Initial Thoughts On Past and Present Culture Use

Volume 132 No. 15 - Friday, October 12, 2007

I was recently asked by the Cheese Reporter if I would be interested in writing about the history and current market trends in starter culture technology. 

I thought it sounded like a great opportunity to review and renew my thoughts not only on the past and present but also focus on the future needs of the industry.

During the past 30 years I have had the opportunity to be closely related to the development of the cheese culture industry and a greater pleasure to have worked with many fine and knowledgeable individuals. 

Over the next several articles I hope to be able to share thoughts and facts on where we have been, where we are and where we are headed relative to starter technology.

There is no real documentation on where, when or how cheese was first discovered. Actually, the natural curdling of milk to form cheese happened long before man discovered the process. Pick up any textbook on cheese and you can read about the lore surrounding the cheesemaking business and how mistakes have actually become the many cheese 
varieties we enjoy today. 

Today, we understand the reason for the curdling phenomenon to be the function of lactic acid producing bacteria naturally found in milk and coagulant. Cheesemaking evolved from a mere mistake, matured to an art and is now accepted as a science. Mistakes are still made but, for the most part, easily identified and corrected.

However, the purpose of this article is not to trace the roots of cheesemaking but the more recent developments of starter technology in North America over the past 40-45 years. 

Starter technology has generally paralleled the growth of the cheese industry. 

Mistakes over the past 40 years have led to significant advances in cheesemaking, particularly relative to starter culture technology. It is amazing to think that over the 3,000 years of artisan cheesemaking that there hasn’t been more significant attention paid to the most critical part of the cheesemaking process, controlled growth and health of lactic acid bacteria.

I took a brief scan through the GoogleTM search engine to try to provide a basis on when cultures were really selected specifically for cheesemaking. I learned that the first Streptococcus cremoris (now Lactococcus cremoris) single strain selection and commercialization began in New Zealand around 1934. 

Credit, however, seems to go to W. S. Sutton of the New South Wales Department of Agriculture who isolated pure strains of the mentioned cultures and, along with A. B. Shelton, conducted cheesemaking trials at the Hawkesbury Agricultural College, now the University of Western Sydney, from at least September 1930. 

Pure strains were being used in factories by October 1930 and, by July 1932; at least six factories were using pure single cultures. The technology was taken to New Zealand from New South Wales by Dr Moir. Soi. This bit of history was very interesting to me. 

Until the late 1950s to early 1960s, North America dealt with starter primarily manufactured by using unidentified mother cultures transferred from previous bulk starter preparations. 

Because cheese factories were relatively small, many manufactured less than 100,000 pounds of milk per day, only three to four vats per day, five to six days per week, mother cultures were relatively easy to keep active for long periods of time without the high probability of bacteriophage contamination. 

It has been as little as 30 years ago that perhaps 20 percent of the cheese factories in Wisconsin still worked with an undefined mother starter culture. In fact, much of my first couple of years associated with the cheese industry was spent picking up a quart bottle of one mother culture from a factory and delivering to another factory that was experiencing problems. 

While I was picking up mother cultures from one plant and delivering to another I also ran into several technical representatives from the major ingredient suppliers also picking up the same mother culture to bring back to their laboratories for isolation, characterization and potential commercialization. Of course, most of the cheese industry used commercially available frozen and freeze dried bulk set cultures but 
most were unidentified strain blends.

Cheese factories would use the same culture day in, day out until it got “slow” and then would ask “do you know anyone with an active culture”. “Yes, indeed, use a commercially isolated culture” would be my reply. “Oh, that is mighty expensive, 

I just need to get a healthy mother culture, it makes better cheese.” 
The comment, “Oh, mighty expensive” seems to be a common theme in the cheese industry. Just as common today as it was when I began my career 30 years ago. Early in my career I had an extremely wise mentor; when confronted with a comment that one starter program was more expensive than the other his reply was “starter only cost you if it doesn’t work”. 

Today, this mentality still amazes me, the thought that the most critical component of the cheese make procedure is generally the least cost ingredient in the mix. Running an efficient operation means to be as efficient as possible. 

Underpaying for a culture system that does not meet your objectives costs more money than you save. However, it is our nature to get as much as possible for as little as possible. 

The amount of effort and research that goes into developing even one successful culture strain from isolation, characterization, field testing, commercialization, manufacturing to the final market is a real deal to the cheese maker. Many of the strains do not last long enough to make a breakeven point. I promise to address economics in a future article.

It was in the mid to late 1970s that bulk starter was beginning to make a transition from the traditional acid ripened, milk-based, high solids (11.5 percent) using commercially available strain blends to bulk starter systems incorporating lower solids media, pH controlled by internal or external mechanisms and defined single strain cultures. The most instrumental in development and promotion of this technology appeared to be Utah State University and Oregon State University.

In 1978, I had the opportunity to host Dr. Bob Lawrence (of Heap-Lawrence Activity Test fame), from the New Zealand Dairy Board, for a two-week tour of many cheese factories in Wisconsin. 

He was taken aback when he found many of the cheese factories we visited during our time together were still making and transferring daily mother cultures. He was amazed that we relied on consistency with such an archaic means of starter handling. 

Of course, in 1978 there were many commercially available mixed culture blends, but the single strain technology was still being researched primarily by Oregon State University and Utah State University. 

It was during this visit that I first met Dr. Doug Willrett at the Galloway West Cheese Plant in Fond du Lac, WI. Willrett earned his Ph.D. from Oregon State University, had extensive knowledge in lactic acid producing strains and was granted money by the Galloway West Co. to develop internal pH controlled starter media.

Parallel to the work being done at Oregon State University, Utah State University was working with means to control pH of bulk starter with neutralization using external bases. My first experience with this technology was while working with the Ward’s Cheese in Richfield, ID. 

Crude by today’s standards, bulk starter was made utilizing previous day’s whey, a small amount or nutrients to stimulate the culture and a selection of individually selected and identified culture strains. During the bulk starter fermentation pH was controlled at an optimum 5.8-6.0 using anhydrous ammonia as a neutralizer. I believe this to be the first or one of the first industrial applications of external pH controlled bulk starter.

While much of the bulk culture work was being conducted on internal and external pH control at the University level, the commercial culture manufacturers were developing technologies of their own. It was primarily Chr. Hansen’s and Marschall Dairy Products racing each other to bring the first phase of a highly concentrated culture that could be added directly into the cheese milk.

The 1970s were a very interesting time to be involved with the culture industry, with the cheese industry in general. It was in the 1970s that the cheese factories in North America began to grow. 

The cheese industry was growing rapidly from the small local factories, many independently owned, to huge corporate facilities. As factories grew, demands on the ingredient business had to meet these new challenges. 

As an ingredient supplier, color, coagulant, salt, milk were easy adjustments to make to the ever increasing demands in growth. However, the demands on the starter culture were the major challenge. 

Bacteriophage, once a problem, became multiplied tremendously by the new demands of the larger factory running seven days per week, 24 hours per day.

Over the next several articles I hope to offer opinion about the; recent history of starter culture systems; cost analysis, culture options and flexibility to the cheese operation; and finally a review on where the industry needs to focus to meet tomorrow’s technical advances relative to changes in mechanization, milk solids composition and consumer needs. 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.


Other Cheese Reporter Guest Columnists
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Visit Neville McNaughton

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