Milk Fingerprinting at Fonterra

August 2016

Groundbreaking technology for milk product management has been developed at Fonterra

Fonterra has developed a new diagnostic test that helps to ensure a safe supply of milk and reduces the time and cost of testing. The milk fingerprinting test determines the detailed composition of the milk by light analysis and sophisticated computing. The co-op’s research and development arm won the Innovation Excellence in Research award at the New Zealand Innovators Awards for the test.

The Fonterra Research and Development Centre in Palmerston North is where the bulk of the R&D is run. This particular project was partially funded by a Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) programme called Transforming the Dairy Value Chain, which is a collaboration between Fonterra, the Ministry of Primary Industries, DairyNZ, LIC, Zespri and others.

Through the PGP programme, Fonterra want to create new products, increase productivity, improve education and reduce environmental impacts. Milk fingerprinting is a great example of what the PGP programme is all about – good science finding solutions to commercially meaningful problems.

Fonterra Chief Science and Technology Officer Jeremy Hill says this new technology cuts some testing costs by more than 99 per cent and significantly reduces the time required for processing results.

“Milk fingerprinting means instead of some tests taking days or weeks, we can test hundreds of samples in seconds, cutting processing times and cost. However, its benefits go far beyond ensuring a quality, safe supply of dairy nutrition.

He says the composition of milk varies seasonally, and between farms and regions. This means milk from one farm may be better suited to one specific product rather than another.

Milk fingerprinting provides information about each farm’s milk so rapidly that when combined with its sophisticated tanker scheduling system, Fonterra can now send milk to the manufacturing site that will get the most value.

The technology behind milk fingerprinting is the result of Fonterra’s more than NZ$90 million annual investment into R&D.

Just like human fingerprints, each milk sample is different and unique. When you shine light through milk, some of the light is absorbed. Depending on how much fat and protein the milk has, it creates a spectrum that’s like a fingerprint. The composition will be unique to each farm, and the spectrometer shows this very precisely.
Each time a tanker picks up milk from one of the farmer shareholders, a small sample is sent in a cold state to Milk Test NZ, an independent lab near Hamilton. It’s a standard quality control measure which Fonterra has been doing for years. MilkTestNZ is a laboratory which tests milk samples taken from farmer suppliers by dairy companies, the results of which are used to calculate the payment to the farmers. Over 97% of New Zealand dairy farm supplier samples are tested here.

In addition to supplier testing the laboratory performs a range of chemical and microbiological raw milk testing for dairy companies and other dairy industry groups. including government agencies. The laboratory is run independently of its shareholders.

Milk fingerprinting has dramatically cut some of the testing costs. It’s also a lot quicker to process – seconds rather than minutes, hours or even days.

But the main benefit is that they can quickly identify which farms are producing the highest quality milk. Usually when a tanker calls at a farm, milk is taken and mixed with milk from other farms and taken off to the processing plant. Now they can identify the high quality milk, they’ll be able to target farms producing that milk so they can turn it into specific products. For example there’s new high value UHT milk that’s now being sold in China. Fonterra have selected milk from certain farms to make sure that the product meets all the quality specifications for that market.

The composition of milk varies seasonally, as well as between farms and regions. Some will be better suited to one product rather than another, so the components found in high quality UHT milk are different to those for butter.