Washington, D.C. — After U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand took action to improve milk quality and bolster international exports, National Milk, which represents a majority of milk producers, stepped up to the plate this past week and developed a plan to limit somatic cell counts (SCC) to 400,000 over the next three years. Earlier this fall, Senator Gillibrand urged the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to lower the SCC to improve quality and increase exports. Somatic cells are not a health risk, but they are an indirect measure of overall animal health and milk quality. By raising the SCC, American milk producers will be able to retain a competitive edge abroad, where many producers already demand milk at lower SCC levels.
“This is a great first step to improving milk quality and preserving our export markets,” said Senator Gillibrand. “New York dairy is already a national leader of milk quality and already consistently meets these standards. I am pleased National Milk has recognized the importance of this issue and has come to the table to lower the SCC.”
In July, the European Union (EU) expressed concerns about accepting dairy exports from the U.S. unless they adopt a national standard somatic cell count of 400,000 cells/milliliter or less. The EU is a major market for U.S. cheese and whey products and New York dairy is a national leader of milk quality that would easily meet these standards.
In response, Senator Gillibrand introduced legislation in August that that would lower the legal somatic cell count (SCC) in fluid milk from 750,000 cells/milliliter to 400,000 cells/milliliter. This legislation would also change the method of calculation to update U.S. milk quality standards and bring them in line with those of U.S. major dairy trading partners and competitors, including Canada, the EU, and New Zealand. In September, Senator Gillibrand called on the FDA to make an emergency rule change to preserve this export market for U.S. dairy farmers.
Lowering the SCC legal limit will have potential benefits for both producers and consumers. Milk with low SCC has a longer shelf life, better taste, and greater cheese yield. Studies have shown that for every doubling of somatic cell counts in a herd, milk production drops by 400 pounds per cow per lactation. Many cooperatives already provide incentives for farmers to produce milk under the legal SCC limit, and for the last 7 years the national average SCC count has declined. In 2008, the average SCC in the U.S. was 262,000 cells/ml, which is far below the legal limit of 750,000 cells/ml.
An elevated SCC could be indicative of poor hygiene practices, improper sanitation, and/or mammary infection. All dairy herds participating in DHI testing receive monthly SCC counts for each individual cow as well as daily bulk tank counts and monthly averages for the farm as a whole, enabling farmers to cull chronically ill animals and pinpoint the exact cause of elevated SCC counts.