Food safety and food quality have become top-of-mind issues for both consumers and those in production agriculture.

Let’s start with milk quality. Milk quality can be defined as the components that make up milk or dairy products. These components — protein, fat, somatic cell count and other non-pathogenic counts — have a direct effect on the quality, yield and shelf life of fluid milk and manufactured dairy products.

To date, no scientific proof exists that these components have any direct effect on human health or illness — that is, food safety. Yet, milk product consistency and shelf life can vary, thus affecting product spoilage rates. And that, in turn, may lead to food safety issues.

When you define food or milk safety, you’re really talking about pathogenic agents, such as bacteria, that could cause a foodborne illness. Although pasteurization reduces the effect of many agents, it should not be relied upon to kill all of the potential pathogens that might be present in milk — especially those that may be introduced by various handling practices throughout the food chain. Instead, the goal should be for every member of the dairy food chain to protect the safety and quality of dairy food products.

The two are linked

As reported in the February 2003 National Mastitis Council Milk Safety Fact Sheet, high somatic cell counts — a milk-quality issue — have been correlated to management factors that may be lacking on the dairy. 

Indeed, research has shown that dairy cattle on farms where management problems exist are more susceptible to health problems and have a greater potential to shed pathogens in their milk. This raises quality and safety issues throughout the entire dairy food chain when the first step in the milk supply chain has lower levels of quality.

The U.S. dairy supply chain has had a remarkable safety record, with almost no incidences of foodborne illness reported. However, to maintain this high level of performance, every segment of the dairy food chain must take responsibility and cooperate to prevent any future outbreaks.

Although food quality is defined differently than food safety, the two issues are intertwined. And, both have a huge impact upon consumer acceptance of our products. 

Make these a priority

To minimize or prevent problems with food quality and safety, be sure to use recommended best-management practices, herd health programs, proper biosecurity protocols — and just plain old common sense. When this kind of proactive approach takes place on the farm, it benefits the entire dairy supply chain — all the way to the consumer. It reduces the risk of quality issues that could potentially lead to safety issues.

Consumers expect and demand high-quality, nutritious food that is safe. The U.S. dairy industry cannot afford to strive for anything less.

Some of our global competitors already have developed cooperation up and down the food chain to ensure the quality and safety of their food products. If we want to compete in the global marketplace, and maintain our markets at home, every member of the dairy food chain must work together. We all must strive toward the common goal of producing high-quality products. Only then will we be able to consistently meet, or better yet exceed, consumer expectations.

Jay Mattison is executive vice president of ReQuest Ltd., in Verona, Wis.