Milk regulators reject lowering somatic cell threshold
By CAROL RYAN DUMAS
The National Conference of Interstate Milk Shipments - a group of state regulators overseeing milk safety rules - has again rejected a proposal to lower the maximum level of somatic cell counts in milk.
National Milk Producers Federation had again proposed lowering that count from 750,000 cells per millimeter of milk to 400,000 cells.
Somatic cell counts measure the number of white blood cells in the milk produced by a cow to fight infection, primarily mastitis. When levels approach 1 million, there is a higher likelihood of having elevated levels of bacteria in the milk.
Export markets, particularly the EU, are concerned with somatic cell counts. International markets already expect the 400,000 cell maximum and some, like the EU, are demanding it, said Chris Galen, National Milk's senior vice president of communications.
But that wasn't enough to sway regulators.
NCIMS delegates last week voted 28 to 22 against lowering the count. The vote represents a wider spread on the issue since the 2011 meeting of the biennial conference, when delegates voted down the proposal 26 to 25.
The main discussion was why lower the count when there are more exports of dairy products from the EU coming into the U.S. than there are U.S. dairy products going to the EU. And it's not a public health issue; it's a marketing issue, so why should the Conference be involved, asked NCIMS Chairman John Miller, dairy bureau chief for the Florida Department of Agriculure.
Galen agrees it is not a food-safety issue, but it is a quality issue, he said.
Milk with higher somatic cell counts is not good for cheese making and it spoils more quickly in the bottle, affecting the shelf life of fluid milk, he said.
The U.S. and government regulators are really behind the curve on the issue, compared with the rest of the world. That could affect U.S. competitiveness in world markets. New Zealand, which holds about one-third of the dairy global market share, has already moved to the lower cell count on its dairy farms, Galen said.
If the U.S. is going to compete globally, it will continue to put pressure back to the farm gate, he said.
International Dairy Foods Association also supported the proposal because it improves milk quality and the lower standard would align with most international standards, said Clay Hough, IDFA senior group vice president.
The industry is trying to avoid having to set up separate streams or tracking milk above and below internationally allowable levels. That milk goes into products that change hands many times, and it would be extremely difficult to track, he said.
The biggest argument against lowering the count came from states in the Southeast and Northeast, including New York, with those delegates contending it would put dairies out of business, said delegate Mike Wiggs, dairy program manager for the Idaho Agriculture Department.
"I tried to tell them it's going to do the opposite," he said.
Better quality makes a better product, and somatic cell counts are an issue in the EU and international dairy trade. National processor and producer groups support lowering counts, he said.
At industry's request, Idaho lowered it maximum allowable levels, first to 500,000 and then to 400,000, and it hasn't put anyone out of business, said Marv Patten, Idaho Agriculture Department dairy bureau chief.
Lowering the allowable levels requires producers to be better managers and helps them in the long run, he said.