The proposal to lower the U.S. somatic cell count regulatory level was rejected by a one-vote margin at the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments (NCIMS) this week.

Conference delegates voted 26 to 25 prior to the conclusion of the biennial meeting in Baltimore, Md., not to lower the U.S. Grade A standard to 400,000 cells per ml starting in 2014. Therefore, the current SCC regulatory limit of 750,000 cells per ml remains in effect.

“Since it’s been nearly 20 years since the current standard was established, we believed it was time to make changes that improve the nation’s milk supply,” says Jamie Jonker, NMPF vice president of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs. “It’s regrettable that this approach isn’t the one taken by NCIMS. However, we’re confident that the trend towards lower Somatic Cell Counts will continue, regardless of the vote today.”

Jonker adds that legislation to reduce the somatic cell count (SCC) level has been introduced in Congress, and that international buyers are also looking at U.S. SCC levels with greater scrutiny. For example, the European Union already requires that individual farms meet the 400,000 cells per ml limit to quality for export certification.

Those pressures “may result in changes to SCC limits being forced by a process outside of the NCIMS, which would be unfortunate if it results in regulations that are not as workable for dairy farmers,” according to Jonker.

Anne Saeman, executive director for the National Mastitis Council (NMC), says the organization has a long tradition of supporting lowered SCC levels and is disappointed in the outcome.

Previous NMC SCC proposals were considered (and subsequently rejected by NCIMS) in 2005, 2003, 2001, and 1999.

The last time NCIMS took action to lower the SCC limit was at the 1991 Conference, when the voting delegates approved an amended NMC proposal which lowered the SCC from 1,000,000 to 750,000, effective July 1, 1993. The original proposal submitted by NMC was to lower the SCC from 1,000,000 to 500,000 over the course of three years.

Opponents maintain that SCC levels are not a human health issue, and because of that, should not be regulated under the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance. In addition, opponents argue, the standards will be difficult for small and southern dairy farms to maintain.

National SCC averages are in the range of 227,000, so the impact of this change would have been felt mainly by the roughly 11 percent of the milk supply that periodically exceeds a 400,000 cells per ml limit.