In late 2010 or early 2011, any dairy processor exporting to the European Union (EU) will need to certify that each farm that supplies milk for those exports is below 400,000 somatic cell count (SCC).
In the past, processors were required to meet the 400,000 SCC level with commingled milk from multiple dairies, but not on an individual farm basis. Now, each farm that supplies milk must meet that level. Three consecutive months above 400,000 on a geometric mean basis will place a farm out of compliance.
The new rule will be extremely disruptive to milk processors, says a source with a national co-op. From 15% to 25% of milk volume will not be in compliance at certain times of the year in the Northeast and Midwest, the source says. The Midwest, with the largest number of small farms, will face the greatest challenge.
Even if processors segregate the higher-cell-count milk, process it separately and sell it domestically, its byproducts (cream from fluid, whey from cheese) will have to stay out of export streams.
The EU established the 400,000 SCC requirement in the late 1990s but allowed the U.S. to meet it with commingled milk in tankers and silos. The individual farm requirement was added several years ago, but it was only recently that EU trade representatives notified their U.S. counterparts that they would start enforcing the new requirement on July 1, 2010. After some negotiation, the deadline was pushed back to Oct. 1.
Dairy exports to the EU account for less than 5% of the value of total annual tonnage. "But looking at just trade data underestimates the problem,” says Shawna Morris, vice president of trade policy for the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and U.S. Dairy Export Council.
Nearly a third of the export certificates that USDA verifies for all EU food exports contain dairy ingredients, Morris says. And while dairy must make up more than 50% of a food product to be subject to the 400,000 SCC requirement, millions of export dollars are at stake.
"Most concerning for a dairy processor is the ability to trace back farm SCC data for products using multiple dairy ingredients,” says John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association.
"On one hand, a natural cheese may use fresh milk and concentrated or dried milk powder. Presumably, both sources may need to be traced [back to the farm]…. The task borders on impossible for storage dairy ingredients,” he says.
The SCC debate has been going on for years. The mastitis control group NMC proposed lowering the limit from 750,000 to 400,000 in the late 1990s. The proposal was rejected by the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments, though it had the tacit support of the Food and Drug Administration.
The proposal was made several more times, and every two years, NMPF and Dairy Farmers of America blocked passage. Their argument: A 400,000 SCC limit is not a human health issue. Now it's a trade issue.
How Southern dairies keep cell counts low:
"America''s Best?" looks at the milk-quality program of Cobblestone Milk Cooperative, with producers in Virginia and North Carolina.
In "Quality Milk Made Simple" (click on page 10), a Florida dairy producer debunks some SCC myths.
2009 Dairy Herd Improvement SCC data