A star is born: Helping whey permeate powder on its way

When you’ve got the ability to manufacture a relatively new ingredient with the potential to solve functionality and cost issues across a broad range of food products, you want it to get the best possible start in life. Whey permeate powder is one such ingredient, and a new Codex standard is about to help it into a more certain and widely accepted future.

Claus Heggum
Claus Heggum Chief Consultant, Danish Agricultural & Food Council

Permeate isn’t a whey protein, but a by-product of manufacturing processes that extract milk fat and protein from whey or milk. Permeate has a high concentration of lactose and, when dried, it becomes a dairy permeate powder that can be used as an alternative to more expensive fillers in a wide variety of foods – without affecting taste, texture or processing parameters. And that’s a highly useful capability for the world. But, while this powder is often used in dairy foods and beverages, some manufacturers have held back, other food categories have been slower to adopt it, and a number of key countries, including China, have been wary of approving its use in food applications.

Setting a new standard
These are the essential problems the industry recently set out to solve, establishing an industry-wide initiative to set a Codex Alimentarius standard for dairy permeate powder that could open the door to more widespread use for this valuable and affordable ingredient.

If you’re new to the food industry, you may not be aware of Codex standards or the role they play. Essentially, they are a collection of internationally recognised standards, codes of practice, guidelines, and other recommendations relating to foods, food production, and food safety. Getting a Codex standard agreed upon and brought to market would make dairy permeate powder a much more viable ingredient around the world. It would provide reassurance for more food companies to invest in its use, and it would help to rid the market of low-quality products that could damage its reputation and slow its growth. The Chinese market, in particular, is likely to benefit greatly (as are dairy exporters to that market) from the official approval expected to follow the establishment of a Codex standard.

Getting it done
The effort originated in the summer of 2015, when the Codex Alimentarius Commission agreed to start work to establish the standard. The International Dairy Federation (IDF), recognized as a technical advisor by Codex on issues relating to milk, joined forces with Codex Alimentarius and established a Task Force of experts on this issue.

The project was given just two years to deliver its result. To succeed, we would need to get many different people and international groups to reach agreement on compositional specifications, including the identification of relevant analytical methods, and the clarification of technical justifications relating to processing aids and food additives. Not a small challenge, as you might imagine. And pretty much an unprecedented timeline for establishing a new Codex standard.

Team efforts
Acting as the chair of an IDF Task Force and from my base in Denmark, I was fortunate enough to assist the government of Denmark in leading the electronic Codex working group created to produce a proposed draft standard. The group was co-chaired by representatives from New Zealand.

There were several teams involved, which complicated things a bit: the IDF Task Force, the Codex group at government level whose members corresponded with the other participants in writing only and then, to various extents, a European Whey Producers Association (EWPA) group and a US Association of Dairy Products Institute (ADPI) group, too.

The work called for several cycles of consideration, initiated by the Codex working group leadership preparing a draft, then presenting it for consideration by the Codex working group members, including IDF, and after redrafting in light of the feedback received, circulation of a revised draft. I was fortunate to be able to play a coordinating role that helped to progress this work.

A will to succeed
From the outset, it was clear that there was a strong will among all participants to get the job done as quickly and smoothly as possible (but without compromising the quality of the end result, of course). And, in fact, when all was said and done, we completed the task right on deadline – taking just two years from start to finish! We were also helped along the way by a good sequence of meetings in just the right order, and by plenty of commitment to fix the difficulties and disagreements that everyone knew were likely to pop up along the way.

As you’d expect, some issues took longer to solve than others, and were only resolved in the last minute. The biggest challenge was the use of a group of additives used for manufacturing normal powder products. Although their use is not subject to regulatory maximum limits, some of the participants preferred the standard to be free of additives, while others argued that there was a technical need for them, especially in humid areas.

To resolve the issue, IDF’s experts stepped in, explaining that, if produced from acidified raw materials, it would be more difficult to control the lactose crystallization process. The ‘fix’ proposed by IDF (and accepted by Codex), therefore, was to exclude acid whey from the standard, and we moved forward again.

Another issue that took some effort to resolve was the compositional specifications. Again, IDF experts got together and ended up with a compromise solution that later was accepted by Codex.

A standard is born
As I write this, most of the meetings and other exchanges are over, the standard has been finalised and approved, and a few last steps are being taken to endorse, for example, how dairy permeate powder will be labelled, helping to prevent unfair advertising practices. This part of the effort is done by committees on labelling and food safety, and my role now is purely to monitor the work, providing IDF’s support if and when needed to keep things on track.

Overall, creating the new Codex standard for dairy permeate powder has been a demanding process, but certainly a rewarding one, too. And I’m particularly proud, on the participants’ behalf, that we were able to deliver such a successful result in such a short time.

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