In the fast-food lane traveled by Peppers and Pepsi lovers these days, milk seldom ranks high as a convenience food. In need of constant refrigeration from cow to consumer, it suffers from a short shelf life and can sour any drinker who packs the perishable liquid outside the household fridge. Now, however, thanks largely to William Roberts, a 67-year-old food science researcher, and his cohorts at Dairymen, an 8,000-member dairy cooperative of which he is vice-president, American milk has finally left the icebox age.

At their new $14 million Savannah, Ga. plant, Roberts and his colleagues utilize UHT (ultrahigh temperature) milk technology to purify and package their product. UHT milk is piped into a $300,000 processing machine that quick-heats it to a steamy 280° F, rapidly cools it and sends it to a filling machine that sterilizes and seals its five-layer airtight aseptic container. The processor then shapes the half-pint and quart cartons into something resembling cereal boxes. Thus treated, the still-liquid milk requires no further refrigeration until it is opened and will last about three months on the cupboard shelf. "If we put this milk in a refrigerator," boasts Roberts, "it would keep for a year or more. Even if we put it in the Sahara desert at 150°, it might last a month."

His firm, the largest UHT milk processor in the U.S., introduced the first samples of its new product this summer at the World's Fair in Knoxville. Marketed under the name Farm Best, it is already on the shelves in Georgia and will be appearing elsewhere around the country as soon as state licenses are approved.

UHT milk is whiter and slightly fuller-bodied than its refrigerated counterpart, has all the essential vitamins, no preservatives and tastes like regular milk—although a slightly "cooked" flavor may be detected. "Based on surveys and studies we've made, about 50 percent of the people couldn't tell the difference between this milk and the milk they'd been drinking," Roberts asserts. "And another 25 or 30 percent said, 'We can tell the difference, but we like it.' " Competitively priced with regular milk, Dairymen's moo-brew is available as whole milk, low-fat and in chocolate, banana and other flavors designed to attract the half-pint set. Before long, predicts Roberts, it will be standard fare in everything from school lunch bags to vending machines and military mess halls.

The same sort of UHT-processed milk has been backpacking around Europe since the early '60s and accounts for more than 50 percent of the fluid milk consumed in Italy and West Germany. In 1965, while he was chairman of the Food and Science Department at North Carolina State University, Roberts made a tour of European UHT plants and quickly realized that "there was technology worldwide that we weren't ready for in the U.S." Back in Raleigh, he guided a research project into the problems of taste and the sterilization of containers in the UHT process. Those studies helped win FDA approval of aseptic packaging in January 1981, and that same month Roberts left academe for greener pastures at Dairymen.

As one of seven children raised on a farm in Sharon, Tenn., Roberts had taken his first lessons in milk at the side of the family cow. Later a door-to-door dairy delivery route for which he earned $70 a month (and all the milk he could drink) helped pay for his education at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Named the country's best collegiate cheese taster in 1936 by a group of dairy associations, he won a scholarship that financed graduate studies at the University of Minnesota. While working toward a Ph.D. in dairy science, he met the student dietitian who would eventually become his wife. Now the parents of three grown children, he and Irene Roberts, 63, share a three-bedroom ranch-style home near the Dairymen general offices in Louisville, Ky.

"Probably 10 years from now most of our fluid milk will be processed this way," predicts Roberts confidently. "If you can buy a package of milk that will keep until it's opened, there'll come a time when you won't want to buy anything else."