They punted. There is really no other way to describe what happened on May 4 when the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments turned down a proposal to improve the somatic cell standard for milk in the United States.

Now, it will be up to someone else — perhaps state regulators or a coalition of milk cooperatives — to step in and provide leadership when it comes to improving the SCC standard from the current level of 750,000 cells/ml to 400,000.

Just because the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments punted, it doesn’t mean the U.S. is obligated to the 750,000 limit forever.

Will someone catch the ball and run with it?Strong opinions
In a poll of readers immediately following the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments decision, which appeared in Dairy Herd Management’s Dairy Herd Network newsletter, approximately three-fourths of the 192 respondents (as of May 9) disagreed with the Conference’s decision. Twenty-six percent agreed with the decision.

Dairy business consultant Bob Milligan, of Minnesota, was one reader who offered a comment.

The question at the Conference meeting was whether somatic cell counts are a human-health issue, Milligan pointed out. Yet, there is no debate whether SCC is a quality issue, he added. “It is time for the industry, through producer cooperatives and pressure on proprietary handlers, to step up and set 400,000 as the quality standard,” he added.

Others pointed to the export market. A stricter SCC standard would have sent a positive message to international trading partners, they said.

“The U.S. dairy industry has just lost an opportunity to shore up our critical dairy product export market,” said a reader from Michigan. “Lowering the SCC maximum to 400,000 would have sent a strong message to our dairy export partners that the U.S. takes this market seriously,” he said.

What’s next?
Proponents of a 400,000-cell standard may try to bring the measure up for another vote. But it will have to wait two years, since the Conference doesn’t meet again until the spring of 2013.

Jamie Jonker, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the National Milk Producers Federation, points out that the measure failed by just one vote at the May 4 meeting. With such a narrow margin, the vote could flip the other way next time, he adds.

And, legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Senate to establish a 400,000-cell standard. Senate Bill 458, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), would make it illegal to sell milk that has a somatic cell count above that level.

“That’s a pretty harsh mechanism,” Jonker says of Gillibrand’s measure. Producers who violate the law would be subject to civil penalties. There wouldn’t be any warnings or grace periods.

The proposal that the National Milk Producers Federation and NMC (formerly the National Mastitis Council) backed this past May would have phased in stricter standards over the next three years, finally reaching 400,000 cells/ml by Jan. 1, 2014. Producers would receive warning letters if they exceeded the limit. Eventually, they would lose their Grade A milk license.

Some people wonder if the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration could step in and begin regulating a 400,000-cell standard. But, Jonker is skeptical. He says he is currently unaware of any mechanisms that USDA or FDA could use to make a 400,000-cell standard mandatory across the U.S. dairy industry.

Work with states
Another observer thinks the solution may lie at the state level.

K. Larry Smith, retired professor of dairy science at The Ohio State University, points out that quite a few states were willing to go along with a 400,000-cell standard at the May 4 meeting of the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments. So, perhaps those states could go ahead and enact stricter standards on their own. The states must have standards that are at least as strict as the federal standard — in this case, the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance governed by the National Conference. The PMO is a minimum standard; there’s nothing stopping the states from having stricter standards of their own. California already has a stricter standard at 500,000 cells/ml.

If additional states step up and adopt stricter standards, “that might be the impetus for the rest of the states to say ‘this is the future, this is the way to go,’” Smith says.

Smith says NMC could possibly lead this initiative. NMC might take a regional approach, working with a block of states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana. If two or three states did it, it might encourage other states to follow. “It might be somewhat self-perpetuating,” he says.