Ireland leads race to turn cow's milk into breast milk
Ireland is at forefront of global research to make cows' milk more like human breast milk, which in turn could mean an economic windfall for hard-pressed dairy farmers, according to experts.
Researchers are gathering from all over the world at a dairy conference in Dublin to hear researchers working for the State agency Teagasc outline the latest "game-changing" advances in milk processing.
While the majority of Ireland's 6bn-litre milk pool has traditionally been processed into butter and cheese, it is the by-products from the formerly discarded whey fraction that have become the most sought after component.
Butter and cheese struggle to make €3,000 a tonne, but infant milk formula powders can sell for many multiples of this.
Anything that increases the value of milk will be music to dairy farmers' ears at a time when a global over-supply of milk has pushed prices to below the cost of production.
Ireland has become an international leader in developing the technology that uses membrane filters and molecular charges to separate the different types of protein from the milk in order to create blends that more accurately mimic human breast milk.
"Cow milk is about twice as rich in protein as the human equivalent, but its proteins are also in different ratios. While cows' protein is dominated by casein, it is the opposite in humans, where the whey proteins are the biggest fraction," said Teagasc's head of dairy processing research Dr Phil Kelly.
He said research continued to look "deeper" into the protein structures, and how to harvest them, with millions in research funding and hundreds of researchers now employed at several sites across the country specialising in this field.
"We've moved way beyond the centrifugal separation systems that were developed for separating cream in the 1800s, where we now use nano and micro-filtration techniques that can select molecules of a particular size. It's really game-changing stuff, and Ireland is at the forefront - that's why we've all the big international players with significant plants here," said Dr Kelly.
Despite producing less than 1pc of global milk output, Ireland produces 10pc of the world's infant milk formula.
Danone is one of the biggest manufacturers here, having invested €250m in manufacturing facilities at both Wexford and Macroom over the last five years.
It now employs more than 450, and the two Irish plants are the largest of Danone's 23 infant milk formula plants around the world.
They churn out more than 150,000 tonnes of powder that finds its way into brands such as Cow and Gate and Aptamil.
"It's an area that continues to grow, with our best researchers constantly head-hunted by big multinationals. The more we learn about human gut microbiota, the more products we can develop to fulfil functions at all stages of life," said Dr Kelly.
The dairy conference in Dublin this week is the "one of the biggest international dairy science and technology events to take place in decades", according to a Teagasc spokesman. More than 600 scientists from 32 countries are attending the three-day event.