American milk quality may be improving, as U.S. dairies get ready to comply with tighter European standards for somatic cell counts (SCC).

Somatic cells are white blood cells and their number increase in response to pathogenic bacteria such as the mastitis-causing Staphylococcus aureus.  A healthy cow will have about 50,000 Somatic cells per milliliter of milk, but the number can range from 5,000 to 200,000 in a normal, healthy cow.

For 17-years, dairy producers in the U.S. have lived with a limit of 750,000 Somatic cells per milliliter of milk, using a three-month geometric mean.  Now to sell milk in the European Union, which for the past decade has imposed a 400,000 limit on its domestic producers, American dairies will have to comply with the EU.

About 10 percent of the EU market is supplied by American milk.

While the date for U.S. producers’ compliance with the EU standard has been a moving target, the new requirement is now set to take effect Dec. 1.  The lower SCC standard will apply to all U.S. milk exports to the EU, from fluids to cheeses.

While exporting U.S. dairies will have to demonstrate they are meeting the EU standard, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is also coming under political pressure to change the standard for milk sold for domestic markets as well.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, wants FDA to use its emergency rule-making power to set the U.S. standard at 400,000 SCC.   She says the lower the white cell count, the higher the milk’s quality, taste, shelf life, and cheese yield.

American dairies that depend upon the EU market have been getting ready to meet the European standard.  FDA has been working with the EU on the new implementation program that will be used once the new certification system is in place.

The 750,000/ml limit is a provision of the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO), which says the limit must be achieved for Class A farm bulk milk.  Lower cell counts can fetch higher prices from milk buyers in the U.S.

Since the EU imposed its tougher standard, the U.S.-based National Conference of Interstate Milk Shippers (NCIMS) has resisted going along.  NCIMS includes producers, scientists, regulators and processors in its membership.

Export to the EU market will have to maintain a three-month geometric mean of 400,000 SCC or below.  Enforcement is expected to come at the co-op or dairy level, not farm-by-farm.  If the EU standards are not met, export certificates will be denied.

  • Doc Mudd

    An enforced upper limit of 400,000 makes perfect sense, especially if it opens export markets to U.S. producers. Turns out America’s professional dairymen have met this standard for many years and should welcome the new rules.
    A quick Google search found the following site:
    Interesting to note a declining average cell count each year (steady progress) and a trend to healthier cows in larger herds: “As herd size increased, average daily milk production generally increased and average SCC generally decreased. The percentage of test days with SCC more than 750,000 in herds with fewer than 50 cows was 5.0%. This compares to 1.4% for herds with 50 – 99 cows; 0.7% for herds with 100 – 149 cows; and only 0.3% in herds with 150 or more cows.”
    Hmmm…One can forecast a backlash from the small farm cult against milk quality rule changes, just as they have railed against modernization of food safety regulations with pending legislation such as S.510. There will be some vocal “small producers” who can’t meet the quality/safety threshold who will be “put out of business” by market demand for acceptable quality product. I predict they will deny reality and loudly insist their inferior product is fine just as it is.

  • Maxine

    You sound like a commercial milk producer, eh? I rather know the name of the person who pumped my milk than which farm number said cow came from. At the end of the day it’s all propaganda.

  • LetsTalkReality

    Really Maxine? You’d rather buy your milk from “Fred” that owns three cows because he’s local and you know his name? Where you’ve no idea about the quality of milk he’s giving you but you’ll believe every word of his? How long ago he milked it? How long it was sitting out after milking? If the bottle he put it in isn’t sterile? If that bottle was previously used for something else and wasn’t washed? If the cow is sick with Mycobacterium subsp. paratuberculosis, an organism that CAN’T always be killed by pasteurization, and has a potential (yet arguable) link to Chrons disease?
    Propaganda or not, but at least you can validate the safety of commercial milk and what you’re drinking. If you don’t like the animal abuse involved in commercial milk, do what I did – switch to soy milk. Or try organic.