JOHNSTOWN - For years, Fage U.S.A. officials believed there was simply no way to turn their whey into a profitable substance.
Whey is the liquid that's left over after yogurt or cheese is made. Some cheese and yogurt manufacturing produces whey that is easily dried and sold into other products, but not Fage's . Fage makes Greek-yogurt that is so protein rich, that the whey leftover after the yogurt is made is a low-protein substance that is difficult to dry using conventional means.
Subsequently Fage has always viewed its whey as costly waste, dumping about 25 million gallons of the stuff down the drain in 2013. All of this whey waste is treated at the Johnstown-Gloversville Wastewater Treatment Facility, which, since 2008, has undergone two major upgrades aimed primarily at increasing the facility's capacity to treat the growing volume of whey waste from Fage and its Johnstown Industrial Park neighbor Euphrates Cheese.
The exterior of the Fage USA Dairy Industry plant in the Johnstown Industrial Park on Friday.
Photo by Bill Trojan/The Leader-Herald
But now it appears that whey volume is about to go down significantly.
In November, Prolient Dairy, a company based in Ankeny, Iowa, announced a deal to purchase Fage's whey and turn it into a, "shelf-stable, easily transportable, dry ingredient for global food and feed industries." The agreement will have ramifications for Fage, the Johnstown Industrial Park and the wastewater treatment plant.
Processing the whey
When the Johnstown-Gloversville Wastewater Treatment Facility began its $10 million expansion in 2008 to handle the increasing volume of whey from Fage no process existed for drying Greek-yogurt whey into a shelf-stable product.
In 2013 Proliant Dairy decided to invent one. Proliant Dairy is a subsidiary of the Lauridsen Group, a company founded by Nix Lauridsen for the purpose of creating profitable products from byproduct streams from other industries, such as the dairy industry.
Proliant Dairy President and CEO Gary Weihs said Nix Lauridsen saw the potential in the popularity of Greek-yogurt to create another unique byproduct stream.
"The thinking was, here's an opportunity to add value to a waste stream, but what was needed was some creativity to figure out how to do it," Weihs said. "Nobody's ever done this before. So we created a process at our research center in Ankeny and then we contacted Fage."
Fage officials did not agree to be interviewed for this story, but Fage Vice President of Marketing Russell Evans answered several questions in written form. Evans wrote that when Proliant Dairy demonstrated to Fage that its process worked, Fage officials saw that, "It was a commercially viable option that made sense for the business."
Weihs said after Proliant Dairy is granted the patent for its new whey drying process, the company intends to build a facility somewhere on the east coast to dry the whey. He said his company is currently considering locations inside the Johnstown Industrial Park.
Proliant Dairy plans to sell the Greek-whey byproduct as animal-feed as well as a food ingredient to the baking and candy industries.
"This will be a brand new product, so there will be a challenge in developing the market for this Greek-whey. We think there will be a number of valuable properties for customers in this product, but we have to develop those markets," Weihs said. "This Greek-whey will have a more tart than sweet taste-profile, so I think there will be some very unique food uses that we'll be able to help food manufacturers to reformulate their products to take advantage of."
Sewer plant concerns
Fage's deal with Proliant Dairy sparked immediate concerns with officials at the sewer plant. Tyler Masick, the engineer at the Johnstown-Gloversville Wastewater Treatment Facility said earlier this month his operation entered into a 10-year contract with Fage that guarantees the yogurt-maker will dispose of at least 14 million and 16 million gallons of whey each year at the plant.
"We normally had one-year contracts with them, but we asked if they would entertain a 10-year agreement and they said they would," Masick said. "We knew there was other interests in the whey and we wanted to make sure we could still get the whey and that they knew they were part of the community."
In his written response Evans said, "All the whey that does not go to the Johnstown-Gloversville Wastewater Treatment Plant will be utilized by Proliant."
Masick said the $10 million expansion of the sewer plant started in 2008 has been paid for, but some debt remains from an additional $8 million expansion of the plant. The second expansion was also aimed at dealing with an anticipated increase in waste from a major expansion of Fage. Masick said after grant money is used to pay off part of the $8 million project about $4 million in debt will remain for the wastewater facility and its rate-payers to pay off, but he does not anticipate rates will increase even with a decrease in whey waste from Fage. He said Fage will continue to produce wastewater that will need to be treated at the plant. He said residential and industrial rates at the plant have remained stable or gone down in recent years thanks to increased industrial use.
The sewer plant also uses Fage's whey as one of the waste streams that feed's an anaerobic digester gas-to-electricity system that supplies about 94 percent of the sewer plant's electricity. Masick said the gas-to-electric system saves the sewer plant about $500,000 a year in electricity bills. He said he's not certain how much of the fuel for the system comes from Fage's whey.