Working toward a more sustainable dairy sector in Europe

Meet the European Dairy Association, where today’s dairy expertise meets with the vision of tomorrow’s opportunities and challenges for Europe’s sustainable dairy sector.

The European Dairy Association (EDA) is proud to present the recently increasing scientific evidence for the essential role sustainable dairy plays in achieving both a healthy and sustainable diet, as well as food and nutrition security. Dairy products are nutrient-rich and excellent sources of high-quality protein, whilst also remaining affordable for consumers.

However, many European citizens still do not meet the dietary recommendations for dairy. While many dairy alternatives present on the market today seem to perform better in terms of environmental impact, dairy has a higher nutrient density and provides higher quality proteins compared to plant-based foods. Recent studies have shown that sustainable dairy products actually have a low climate impact when balanced against their nutritional importance in a healthy diet. Changes in dietary patterns and the enforcement of sustainable diets are gaining in importance in the drive towards reducing the food industries climate impact.

Sustainable diets need to be protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, nutritionally adequate, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable, while also being safe and healthy. Dairy products, with all their natural nutrients, offer a resource- and carbon efficient way of achieving a balanced diet and can make key contributions to nutrient and food security. EDA is fully engaged on nutrition and health topics with policy makers, industry groups and other stakeholders to help make a positive impact on the overall public health.

The use of by-products in the dairy sector has a long history and tradition, and it is part of an orientation to an always more resource efficient future of the business. The dairy sector are said to certainly be one of the sectors using closely all resources, and as a result, are losing the smallest parts of their product in the manufacturing process. At the EDA, we strive to open up even more options (always keeping food safety at its highest, especially where legal barriers exist).

It is of major importance to have a legislative framework in place supporting an increased use of animal by-products from the food sector as feed, where use as food is no longer possible, and does not negatively impact other by-products from the dairy industry. The dairy industry regrets some inconsistencies between the different sets of legislation. EDA wish for clear solutions to solve the following open issues, whilst always keeping food and feed safety as a priority: transport of milk and milk products (including whey) in tankers and ABPs labelling, registration of dairy plants or further requirements of feed hygiene legislation and passed durability dates.

Contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Moreover, the EDA is the voice and co-ordinating body of all dairy industry actors in the EU and has continually pushed forward to support the UNs Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) since they began (both inside the industry, and with Brussels and other global stakeholders). The European dairy sector plays a key role in fulfilling the UNs SDGs, as it provides key nutritional, social and economic inputs. Indeed, our sector is continuously working on improving its long-term environmental, economic and social sustainability.

Dairy is an important factor in the wide context of environmental actions – including climate but also looking at the broader picture with water and land uses, biodiversity and animal welfare. As an emitter of greenhouse gases, it accepts its responsibilities and has continuously worked on greater sustainability through various international, as well as national, initiatives. The many recent developments in the dairy sector towards greater circularity and sustainability also result in a more sustainable management of water and sanitation. In addition to this, the dairy sector also plays a key role in reversing land degradation, restoration of grasslands and carbon sequestration in soils.

From a social perspective, the dairy sector plays a key role in ending poverty, especially for rural communities. Despite the current urban growth, the sustainable dairy sector contributes to the maintenance of safe, resilient and sustainable rural areas. Nearly one billion people earn their livelihood from dairy. Sustainable dairy has an important role to end hunger, achieve food security and improve the nutritional value of diets in a sustainable manner. Dairy products contribute to good health and well-being at all stages of life. Its nutrient-rich pack ensures a nourished and healthy population, and it has also been linked to protection against noncommunicable diseases. At EDA, we are always happy to showcase and bring forward the efforts of our sector and support and help building the right framework for further striving to the fulfilment of the SDGs from our perspective.

The EU Green Deal – improving the legislation of chemicals and residues where legal incongruity exists

As mentioned in our paper on the EU Green Deal, the dairy sector uses chemicals in the processing plants as cleaning agents and disinfectants in order to preserve food safety and quality. Similar uses also exist on farm level, and in transport of raw milk. For a very long time the industry has used these chemicals to control any possible residue when used across the entire production chain in order to assure safety of the final products. The legislation on chemicals used for cleaning needs to remain adequate to allow for realistic and reasonable use and storage of cleaning agents. This is why we support an improvement of the legislation of chemicals and residues for the agri-food sector where legal incongruity exists (for instance between pesticides and biocides residues).

More in detail, biocides are used in dairy for hygienic reasons, but on EU level their residues are treated as pesticides and therefore, extremely low. Food safety cannot be compromised for any reason; and it can be one of the possible reasons for certain residues of (cleaning) chemicals. The challenge is an inconsistency on legislative side, between pesticide and contaminants definitions and default levels.

Reducing food waste

We are also active in a wide field of different topics to improve our circular performance and we work with other sectors on issues such as food waste reduction and sustainable packaging, as well as on by-products valorisation and water re-use (two areas where EDA would ask the EU legislators for opening where legal barriers persist).

With almost one-third of all food produced globally being lost or wasted between the field and the fork, wea are also seriously committed to reduce and prevent food waste along the value chain, and also accelerate progress toward halving food waste by 2030 (SDG 12.3). Preventing and measuring food wastage is part of the sustainability strategies of many dairy companies. Examples of actions and initiatives aimed at reducing food waste across the dairy supply chain include:

  • At production: Improving production efficiency and create innovative solutions to halve the food waste in the dairies’ own operations, strive to achieve zero waste for disposal in our manufacturing sites, and reduction of losses along the supply chain (companies are also taking initiatives to improve delivery route efficiencies to reduce damaged products, returns and missed delivery windows);
  • Towards consumers: Giving consumers tips and tricks for using, offering different package sizes to enable consumers to match their purchase with their needs, and designing packaging that is easy to fold and fully empty, support consumer campaigns addressing how to maximise the freshness and shelf life of sustainable dairy products, and make date labels better understandable to consumers;
  • Food donation: Providing fresh, quality dairy products (which would otherwise be destined for disposal) to food banks across Europe or to local charities; and
  • By-products: Find opportunities to use or repurpose previously discarded dairy by-products.

Moreover, in regards to plastic packaging, most dairy companies have targets on reusability, recyclability, composability, as well as recycled content, sorting and collection, design and carbon footprint of packaging. For example, aiming at packaging 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable, significantly reducing the carbon footprint of packaging, increasing the share of recycled content in our packaging where food safety and regulation permits, co-operating with municipalities and other external stakeholders to improve recycling systems and avoid littering, working with suppliers and engaging in research to find new more sustainable materials and improve the design of dairy packaging.

Most of the materials and resources that are utilised by the dairy sector are being used and re-used several times within the cycle or are instead recycled and put to other use. The concentration of production in favourable areas may tend to challenge this cyclical approach, and for this reason, the search for new solutions is continuously on the agenda of actors in the dairy (and wider agribusiness) sector. Take, for example, whey, a co-product of the cheese-making process: whey was once put onto land, or fed to animals (pigs), but is now being used as high-value protein concentrates for specific human nutrition (sports, infants, and the elderly) in a growing market, and in special cases, for young animal feed. Milk fat and Skimmed milk powder are also high-value co-products, obtained from the production of butter, cream, drinking milk and fermented dairy products.

Animal by-products, such as manure, that are obtained during the production stages, can also be an alternative source of energy. Methane from manure can in fact generate heat, power and even be used as vehicular fuel. In large-scale dairy operations, anaerobic digestions can produce enough energy to cover internal requirements and even feed back into the public energy grid. These technologies allow the dairy sector to provide truly sustainable energy. This in turn also helps in reducing manure-related emissions at farm level. Anaerobic digestion (AD) technology is another example of a closed loop system. By digesting trade effluent plus higher strength whey and permeate, AD plants feed energy back to the factory, cutting waste disposal and power costs. Bio-degradable fats and sugars are converted into biogas that generates renewable energy in a CHP (Combined Heat & Power) engine which is then used to power the dairy. Surplus heat from the CHP can also be used in the production process.

Another way sustainable dairy can improve through the reutilisation of water in the dairy process. Innovative water treatment technologies, such as reverse osmosis, enable sites to recycle wastewater to reuse across the dairy (from cleaning the filling lines to pasteurising the milk). Such practices prevent the need of excessively drawing water from external sources, reducing the strain on local water supply, and the discharging of too much wastewater into waterbodies. Improvements in water use efficiency and recycling measures have clearly decreased the aquatic impact of dairy. While there is still some way to go, recent developments have shown that the sector is on the right path.

Many best practices are also given in the ‘Best available Techniques Reference documents’ (‘Bref’) for dairies and other agri-food sectors (as well as many non-food sectors). At EDA, we gather such examples, as well as compare to the overall picture of the EU situation and discuss opportunities and feasibility to transpose these for other companies and regions.

Reducing quality issues in sustainable dairy products

EDA has recently published an overview of food safety measures relating to dairy and the overall framework – and thankfully see the high level of safety we manage to provide for millions of EU (and global) consumers. Within the milk and dairy processing industry, we deal with a very nutritious and natural, but perishable, ‘raw material’ – milk. This increases the number of critical control points within the process. Nevertheless, food safety issues have become increasingly rare. Additionally, while there is no direct link between food safety and food fraud, it may rarely happen that a food safety issue is the result of fraud.

The dairy sector provides the consumer with products among the safest and highest quality on the market. All actors in the dairy chain contribute to this achievement with their daily work thanks to the food safety system in place in the dairy chain, which is structured to tackle efficiently all risks that might occur in an early stage at every step of the chain, from raw milk production at the farm, collection and transport, until milk processing at the factory. Good dairy agricultural and manufacturing practices complement the EU legislative framework in ensuring that all stages are carried out hygienically, supplemented by control activities by both the dairy food business operators and the competent authorities of each Member State, jointly with an effective communication flow on food safety and risk.

For this food safety management, the dairy industry has in place high quality infrastructure (i.e internal laboratories for regular tests and specially trained staff). The first quality check on the milk (antibiotic residues, milk’s smell, colour and temperature) is carried out during pickup from the dairy farm by specially trained milk tanker drivers.

Manufacturing and quality issues are often relating to other areas, as any step in the chain can have divergences from ‘usual’ behaviour. Be it a dairy powder that has a colour not fitting for a specific protocol, cheeses that are not formed correctly, labels that are not sticking at the right place, or yogurt pots that are not perfectly sealed.

Hélène Simonin-Rosenheimer
Director Food, Environment & Health
European Dairy Association
+32 2 549 50 42
Tweet @EDA_Dairy

Please note, this article will also appear in the second edition of our new quarterly publication.

Subscribe to our newsletter


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Featured Topics

Partner News


Latest eBooks

Latest Partners


Latest eBooks

Latest Partners

Similar Articles

More from Innovation News Network