Any food safety hiccup could cause major disruptions to dairy export sales.
With more U.S. products shipped overseas, vulnerability increases
As the U.S. exports an ever-increasing share of its milk production, its vulnerability to trade disruption grows.
One need look no further than the Christmas discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in a Washington dairy cow back in 2003. U.S. beef exports crashed, and recovery took the past decade.
Tonya Schoenfuss, a dairy foods specialist with the University of Minnesota, says the U.S. dairy industry remains similarly vulnerable in at least three areas:
- Somatic cell counts (SCCs). The European Union (EU) has been requiring that dairy exports to member countries come from farms with SCCs below 400,000 cells/ml. The U.S. standard remains at 750,000 cells/ml, despite numerous efforts over the past decade and a half to lower the level to 400,000.
To meet the EU requirement, USDA has been granting "derogations" to individual farms who are not meeting the EU standard but demonstrate efforts to improve milk quality. In 2013, USDA issued more than 3,600 such derogations, says Ken Vorgert, chief of USDA’s Milk Safety Branch. That’s up from the approximate 3,000 derogations issued in 2012.
Though USDA does not collect milk volume data, it is widely believed the milk production of farms receiving derogations totals less than the 7% of farms it represents.
Nevertheless, the threat to trade comes from future possibilities that the EU or other trade partners could reject the derogation approach, Schoenfuss says.
- Antibiotics. While all U.S. milk is tested for beta-lactam antibiotics, other types of drugs are in use on farms. "The dairy beef situation tells us other things are probably in milk," Schoenfuss says.
EU regulations prohibit the use of tetracycline, streptomycin and even penicillin in milking animals. Russia, too, prohibits the use of tetracycline.
Schoenfuss recommends that dairy plants start routinely testing for these other drugs. The Charm Combo beta-lactam/tetracycline test, for example, is able to detect antibiotics at or below residue levels set by both the EU and the Russian Federation.
Routine testing of milk for these other drugs would assure importers and place producers on notice that residues won’t be tolerated.
- Spores. One of the most vexing problems might be dealing with pathogenic spore formers such as Bacillus cereus, Clostridium perfringens and Clostridium botulinum. These organisms are extremely heat resistant and are not destroyed by pasteurization.
"In feeding programs where milk has been reconstituted in food and held at incorrect temperatures, foodborne illness has occurred with Bacillus cereus," Schoenfuss says.
Last summer, spore formers were detected in New Zealand milk powder. It resulted in product recalls in China, the Middle East and southeast Asia. Russia and Sri Lanka even banned New Zealand dairy products for a time.
The problem with spore formers is that scientists have less than perfect understanding of where they originate or how to control them. It is known, however, that recycled manure solids and recycled sand used for bedding have higher spore counts, says Jeff Reneau, a University of Minnesota dairy veterinarian and milk quality specialist.
More research is needed to control spore formers at farms and dairy plants, say Schoenfuss and Reneau.
- February 2014