolone in some areas.
The 1970s also brought an introduction of yogurt in the U.S., and its growth has been phenomenal.
“Yogurt was almost unheard of here until the 1970s,” Lucey says. “And the introduction of Greek yogurt in the past six or seven years has greatly increased consumption. Demand has grown, but our per capita consumption of yogurt has a long way to go, in comparison to Europe.”
The introduction of whey protein products in the ’80s also changed the landscape for dairy products, he says.
“In infant formula, for weightlifters and athletes, in sports bars and drinks, dried whey powder products are a multi-billion-dollar global industry,” Lucey says. “It’s also become a significant export product, with about 64% of whey proteins being exported around the world.”
The U.S. cheese industry also is garnering respect for its quality by winning more international awards than any other country, Lucey says.
“The U.S. has seen a great influx of people and companies bringing investments and innovative ideas,” he says. “I see a bright future.”
Currently, American cheese makers only export about 6%of their products, as compared to more than 50% of skim milk powder being exported. But the goals for each are different.
Lucey says, until recently, the U.S. has imported much of its specialty cheese needs.
“However, we are continually replacing imports with fine-quality cheese produced right here in the U.S.,” he says. “And it’s not just me saying this; the world is saying it. U.S. cheese makers are producing fantastic cheeses. Right now, it’s not so much about exporting as it is about replacing imports. And we are doing a tremendous job of that.”
And incredible cheese isn’t the only bright spot on the U.S. dairy product horizon.
FOCUSED ON THE FUTURE.
In the past few years, ultrafiltered milk has been big news.
“Ultrafiltration is a gentle process that’s been around for many years,” he says. “It uses no chemicals. This process is providing choice for consumers with higher protein, more calcium and less sugar. I believe we will see this as a major category in a couple of years.”
Ultrafiltration also can allow lactose to be reduced, or coupled with technologies for it to be removed. With lactose intolerance being a factor for some consumers, this processing option is promising for the U.S. dairy industry.
“Alternatives are out there, and they’re growing in popularity,” Lucey says. “We are looking at milk protein allergies, and are finding novel ways to improve the digestibility for some people with allergies.”
Lucey says innovations in lower-fat and lower-sodium cheese products are coming because of consumer demand and interest from companies, as well as their potential role in school lunch programs.
Researchers also are working to develop longer shelf life for U.S. cheeses so that they can be more readily exported, Lucey says.
“The distances — as well as the time in shipment, customs clearance, and distribution — are huge,” he says. “The shelf life of U.S. cheese needs to be increased dramatically in order to reach more markets with a high-quality product.”
From an ingredient standpoint, Lucey says, new processing options like microfiltration are on the horizon.
“Microfiltration is a new process to help separate milk into its components for specific needs,” he explains. “Like in crude oil, it’s broken into many parts, and all of those parts are more valuable than the whole. We are working to break apart milk in much the same way, separating the components into individual caseins and other components for specific needs.”
For example, which proteins would work best in protein bars, in order to lengthen shelf life and palatability? And how can the foaming properties of beta caseins be used in whipped products, to replace chemical emulsifiers?
The possibilities are exciting, Lucey says.
BRINGING IT BACK TO THE FARM.
Although it can seem that these product developments happen far from the farm, each U.S. dairy producer plays a big part in the success of these new products.
Most importantly, Lucey says, U.S. dairy producers should remember the importance of protein.
“Different states and co-ops have different incentives, but farmers should understand the importance of protein,” he says. “There’s not much value in water, and most dairy plants spend time removing that water, especially for powders and cheese making. Lactose is also important, but it’s not the most important, in terms of value.”
Quality must be at the forefront of everyone’s minds, from the farm to the plant.
”Quality has never been more important,” he continues. “It’s essential, and it should be a driving force, along with getting more protein and fat in the milk.”
A world view is also critical, as more of the U.S. dairy supply, about 14%, is being exported in one form or another, Lucey says.
“As a dairy producer, you are relying on the world market to partly determine the milk price you receive,” he says. “It’s not something to ignore; you must be aware.”
Competitor countries around the world are investing in innovations, from farm sustainability to new processing techniques.
“We need a huge focus on innovation within the U.S. dairy industry” he says. “It will require investments in research, which in turn will provide trained staff to run these plants and create new products. We must invest in the people if we want to get ahead. There’s a lot of opportunity, but a lot of hard work and investments to be made.”
Competition is good. And the U.S. dairy industry is up for the challenge.
“U.S. farmers are fantastic and will adjust, and they’ll be able to produce the highest-quality product of anyone in the world,” he says. “Each individual farmer simply must think about the direction of the industry as a whole, from their own individual farms and situations.”
“At the end of the day, we as a dairy industry shouldn’t be afraid of variety and choices,” Lucey continues. “Look at the great nutrition and quality of dairy products. Why not compete?”
Yes, the U.S. dairy industry is poised to provide a variety of products to meet the needs of an ever-changing consumer. And, no doubt, the U.S. dairy farmer is up for the challenge.