Sunday, October 2, 2016

Somatic Cell Count - Should the U.S. Accept the International Standard?

In the prior post this blog, free trade agreements were discussed.  In that post, there was a link to an article on free trade agreements published in Progressive Dairyman by this author.  Free trade agreements are in the headlines and gaining attention.  Over time, dairy is becoming an international business.  As mentioned in the prior post, one of the issues facing the U.S. dairy exporting efforts is the limit on Somatic Cell Count (SCC).  There is a major difference between the U.S. and the other major dairy exporters that can and does inhibit exports.  SCC levels are based on dead white blood cells that are fighting infection.  A high SCC is typically from mastitis, an infection of the mammary gland.  This post will examine the difference between the U.S. maximum limit on SCC vs. the maximum SCC limit of other major dairy exporters.

In simplistic terms, the maximum allowed SCC for Class A milk in the U.S. is 750,000 cells per milliliter.  The European maximum is 400,000 cells per milliliter.  The European maximum of 400,000 has been adopted by the other major dairy exporting countries and has become the de facto global standard.  SCC is one of the major analytical parameters for measuring milk quality.  In a comparison of the two parameters, U.S. milk would appear to be a lower quality milk.   In European markets, dairy products produced by the U.S. cannot be imported.  In other parts of the world, the high U.S. standard becomes a marketing disadvantage.  One of the comments received from a UK producer and reader of the prior post stated, "SCC in the U.S. looks ridiculously high."

The maximum SCC of 750,000 is set by the U.S. Public Health Service/FDA.  It is the required standard for Grade A milk.  One of the arguments for the acceptability of the high standard is that there is no health risk with a high SCC.  This standard applies to all milk produced in the U.S.

In the U.S., there are grocery chains that are contractually requiring milk to be well below the 750,000 cells per milliliter.  The four Federal Orders in the middle of the U.S. pay a premium for SCCs below 350,000 cell per milliliter and charge a penalty for anything above 350,000.  The Michigan Milk Producers Association has an additional bonus for milk with for SCCs below 250,000.  Some dairy processors that export U.S. dairy products require that the milk meet the European standard for SCC.  There are many more cases where a lower SCC is required or there are financial incentives for a lower SCC.  Freshness, shelf life, taste, cheese yield, and cow productivity  are some of the advantages cited for milk with a lower SCC.

There are significant differences in the calculation and method of enforcement between the European and U.S. standards.  One difference is the sampling period and parameters for compliance to the maximum allowed SCC.  In the U.S., bulk tank samples are evaluated monthly and if above 750,000 for three of the last five months, the milk will lose it's Grade A rating.  When two of the last four are above 750,000, the producer is given a warning that if one more sample is above 750,000, the herd will lose it's Grade A rating.  In the European system, a three-month geometric average is always used.  If a producer averages above 400,000, they are placed on notice, but have three more months to get the rolling SCC geometric average below 400,000.

The U.S. uses individual monthly samples while the EU system uses a three-month geometric average.  What is a geometric average?  The geometric average is typically lower than an arithmetic average.  For a detailed explanation of this mathematical difference and more detail on SCC, see my recent article in Progressive Dairyman.

The EU system does make it easier to meet their upper limit.  A three month average minimizes the impact of a short time flare-up in SCC.  The geometric average provides a lower value than a straight arithmetic average.  The period for correction in the EU system allows three months after notice of noncompliance is given, where the U.S. require an improvement in the month following notice.

Dairy is becoming a global business.  The U.S. dairy business already requires significant export volumes to prevent inventory buildup and resulting low prices.  Therefore, the U.S. dairy industry must learn to comply with international standards.  One option is to have two different standards; one for domestic milk and one for export milk with the export milk having a higher quality.  This is probably not an acceptable situation.  Accepting the international standard and three month geometric averages would require a significant change for some dairy producers.  However, it seems to be the only reasonable alternative.  A phase-in process would probably be required to allow producers with high SCCs to improve their management processes.

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