Sooner or later, the other nations of the world will require the U.S. to meet their milk-quality standards.

Starting Oct. 1, dairy processors who ship products to Europe will have to prove that each of the farms that supply milk for those products has a somatic cell count below 400,000 cells/ml. Previously, the processor could co-mingle milk from different farms so the net result was a cell count below 400,000, but now each and every farm will have to comply.

It will make things more difficult for processors, and the processors will be put in a position to exert downward pressure on their suppliers.

To comply with the new regulations, each farm’s milk will need to be individually tested, and each plant wishing to continue to issue EU certificates for its products will need to ensure that it is monitoring these results, says Shawna Morris, vice president of trade policy at the National Milk Producers Federation.

In the U.S., the official regulatory limit for somatic cell count remains at 750,000. But the new EU regulations could effectively lower that to 400,000 in the foreseeable future.

Both sides of debate

There has been some debate whether to change the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance, governing food safety, to reflect a lower somatic cell count. Opponents say the PMO should not be changed because there is no human-health risk associated with the current federal standard of 750,000 cells/ml — and, after all, milk safety is what the PMO is meant to enforce, not milk quality. (California has a more-stringent standard at 600,000 cells/ml.)

“While lower somatic cells are indicative of higher-quality milk, there is no public-health significance to lowering the levels from the current level of 750,000 cells/ml,” Robert Byrne, former director of regulatory affairs at the National Milk Producers Federation, told a National Mastitis Council audience in 2001. “What we are really talking about here is a safety-versus-quality issue,” he said.

When asked if this still reflects the National Milk Producers Federation’s position, a spokesman said, “We are not seeking a lower regulatory limit to the SCC count… so nothing has changed.”

Somatic cells are not a health risk, per se.  But they are an indirect measure.  A herd with an extremely high SCC obviously has a mastitis problem on its hands, and may be at increased risk for antibiotic violations or have a high bacterial count. Hygienic conditions tend to be worse on farms with high SCCs than farms with lower counts.

And, a higher regulatory limit also puts the United States at odds with other dairy-exporting countries. Most of the world recognizes a limit of 400,000 cells/ml.

In 2005, at another meeting of the National Mastitis Council, Walther Heeschen, professor at the Kiel Institute, a food-research center in Germany, pointed out that more than 99 percent of the milk produced in that country is below a somatic cell count of 400,000.

Herds in the United States are capable of doing the same.  During 2009, somatic cell count in Dairy Herd Improvement herds enrolled in SCC-testing averaged 233,000 cells/ml. 

Farms that enroll in DHI testing tend to be the better-managed herds. But an even more comprehensive set of numbers puts the U.S. somatic cell count average in pretty much the same ballpark. Using bulk-tank somatic cell count data from four of the nation’s 10 Federal Milk Marketing Orders — Central, Mideast, Southwest and Upper Midwest — the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service reports that bulk-tank somatic cell count averaged 245,000 cells/ml  in 2008, the latest year for which data are available.

The somatic cell count average has dropped rather dramatically over the past several years, going from 283,000 in 2003 to 245,000 in the latest study. 

Most U.S. producers are under 400,000 cells ml, as these studies indicate. The National Animal Health Monitoring System Dairy 2007 study, also run by the USDA and APHIS, shows that nearly 90 percent of U.S. dairies are below 400,000 cells/ml in terms of bulk-tank somatic cell count average. 

Movement already under way

Recently, Hilmar Cheese Co, with large cheese plants in California and Texas, lowered its maximum SCC to 400,000. Dairies that supply Hilmar Cheese with milk may be terminated if they have average SCC counts above that point.

In making its announcement, Hilmar cited the recent decision by the European Union, requiring a maximum of 400,000 per dairy rather than what the processing plant is able to co-mingle in a load. 

“This change is significant because every dairy’s rolling three-month SCC average must now be less than 400,000 or all Hilmar Cheese Company products destined for the EU — either directly or as an ingredient in a final product — will be denied,” the company stated.

Other companies will have to examine their policies, as well, in light of the EU action.

It’s ironic that much of the impetus for the lower somatic cell counts is coming externally from Europe than internally from within the United States.

Yet, many U.S. producers wholeheartedly agree with the shift. 

Recently, in testimony before a U.S. House of Representatives agriculture panel, Pennsylvania dairy producer Rod Hissong had this to say: 

“Personally, I believe that lowering of the somatic cell  limit to 400,000 is a win-win for everyone, including farmers, processors and the consumer. It aligns us with international standards of milk quality, eliminates the lower-quality milk from the market and is a positive move for our industry. International markets demand it and it is time we deliver,” he said.

Maybe one of these times, the door will open

For nearly 20 years, the National Mastitis Council (now known as NMC) has repeatedly asked the regulatory agency in charge of somatic cell counts to improve the quality standard.

According to a review of NMC archives, including the newsletter “Udder Topics,” there have been six attempts since 1991 to lower the legal limit. Only one of those attempts was successful.  In 1991, the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments lowered it from 1 million to 750,000. Then, beginning in the late 1990s, NMC proposed reducing the limit five more times — in 1997, 1999, 2001, 2003 and 2005 — but to no avail.