Fresh cream. The words bring back memories of grandmother topping her strawberry shortcake with a luxurious dollop. Churning rich homemade ice cream on a Saturday afternoon. What could be fresher than real cream? Well, these days almost anything could.
“Things are seldom what they seem / Skim milk masquerades as cream,” sang Buttercup to the Captain in H.M.S. Pinafore. The seemingly fresh cream you buy today isn’t skim milk, but neither is it fresh. More than likely it came from an assembly line in California, or Missouri, or Sulphur Springs, Texas. (That’s if you buy what is labeled as cream. If you buy one of the so-called non-dairy creamers, it may have started life in a soybean patch in the Panhandle—a possibility that Gilbert and Sullivan mercifully never had to consider.)
Progress—in the form of a process known as Ultra High Temperature ( UHT) treatment—is taking traditional fresh cream off grocery shelves at a dismaying rate. Dairies are substituting the new product in the same cartons they formerly used for the real thing, merely changing the fine print to include the legally required words “ultra-pasteurized” or “sterilized.” If consumers will swallow sterilized cream, the dairy industry hopes someday to apply the same treatment to milk. The goal is a liquid so totally processed that it can sit around for months without refrigeration—turning dairy products, in the words of one industry writer, into something that could be stored with “soft drinks on the same shelf in the markets.” If that sounds unappetizing, consider what has happened already.
In a blue metal and beige brick building on the north side of IH 30 in Sulphur Springs, the Specialty Foods plant of the Southland Corporation houses the only UHT cream plant in Texas. Wearing a blue baseball cap, production manager Jim Morgan oversees an aseptic process in which 175- degree cream is heated to 285 degrees by steam infusion, held at that temperature for exactly four seconds, and then transferred to a flash chamber that reduces it to 175 degrees again almost instantly, thereby destroying most bacteria and rendering it practically sterile. The cream is then homogenized, cooled, and stored.
Specialty Foods prepares UHT cream for twenty different dairies, doing the whole job right down to using each one’s distinctive carton. Trucks carry the finished product to ten states—as far east as Paducah, Kentucky, as far west as Colorado Springs and Albuquerque, as far north as Wichita, Kansas—in a colossal version of the milkman’s morning run. Unopened, the little cartons will last six weeks or more, compared to the ten-day shelf life of fresh cream.
UHT is the pride and joy of the dairy business. If you don’t believe that, visit the Texas A&M Library and leaf through the imposing collection of dairy periodicals there ( Journal of Dairy Science, Butter & Cheese Journal, Die Milchwissenschaft, Milch-Zeitung, Le Lait, Goat World). You will hear its praises sung, sometimes rhapsodically, as in this stirring tribute from the Southern Dairy Products Journal:
In the beginning there was raw milk and cream, and people died from disease borne by dairy products; And along came pasteurization and the children stayed healthy.
But the mothers complained because the cream soured; and they turned to false Gods.
And along came sterilized dairy products and the mothers were happy again.
Actually, if the truth be told, it was the dairy business’ own accounting departments and not the mothers who did most of the complaining. Unsold