Like it or not, the dairy industry is part of a highly competitive food business. Every time a customer walks into a store, he makes a choice whether or not to buy our product.

Lots of time and money goes into enhancing the image of dairy products. But, as members of the food quality chain, producers and their advisers must always remember that all of the image en-hancement in the world can be undone by the purchase of one product that does not meet the customer's expectations.

Ensuring milk quality
Quality starts on the farm. Proper milking procedures are just a small part of what's needed to ensure milk quality. Udder health, milking storage, and equipment sanitation are all essential to protecting the quality of the milk you produce.

Once it leaves your farm, no amount of processing can improve milk quality. The milk you produce affects the taste, texture, shelf life and consistency of every dairy product made. Producers play a huge role in the consumer's impression of dairy products, as it's the quality of milk you produce which sets the stage for a good or bad consumer reaction.

The milk quality chain
The milk quality chain extends from farm to consumer. To work properly, it needs cooperation from multiple levels within the milk-handling chain. This is particularly true of the producer-processor relationship.

The producer is responsible for maintaining an "on-farm" quality control system that ensures delivery of the highest-quality product possible. However, this requires input from the processor.

Processors should identify and explain key issues in delivering a high-quality product to the consumer. For example, processors should educate producers on how proper milk cooling can affect the shelf life of fluid milk.

They also are responsible for providing much of the information used to judge milk quality on your farm. The types of tests that processors use, the ability of the plant lab to run the tests in an accurate and timely fashion, as well as the ability of field personnel to properly explain what these tests say about milk quality, are absolutely essential. In order to improve, producers not only need the test results; they need to understand what exactly each different test tells them. For example, preliminary incubation counts (PI) should always be interpreted in comparison to the standard plate count. Otherwise, relying on PI counts alone can lead to false conclusions about where the problem lies.

Finally, the processors' willingness to demonstrate the importance of quality through significant economic incentives is probably the most important thing that processors can do.

Develop a quality control system
Producing consistent milk quality depends on building a system, with key control points identified and a series of standardized procedures in place to ensure proper results. It also depends on having a good monitoring system in place. Finally, and most importantly, it needs to be systematic in the way it diagnoses and deals with issues once they arise.

For success, a good quality control system requires consistency. Consistency is the result of well-trained and motivated people working for a common goal. It takes teamwork both on and off the farm.

Mark Wustenberg is a technical services veterinarian with Monsanto Dairy Business.