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Energy and Environment

Big Fat Greek Yogurt: Acid Whey Disposal in New York

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Since the launch of Chobani in 2005, Greek yogurt sales have boomed and a multitude of Greek yogurt products have filled the shelves of grocery stores across the country. But there may be a dark side to everyone’s favorite yogurt product–debates over the disposal of one of Greek yogurt’s by-products may soon reach a head in New York state.

Greek yogurt’s claim to fame is that the liquid is strained out of it, making it thicker and more protein-rich. This straining process creates a byproduct called acid whey, comprised of lactic acid produced during the fermentation process. Like any other byproduct created in the food production process, acid whey must be disposed of in a responsible way that has minimal effects on the environment. Acid whey cannot be dumped near any bodies of water because it depletes water of oxygen, destroying the marine environment, and it also cannot be disposed of in a typical landfill because it would leach into the soil.  At the moment, yogurt producers have not discovered a way to recycle or reform the acid they so they can monetize it. Researchers have used filters to attempt to salvage reusable elements of the acid whey but so far, the thousands of gallons of acid whey produced in the production of Greek yogurt are the albatross around the neck of the yogurt industry.

In 2013, ModernFarmer published a piece on Greek yogurt that claimed that producers were not disposing of acid whey responsibly. Instead, they sold the acid whey to farmers who mixed it into their fertilizer or cow feed, even though adding too much acid whey to cow’s diets could have damaging effects for the animals. In response to the ModernFarmer article, John Lucey of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research defended the Greek yogurt straining process, calling it a “non-issue.” A research team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has developed lactose-isolating technology that lets yogurt makers separate and resell the lactose in acid whey (although there is still waste left over that must be disposed of) and plans to continue its research on acid whey in the future.

Yet the red flag raised by the ModernFarmer article should not be completely ignored. Greek yogurt may not be a significant threat to the greater American public but it may still have negative impacts for New York farmers. Both Fage and Chobani, major Greek yogurt producers, have major factories in the state of New York–and it is farms within a comfortable driving distance of these factories that are most likely to receive acid whey to use for agricultural purposes. Acid whey is not a threat to national environmental standards but in the coming years, it may impact the farming community of New York, as it is concentrated within their properties.

The disposal of acid whey in New York farming communities is a relatively new practice, and in a decade’s time, both the soil and the livestock may witness minimal effects after the addition of acid whey to fertilizer and feed.  However, if acid whey does have a wide-spread impact on these farms, the yogurt producers could be responsible for placing an entire state at a disadvantage in the agricultural sector. Research on reusing acid whey is a step in the right direction but it should be paired with long-term research on the farms that have incorporated acid whey into their daily operations. If it does in fact have toxic effects on the environment and animals, it may be the farms of New York who will be the victims of that pollution, not the nation as a whole.

Jillian Sequeira
Jillian Sequeira was a member of the College of William and Mary Class of 2016, with a double major in Government and Italian. When she’s not blogging, she’s photographing graffiti around the world and worshiping at the altar of Elon Musk and all things Tesla. Contact Jillian at Staff@LawStreetMedia.com

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