Delegates to the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments (NCIMS) again rejected a proposal to lower the federal somatic cell count level to 400,000 cells/ml. The current limit is 750,000.
The action was taken this week at the NCIMS meeting held in Portland, Ore. NCIMS, comprised of state health departments and the FDA, regulate the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO), which establishes rules for interstate shipment of Grade A milk. It meets once every two years to consider changes to the PMO.
The vote to lower the SCC limit was 18 for, 32 against. This is the 9th consecutive NCIMS that rejected lowering the cell count limit. The current 750,000 cells/ml limit was established in 1986 as an interim step to eventually lower it to 400,000 or 500,000 from its previous level of 1 million cell/ml level.
Lowering the limit was supported by the the International Dairy Foods Association. However, opponents continually cite the belief that high levels of somatic cell counts are not a human health issue.
“The major reason given by delegates for not passing this proposal is that SCCs at the current levels are not a human health issue,” says Pat Gorden, an Iowa State University veterinarian. He represents both the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Bovine Practitioners at NCIMS.
“Unless someone comes up some evidence that high somatic cell levels are a human health issue, I don’t see lowering the level passing,” Gorden says.
According to Dairy Herd Improvement Association data, the U.S. average somatic cell count is 200,000 cells/ml for herds which test for them. But last year, nearly 12% of DHI test day data were above 400,000 cell/ml. (Just 1.6% of test-day data were above 750,000 cell/ml.)
Cell count levels above 400,000 have become an international trade issue. In order for USDA to approve dairy export certificates, processors must now be able to prove dairy products they export come from farms with cell counts below 400,000.
USDA is able to issue “derogations” to individual farms above those levels to allow them to sell milk for export. But the farms must demonstrate they are working to improve milk quality and lowering cell count levels.
USDA granted 3,883 SCC derogations in 2014, down slightly from the 3,892 granted in 2013. Nevertheless, the numbers still suggest more than 8% of U.S. dairy farms are not meeting the 400,000 cell/ml standard.