Nearly 93 percent of the milk in the U.S. is below 400,000 somatic cell count (SCC), but none of our international trading partners see that. They see 750,000.

In April, the regulatory body that sets the SCC standard passed on a chance to change the legal limit from 750,000 to 400,000 cells/mL.

The National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments decision probably won’t amount to much here in the U.S., since the dairy industry has already set higher standards for itself. But it could affect international markets.

Quality has improved
“Lower somatic cells are equated to higher quality,” says Jamie Jonker, vice-president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the National Milk Producers Federation.

Every dairy producer knows that and most of them have taken steps to improve their milk quality.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture report, “Determining U.S. Milk Quality Using Bulk-tank Somatic Cell Counts, 2011,” 92.7 percent of milk produced in the U.S. is below 400,000 cells/mL. If consumers want more quality, they’ll find it in U.S. milk with 47.7 percent being at less than 200,000 cells/mL.

The report was released September 2012 and covers the entire year of 2011. A new report for 2012 will come out this September and is likely to show further improvements.

States at the plate
Besides initiatives at the producer and co-op level, several states have been proactive in moving their SCC towards 400,000 while, in turn, supplying the quality that milk buyers want.

Idaho and Washington have already moved the SCC limit to 400,000 for their herds in the past year. Nearby Oregon is trending in that direction with its standard moving to 500,000 last May.

Bob Naerebout, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, was a part of his state’s move towards producing higher-quality milk. He even went before the Idaho State Legislature for approval of the rule.

He said it helped Idaho that their standard was already set at 500,000 in 2010, so the shift to 400,000 was not too drastic for producers.

The move for Idaho was made out of necessity to meet customers’ demands both domestically and internationally.

“Idaho does export the vast majority of what we produce in dairy and finished products, if not in the U.S. then on the international market,” says Naerebout.

Naerebout believes it is important for the national limit be moved and he is optimistic that will happen within the next few years.

Export challenge
“The U.S. is now a major exporting country for dairy products and the world has essentially settled on 400,000 as the appropriate regulatory threshold for somatic cell counts in milk,” states Jonker. “And so, the U.S. is now an outlier  in the global marketplace.”

Having SCC at the present national level of 750,000 has presented problems when it comes time to market milk.

International competitors have sometimes pointed out to buyers that U.S. SCC standards aren’t as tight as those of other suppliers, just to gain a competitive advantage, adds Alan Levitt, vice-president of communications for the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

With the SCC at current standards it presents a headache for producers and cooperatives that plan to export any of their products.

According to Jonker, it becomes more complicated and resource-intensive to obtain certification through the USDA, so that dairymen can meet the required attestations on export certificates for milk meeting the 400,000 limit.

It is short-sighted not to meet your potential customers’ requirements of 400,000, Naerebout says. “It’s important for us to recognize that we’re an international market, so you have to go to what the customers in that international market want.”

Positive statement needed
The National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments (NCIMS) has rejected a 400,000 standard eight times since 1997. It won’t be until 2015 that NCIMS takes up the issue again, since the group only meets every other year.

It is important to remember that NCIMS is charged with protecting the safety of Grade A milk and other dairy products, so milk safety has been its main focus — not somatic cell count which is a milk-quality issue.

Still, many in the industry would like to make a positive statement.

“What we need is that national standard to tell the rest of the world that we are serious about being an important member in the international arena for dairy products,” says Jonker.

Readers comment
The following comments came from an online piece written in April by editor Tom Quaife about the NCIMS ruling entitled, “Another missed opportunity to improve milk quality.”

Mike from the Southeast stated, “I don’t think the politicians punted, I think they made a good choice. Why not let the market dictate what the quality of milk is? Huge improvements have been made in the Southeast because customers demanded it, not because we increased regulation. Not everything that is positive for one region is positive for another region. I applaud this decision.”

Patrick in Wisconsin says, “I agree that the SCC should be under 400,000. But in the smaller herds a single cow can, and often does wreak total havoc on quality. A farm could be producing high quality milk and then suddenly everything is out of control. Talk of letting the markets decide whether or not the quality should improve is a good thing to hear. The  processor is the one who answers first to customer demands. Eventually those demands must be met by the producer. Foreign markets are a fact of life in this economy. We have to adapt.”

Matt Jewart replied, “Land O’Lakes has already lowered their levels. Maryland and Virginia are following as are many others. Privately we are meeting the needs of exports. Those dairies that think they can’t lower their SCC need to start figuring