Why do different companies promote different kinds of pasteurization for milk?

January 2006

Hi Laura,

I'm new to the Farm Aid website so please forgive me if you've already answered this. We buy organic milk at our local health food store (along with many other fine products) but I'm confused by the label. Some brag that they ultra pasteurize, while others seem to brag that they don't. I can't seem to get this solved by anyone locally, so thought you might be the proper oracle to seek for this puzzling question! Thank so much for any help you can offer!

Santa Cruz, California

Hi Susan!

Welcome to our website. I am so glad that it inspired you to send us a question. I was really glad to read your email because dairy processing is one of those things that I have been meaning to read up on. My sister asked me the same question a few months ago which is a rare thing since my family has banned me from talking food facts at the table!

After spending a few days reading about ultra pasteurization, it is clear that there are things to "brag" about on either side of the issue but these bragging rights depend strongly on what your interests are in the product. Let's start by defining what the terms mean.

All commercial retail milk in the United States is pasteurized to remove harmful germs or microbes and the process of pasteurization is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture. If the product is labeled "pasteurized" that means that the milk was heated to 161.5 degrees for at least 15 seconds. This is by far the most commonly used process and is referred to as high temperature/short time (HTST). Ultra pasteurization or ultra-high temperature pasteurization (UHT) means that the milk was heated to 280 degrees for at least two seconds.

The impact of these two processes is most noticeably reflected in the shelf life of the milk. HTST milk is generally stamped with a sell by date that is 14-21 days after processing. UHT milk on the other hand ranges from 45-55 days in regular packaging and up to six months in aseptic boxes - like the ones that are popular in Europe. Once the milk is opened, regardless of processing, it should be used within a week or so.

So on a practical level, HTST milk is probably being marketed closer to where it was produced and processed because it has a shorter life-span. UHT milk can be shipped cross-country and/or spend a couple weeks on a store shelf and still make it to your cereal bowl. From a corporate perspective, this is bragging right number one: we can bring you organic milk with a significantly longer shelf life. BUT what does it mean to buy and drink milk that has been processed in such a way?

Advocates for local foods and local economies have some strong arguments against this product. To start with, UHT products by definition aren't local - or if they were it would be the exception. In order to meet the demands of consumers, most dairy companies use ultra pasteurization to ship products across the country. Long range shipping calls into play all of the arguments about the environmental toll of shipping food products and the decisions around supporting local versus national. John Peck, the executive director of Farm Aid-funded group Family Farm Defenders, has strong reservations about the benefits of UHT milk: "I tell people that organic UHT milk is an oxymoron - milk should be from your bioregion. At the very least, it should be minimally pasteurized, unhomogenized, and bottled in glass for maximum freshness."

Critics of UHT also include some Australian studies that claim the actual scientific process of ultra pasteurization alter the chemical make up of the milk and in some cases can compromise the flavor, consistency and potential health benefits of the product. Likewise, a study published through Cornell University in 2001 also reported that children between the ages of 6 and 11 rated UHT milk as slightly below "good". That said, the experts are still working on these issues and I really can't claim to have read and understood all of this material!! (Readers please send me anything you have your hands on. I would love to keep studying up on this issue.)

On the very other hand, I also spoke with dairy farmer Travis Forgues who produces for Organic Valley, a coop of family farmers, and he also had some interesting things to say. "Ultra pasteurization helps keeps farmers in production. It allows a company like Organic Valley to get a good product out to the mainstream consumer. In turn, this allows us to bring on more farmers and keep them on their land." Organic companies are proud that ultra pasteurization allows them to provide consumers an organic choice even in a mainstream grocery store. Also driven by consumer concerns around the issue of choice, some organic dairies, like Organic Valley, have started to market regional HTST instead of the national UHT products. Read your labels carefully - there might be a pleasant surprise there!

Okay. Bottom line? This is a highly contentious issue. It is hard to argue with the fact that nutrient value of milk sharply decreases around 65 days after processing - not to mention the many downsides of our increasingly globalized food system. At the same time, how can I argue with a farmer who tells me that more farmers make ends meet because of ultra pasteurization? The one thing that we all agree on is this: if you can buy it local or regionally, from a farmer that you trust, that is the absolute best way to get good milk. If you can't, read up to make sure that you are buying it from a company that fits your values and concern for supporting family farmers.

I hope this helps! Keep me posted on your shopping ventures!

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