Another missed opportunity to improve milk quality

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When one of the readers of our daily newsletter heard that the somatic cell count standard in the U.S. won’t be upgraded to 400,000 cells/ml, he responded in the reader-comment section:

“Get in the game folks!!! If other countries can easily achieve and abide by the 400,000 SCC standard and do it within as harsh environmental conditions as any state, then don’t use that excuse to say it can’t be done. 400,000 SCC is achievable. If there is a will, then there is a way. Get in the game folks!!!”

We agree.

For the sixth time in 14 years, the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments has turned down a request to upgrade the legal limit for somatic cell count from the current limit of 750,000 cells/ml. The action came last month on a 26 to 25 vote.

We can’t understand why the NCIMS would pass on this opportunity to improve milk-quality standards in the U.S.

Oh yes, there is the response from NCIMS that somatic cell count is not a human-health issue; therefore, it is not incumbent upon the organization to change the existing standards.

It’s starting to sound like a same old thing, over and over again.

Absolutely nothing has changed since we editorialized on this in the June 1999 issue of Dairy Herd Management. Back in 1999, the NCIMS pigeon-holed the proposal in committee. At least this time, the proposal got out of committee and appeared before the full delegate body. But the results were the same.

Here is an excerpt from that editorial in 1999:

“The bureaucrats who make up the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments (NCIMS) did the bureaucratic thing when they met in Atlanta last month. In committee (or council), they pigeon-holed a proposal to toughen somatic cell count standards by giving it a “no action” label, and the proposal never did come up for discussion by the full delegate body.

“And, because the NCIMS only meets once every two years, the earliest it could come up again will be the spring of 2001.

“So much for that opportunity to improve milk quality.

“NCIMS concerns itself primarily with issues related to food safety, and the state regulators who make up the group’s membership apparently did not feel that the somatic cell count proposal fit within a food safety context.

“In 1991, however, the NCIMS voted to lower the maximum-allowable somatic cell count from 1 million to 750,000 cells/ml. (with the new standards taking effect in July 1993), so this course of action is certainly within its jurisdiction.

“We’re not proponents of the government stepping in and handling industry affairs. But, sometimes it’s necessary for a regulatory body like NCIMS to step in, act as referee, and send a message on behalf of the citizens it represents. This is particularly important when dealing with international trading issues. Most of the milk-producing countries of the world have far tougher somatic cell count standards than we do.

“The bureaucrats have passed on the issue, so now it’s up to the private sector to promote higher milk-quality standards.”

Nothing has changed since 1999. And, you can actually go back further than that when National Mastitis Council began petitioning for a stricter SCC standard.

It’s kind of scary.

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Idaho  |  June, 08, 2011 at 03:29 PM

If the standard is 750,000 SCC you don't need to waste your money on milk inspectors either. It is appaling that the industry does not take matters into it's own hands and leave milk over 400,000 on the farm where it was produced....they could feed it to pigs....but the pork industry probably has higher standards.

NY  |  June, 08, 2011 at 07:03 PM

I like that comment. Well said.

Greg Palen    
Ovid, MI  |  June, 08, 2011 at 03:38 PM

Many cooperatives have in place bonus premiums for low SCC milk. The benchmark is usually set around or below 400,000 scc as the "zero" point-- milk above that level gets a penalty deduct, milk below that level gets a bonus that gets better as scc gets lower. Given too many cooperatives pay larger producers "volume" premiums-- something that is impossible to recover from the wholesale market-- the penalty/bonus scales for SCC were a way to level playing fields for those thousands of small to moderate size producers subsidizing the volume pricing expansion herds were receiving. The sentiment toward lowering the legal limit on SCC would be more positive if most producers did not see it as a way to eliminate bonus payments for lower SCC-- which may have been cutting into the volume prices. Having two income redistribution programs that are not recoverable from the market is probably too big a burden to place on generally mediocre milk cooperative financial pictures. Southern climate dairymen struggle the most with a lowered SCC limit. Some research into what it takes to moderate their SCC issues might make the lower legal standard a more palatable reality in the future.

Philip Lewis    
Salem, NY  |  June, 08, 2011 at 04:18 PM

100,000 SCC is considered a base for an uninfected herd. 200,000 SCC indicates some mastitis present. Some states allow as much as 1,000,000 SCC before deeming milk unfit for human consumption. Would any of us suggest drinking milk that we know came from a cow with a bacterial infection? At some point, the SCC "problem" may become better known by the public ... it could be a nasty issue for the dairy industry.

Nate Wilson    
Sinclairville, N.Y.  |  June, 08, 2011 at 05:01 PM

The limit at 750,000 is a disgrace! If anyone cannot get their SCC under 400,000 they should exit the business. All that is necessary to get a SCC under 400,000 is honest effort. If cows are managed; (kept clean, bedded, subject to twice-yearly mastitis exams, dry-treated, washed and pre-dipped, milked with clean equipment and post-dipped with an effective teat dip ) there is no logical reason why a herd can't be kept at 150,000 or less. In the last years of my active dairying we did this consisently and I never thought we were making any extraordinary effort. It all comes down to is having the will to do it and the integrity to think it necessary! Phil Lewis is right: this is an issue that could easily bite the industry on the ass. Congress is looking at making 400,000 manditory; NCIMS would have been smart to have gotten out front. Truly an opportunity lost!

mars  |  June, 08, 2011 at 05:03 PM

if FFTF is passed then milk quality will take another hit... producers will be more worried about loosing base then they will be about losing a few pennies to low quality.

ky  |  June, 08, 2011 at 09:36 PM

If farm A milks 100 cows and has a scc of 200,000 & Farm B milks 200 cows and also has a scc score of 200,000 who has the better quality milk ? leaving it up to washington fix the problem is worse than a high scc score!

Nate Wilson    
Sinclairville, N.Y.  |  June, 09, 2011 at 09:22 AM

Ron, Poor simple country boy that I am, I have to confess ignorance in trying to see your point. If all other factors are equal Farms' A&B would be equal in milk quality. A SCC of 200,000 is just that: 200,000! For the life of me, I can't see why the number of cows contributing to the SCC would have any bearing on the count itself. Please advise...

Roger Natzke    
Florida  |  June, 13, 2011 at 03:27 PM

Beware of what you ask for- you might get it. I think we can all agree that there are no health differences in drinking milk with 500,000 vs 400,000 cells. Also the role of the FDA is to regulate products to insure healthy products. The big push to lower the cell count limit is to meet the European market demand. So then we should be able to agree that it is a marketing issue. There are special markets for "Select", "Premium","Select" products, are we going to ask the FDA to deny access to the market to those products that do not meet those elite grades? The industry MUST reduce the cell count in milk to meet consumer demand. KEEP THE FEDERAL GOV. out of our marketing issues. Case in point. Several years ago the NMC petitioned FDA to regulate teat dips to insure that only those dips that stood up to FDA testing could be marketed. FDA stalled and after a year or so we, as NMC members, came to the realization that no company was going to submit applications for newe teat dips. It would have cost more to get the product approved than the projected profits. The petition was quickly withdrawn. We would have been left with no new products. Beware of what you ask for- do you want the Federal Govt regulating your marketing?

Roger Natzke    
Florida  |  June, 14, 2011 at 01:52 PM

Beware of what you ask for: you might get it. Lowering the cell count limit. Most of us can agree that there is no known human health related issue from drinking milk with 500,00 vs. 400,000 cells per ml and that the role of the FDA is to insure safe products. The major impetus for lowering the cell count to 400,000 is because the European market is demanding it. Thus it becomes a marketing concern -not a public safety issue. Many consumers demand products that are labeled “Supreme”, “Select”, “Prime,” “Choice,” etc. In spite of the availability superior graded products the Federal Government does not prevent lower graded products from entering the food chain. Lets be very clear the DAIRY Industry MUST lower the somatic cell count to 400,000 or less because the market demands it. That is a marketing issue – we don’t need the FDA involved in our marketing issues. As an aside we as members of the NMC should be reminded of a very embarrassing situation where we petitioned the FDA to force companies to demonstrate efficacy of teat dips. Sounded like the thing to do to protect the industry. Luckily before the FDA could act we came to the realization that such an action would probably resulted in companies being unwilling to develop new dips. The petition was withdrawn before the FDA could take action. Are there similarities to the current request? Do we really want the Federal Government involved in this milk marketing issue?

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