To give consumers a better taste experience, one milk cooperative in Florida is doing its part to reduce somatic cell counts and bacteria counts on the front end.

Premier Milk Inc. (PMI) offers premiums to its members with somatic cell counts below 300,000 cells/ml and preliminary incubation counts for bacteria below 40,000 cfu/ml. Penalties are assessed when somatic cells and preliminary incubation counts exceed 400,000 and 50,000, respectively.

“We have one small fluid processor in Florida who insists that only milk from Premier Milk comes into his plant,” says Tom Pittman, general manager at PMI. “This processor went as far as to select only certain PMI farms that could come into his plant.”

That processor knows a thing or two.

It’s something the rest of the industry needs to grasp, as well, as it searches for ways to reverse the decline in fluid milk consumption. Yes, processors have a role. And, so do the promotion people in positioning milk as healthy and good-tasting. But dairy producers must bring high-quality raw milk into the system. 

It all starts with low somatic cell and bacteria counts.

Strive for the best-tasting milk

Does somatic cell count have any impact on the way milk tastes?

The most definitive research took place more than 10 years ago at Cornell University. Researchers found that sensory defects, such as rancid or harsh taste, did show up in milk with high somatic cell counts, but only after the milk had been sitting around for a while. The exact time milk began to lose quality and develop flavor defects was not determined — it could have happened anywhere between days 14 and 21 post-pasteurization.

Again, this was milk with extremely high somatic cell counts, averaging 849,000 cells/ml. Since the legal limit for somatic cell count in this country is 750,000 cells/ml., it is unlikely that a consumer will ever get a hold of milk that bad. A leading researcher, Kathryn Boor, who now serves as dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, says she would expect the impact of somatic cell counts to be relatively minimal at the levels normally found in milk.

Likewise, it takes many days for bacteria — specifically, the enzymes produced by bacteria — to break down fat and protein in the milk and create spoilage.

So, what’s to be gained from having milk with low somatic cell counts and bacteria counts?  

“True, flavor defects often show up later in shelf life, but the goal is to make sure milk tastes good even if stored for more than 14 days,” says Martin Wiedmann, director the Milk Quality Improvement Program at Cornell University. “This is important, as many consumers want milk to taste as well on day 17 as on day 1,” he adds. Certainly, consumers have come to expect that kind of consistent quality from other beverages, such as soft drinks.

Watch out for spore-formers

Some bacteria can survive pasteurization and limit the shelf-life of milk. They are the so-called “spore-formers.” With a coat of armor around them, they can survive multiple stresses, including broad ranges in pH and temperature.

The spore-formers are also known as Paenibacillus spp.

These bacteria can enter the milk at several points along the way, including the farm, the tanker truck and the processing plant.

Beginning this month, the Milk Quality Improvement Program at Cornell University, with funding from the New York State Dairy Promotion Board, will try to identify farm practices that can be used to reduce the occurrence of spore-forming bacteria in raw milk.

“This research will allow production of milk with less spore-formers, which will yield fluid-milk products that have increased shelf life,” Wiedmann says.

Again, the goal is to improve consistency and quality for consumers.

“This will help with distribution of good and fresh-tasting milk to consumers who cannot or will not be able to buy fresh milk every couple of days and will facilitate milk distribution through certain channels (such as vending machines),” Wiedmann says. “Ultimately, this project will help make fresh-tasting milk available to more consumers.”

Keep consumers in mind

The benefit from higher-quality milk doesn’t just accrue to fluid milk; it accrues to cheese as well. Milk with lower somatic cell counts is simply more efficient at making cheese, providing manufacturers with higher yields and less waste.

In recognition of these various benefits, the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) has come out in support of a stricter somatic cell count standard in the United States. In October, the NMPF delegate body called on the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments to toughen the standard from 750,000 cells/ml to 600,000 by Jan. 1, 2012, and then continue the improvement to 400,000 cells/ml by the start of 2014.

It is “an opportunity to improve the quality of the products we produce for the consuming public,” says Jamie Jonker, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at NMPF.

While most fluid milk is OK, without any obvious taste defects from somatic cells or bacteria, there is always the chance of someone picking up a carton that has been sitting in a refrigerator a day or two too long. 

“The last thing the dairy industry needs are consumers drinking sour milk that has not made it to the code date on the package,” says Premier Milk’s Tom Pittman. “That type of experience could turn consumers off and hurt fluid consumption. We need to have packaged milk that will last at least five days past the code date on the package,” he adds.

Declining milk consumption: It’s getting urgent

Milk consumption, as measured by per-capita fluid milk sales, has declined almost every year since 1970. 

Bottled water has exceeded milk in this regard. The average American now drinks more than 28 gallons of bottled water annually, compared to 20.6 gallons of milk.

And, look how dramatically things have changed. In 1976, bottle water consumption was just 1.6 gallons per person. About that same time, the average American drank approximately 28 gallons of milk.