Pizza take-out at centre of sour storm: No whey, man! We’re not dumping
A Berg dairy is feeling the heat over unauthorised expansion and disposal of waste, write Fred Kockott and PS Raju.
First published by Sunday Tribune
A national pizza chain is caught up in a stink over the disposal of vast quantities of whey on farms in the southern Drakensberg.
Whey is the wastewater by-product of making cheese. It is not toxic and can be used as livestock feed and fertiliser. But dumping it in large quantities can harm the environment.
Underberg Dairy began operating in March 2016 and is now a bulk of supplier of mozzarella, gouda and cheddar cheese and butter to the retail and restaurant industries, including the popular pizza take-out franchise, Roman’s Pizza.
The dairy buys on average 5 million litres of milk each month from 17 local dairy farmers. From this it produces about 550 tonnes of cheese a month – and in the process, about 48,000 litres of whey a day.
What happens to this whey is now the subject of controversy.
According to a local dairy farmer who asked not to be named, large volumes have been dumped on various farms in the Franklin and Underberg area, disturbing the natural ecological balance in the area.
Responding, Underberg Dairy manager, Steve Roberts said this was utter nonsense.
“No dumping has taken place,” said Roberts. “These stories of dumping are based on pure rumour and obfuscation. They come from petty people who are jealous of the success of the Underberg Dairy over such a short period of time.”
Roberts said whey had been supplied “on request and free of charge” to farmers to use as liquid fertiliser “until such time as we were advised that a licence was required, by the farmers individually, to use whey as a fertiliser”.
It was used in line with methods followed in the United States, including restricted litres per hectare, applications of lime and keeping away from water courses, said Roberts, adding that a whey concentration plant had been imported from Italy at a cost of about R5 million.
He said concentrated whey was now trucked at the company’s expense to pig farmers to use as feed.
Concerns about the disposal of whey followed recent action taken against the dairy for contravening the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA).
Documentation shows the original environmental authorisation for the dairy allowed for the development of 4200 square metres of agri-industrial infrastructure. This included a factory and wastewater treatment infrastructure, aeration dam, holding dams and a reed bed.
Amid growing demand, Underberg Dairy expanded its operations by more 2000 square metres. As no environmental authorisation had been obtained, the expansion was deemed illegal. Directors of companies that contravene NEMA risk a fine of up to R5 million or up to 10 years in jail.
The dairy has since appointed independent environmental consultants to bring it in line with the law.
“We have applied for retrospective environmental impact assessment application for the rectification of illegal activity,” said Susan Machpesh, of environmental consultants, Nature Stamp.
Recently appointed chief executive of Roman’s Pizza, Bonnie Cooper, confirmed that Underberg Dairy was one of their suppliers.
She said they had been informed the dairy was working with the authorities and “experts to investigate and resolve any alleged unlawful activities”.
“We will accordingly await the outcome of the pending investigations and any resolutions thereto,” said Cooper.
“Both Roman’s Pizza (Pretoria) CC and Underberg Dairy (Pty) Ltd do not condone any illegal activities… We view these allegations and concerns of the farmer that lodged the complaint in a very serious light,” she said.
Cooper said the dairy was a joint venture between Underberg farmers and the Nicolakakis family which also started up Roman’s Pizza.
She said in the past five years Underberg Dairy had grown from an idea to a company that now employed about 245 people from the area.
Cooper, formerly chief marketing officer, succeeded John Nicolakakis in the Roman’s Pizza hotseat. Nicolakakis made headlines after he was taped in a phone conversation to a rival businessman threatening to “burn them down” and “go to war with them”. – Roving Reporters