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.