Nature's most perfect food continues to fight an uphill battle among the people who produce and regulate it.
At issue is milk quality. The industry uses a measurement called the somatic cell count to determine if milk is clean and of the highest quality. High SCCs occur when a cow is sick with an inflammation of the udder called mastitis.
Over the decades, those who oversee U.S. milk shipping have lowered the SCC number as science has proven that higher quality milk makes for better dairy products. Delegates who attend The National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments, which meets every other year, vote on various issues pertaining to milk quality and the SCC is one of them. Up until the early 1980s, the maximum SCC limit for milk was 1.5 million cells per ml. If a farm's SCC was higher than that, its milk price would be docked and the milk would not be used in Grade A milk products. In 1983, NCIMC delegates voted to lower the SCC limit to 1 million by 1986. And in 1991, after a lot of debate, they agreed to lower it to 750,000 by 1993. As the biennial conference have come and gone, some milk quality experts have tried to get delegates to lower SCC further, to 600,000 or 400,000, but to no avail. Those proposals have been defeated in committee before they even saw light of day. And there is no mention of them in a document entitled, "The History and Accomplishments of the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments," which provides some selected information from the mid-1940s to 2009.
Meanwhile, the EU dairy industry has continued to push its dairy farmers in the quest for higher quality milk. A decade ago, it rolled the SCC limit down to 400,000 cells/ml. The EU also imposed this limit on any dairy imports. The move caused a stir in the U.S., as some were concerned about the impacts on U.S. dairy exports.
Fast forward to a month ago. The NCIMS met again and heard arguments once more for a proposal to lower the U.S. SCC to 400,000. And once again, delegates—consisting of state public health and agriculture department officials—turned it down. Under that proposal, farmers would have had until 2015 to get consistent milk quality to that level.
Those who argue against lowering SCC offer a couple of reasons. One is that the NCIMS oversees regulations that milk safety, not milk quality. And two, some argue that the market and consumers should say if they want stricter milk quality controls.
When it comes to milk quality and consumers, we know they have already "spoken." Witness the declining fluid milk sales over the past four decades and the proliferation of beverages--soda pop, bottled water, caffeine drinks and sports/nutrition drinks—that consumers buy. They want choice, they want variety and they want taste.
Milk processors have refused to change packaging, conduct research or offer different types of milk. That's why dairy farmers voted on checkoff funds and national, regional and state dairy research and promotion groups.
It has taken the dairy industry decades to get off center and to package milk in convenient ways for consumers. Those individual easy-to-open bottles (especially when served ice cold) are preferred by students in schools everywhere.
And now some still want to quibble about improving milk quality.