Direct to the Vat Cheese Cultures - Suppliers, Part 1

Volume 133, No. 12 - Friday, September 26, 2008

In previous articles I have had the opportunity to share some history and personal accounting of my direct experiences as well as the opinions of several industry manufacturers on cheese starter technology.

The opinions I have uncovered are diverse. Some manufacturers prefer direct-to-the-vat concentrated cultures; others prefer the flexibility offered from current bulk starter programs while many use bulk as a standard with direct-to-the-vat concentrated cultures to fill-in and back-up manufacture.

I recently had the opportunity to visit with several cheese culture manufacturers to see if I could form some continuity between their opinions and visions for the future in cheese culture technology.

The information I could gather is as diverse as their potential market. Their visions and opinions differ widely. However, one common theme each culture manufacturer brought to the table was that their developments all target the United States cheese market, a market that differs widely from most of the world.

My focus in this article will be directed towards the two major suppliers bringing the next generation of highly concentrated direct-to-the-vat cultures to the cheese market. Many suppliers are addressing the concentrated culture market; Chr. Hansen, Inc. and Danisco USA, Inc. appear to be making their presence most obvious in the direct-to-the-vat culture market. The next column will focus on the other culture company suppliers.

While it seems apparent that Chr. Hansen has made a decision to target only the direct-to-the-vat, Danisco USA appears to be driven by both the bulk starter and direct-to-the-vat markets but is applying its new technologies and strain development toward the direct-to-the-vat market.

I met with Kristian Elsborg, vice president, sales and commercial development, Cultures and Enzymes Division and Mike Neu, business manager, Cultures and Enzymes Division, Chr. Hansen, Inc. They explained that 10-12 years ago Chr. Hansen, Inc. developed an opinion and built a strategy around the future of the United States dairy culture industry to provide highly concentrated lactic acid cultures for direct-to-the-vat inoculation.

Kristian noted that “the United States was probably the last cheese market that did not use this culture process as their primary cheese making culture.” Elsborg commented, 12 years ago, Chr. Hansen, Inc. recognized “the United Kingdom was most similar to the United States in its cheese manufacturing practices and 65-70 percent of their market utilized direct-to-the-vat cultures.”

He continued, “The United Kingdom was used as a model to design a specific program to meet the needs of the United States cheese market.” Mike Neu added, “previous direct-to-the-vat culture programs were very successful, they met the need of the cheese maker and provided consistency not found in other culture systems to date.”

Both Mike and Kristian believe that the older formats still have their place but the cheese market is demanding a change that will fit into the pressures of today’s make procedures.

Doug Willrett, vice president, new market development, Danisco USA, Inc. agrees, “convenience, performance and consistency are needed to target for future industry needs.” Willrett feels that the convenience of the new generation direct-to-the-vat culture programs is obvious but performance and consistency need to be proven.

The pressure for faster make times and higher concentrated milk for cheesemaking compounded with 24-hour manufacturing, seven days per week and its associated bacteriophage potential has created demands never before experienced in the US.

For the most part, bulk starter strain selection has overcome the cheese industry pressures for the past 25 to 30 years but adds some inconsistency based on the large number of strains required to keep a viable rotation to resist bacteriophage. New generation concentrated strain offerings provided by both Chr. Hansen and Danisco are limited in number when compared to bulk starter strain selections.

“Bacteriophage has been an age old problem for the cheese industry,” says Willrett, “unfortunately, nature has a lot larger budget for producing bacteriophage than we have methods or selections for preventing it (bacteriophage).”

I asked Willrett, Elsborg and Neu their perspective on strain selection for their respective programs. They were in agreement that to focus on a few select strains, modify a “few” select, good cheese-producing strains with bacteriophage resistance within GMO specifications would best benefit the cheese industry.

In the past, many culture companies “found” new culture strains from sources that did not exclude a competitors’ strain to develop a program assuring optimal bacteriophage resistance. Both Chr. Hansen, Inc. and Danisco USA Inc. appear to be avoiding this historical dilemma by developing their own specific strains to solidify their particular program performance.

I do not have enough experience with either program but would assume that either program could work as a back-up to the other. However, it has been my general opinion that the best performance and service comes from dedication to one program or the other.

From my industry experiences it occurred to me that perhaps frozen inventory might be a problem with the new format. What happens if a strain inhibited by bacteriophage? What happens if a freezer breaks down?
Are there enough strains to meet the industry diverse demands?

Elsborg says, “never been a problem with their program, we can ship cultures immediately, and our strains are proven over the past 10 years to be stable in very large cheese operations.”

Willrett was a little more reserved with his opinions. “We have some very stable strains and work hard with the customer to avoid bacteriophage problems, with JIT programs available today, emergency shipping poses less of a problem and we continue to improve our technologies to meet the industry's strict demands for quality.”

I addressed the use of a Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactococcus cremoris or L. lactis blend in the manufacture of American style cheeses and the potential for residual galactose due to the presence of a thermophile. Elsborg said “they have experienced no problems with residual galactose in either the cheese or the resulting whey.” This seemed odd to me knowing the characteristics of S. thermophilus but who is to argue with their success.

On the other hand, Willrett commented in defense to use S. thermophilus, “the need for S. thermophilus is currently needed to optimize the demanding , aggressive acid production mandated in today’s make procedures. While the use of S. thermophilus is not ideal in all applications it is too early to give up on progress made thus far. We are working on several things (to minimize galactose).”

The new generation direct-to-the-vat culture programs are making more than a dent in US cheese production. Both Chr. Hansen's, Inc. and Danisco USA, Inc. think that it is only a matter of a few years that market penetration will be between 60-80 percent.

It is my opinion that if you are making Mozzarella cheese, get on board, what are you waiting for. The technology is here and will optimize your operation.

However, I still have some reservations regarding the manufacture of American cheese varieties and the residual galactose issue in both whey and cheese. If you can live with it or manage residual galactose by other means, get on board.

Are you making long-hold cheese? There are several adjunct cultures available to make great cheese.
Added expense? Again, if you are making a premium cheese, pay premium prices for ingredients and charge for your premium cheese. Don’t be afraid to pay a little more to distinguish your product from the competition. That is easy to say but hard to do!

So, after careful review, what can I conclude? As cited specifically by Mike Neu and Doug Willrett, consistency equals value.

I have noted in previous articles that starter is “cheap” if it works, the least expensive ingredient in cheese making. Starter is “expensive” when it fails to make a consistent quality cheese.

In a future article I will address those culture manufactures that focus their efforts on bulk starter. r

Mike Comotto will be writing several articles on culture technology for Cheese Reporter. In addition to his many years of dairy ingredient representation, he has served as cheese judge and grader for a number of international, national and regional cheese contests. You can get in touch with Mike by e-mailing:

The views expressed by Mr. Comotto and other columnists that appear in Cheese Reporter do not necessarily reflect those of the editor and Cheese Reporter Publishing Co. Inc.

Mike Comotto's Past Columns

Direct to the Vat Cheese Cultures, Part 2
Direct to the Vat Cheese Cultures, Part 1
Starter Culture Development
Mother Cultures
Initial Thoughts


Other Cheese Reporter Guest Columnists
Visit John Umhoefer
Visit Neville McNaughton

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