Delegates to the biannual National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments (NCIMS) once again defeated a proposal to reduce the Grade A somatic cell count (SCC) limit from the current 750,000 cells per milliliter of milk to 400,000. That was unfortunate because NCIMS may represent the only national dairy organization that believes the current 750,000 SCC limit serves the best interest of our industry and its consumers.

As chief adviser to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), NCIMS originally set out to ensure uniform standards so Grade A beverage milk could flow freely between major U.S. markets. It was a tall order because Grade A milk only accounted for 59 percent of the nation's production in 1950 . . . and nearly all of it went for bottling. The industry has evolved as Grade A milk now garners a 99 percent market share with roughly one-third being poured into containers. As this market evolution took place, half of the states no longer produce enough milk to even meet their own fluid milk needs. That's not all.

We now operate in a global dairy marketplace which wasn't the case in 1950 or even in 1997 when NCIMS delegates cast their first votes against lowering the limit to 400,000. At that first tally, we only exported 3 percent of our production. Now 13 percent leaves our shores.

While SCCs have improved from 314,000 to 200,000 based on DHIA averages over the past 16 years, it isn't enough. Presently, 12 percent of DHI herds still do not meet the 400,000 SCC international standard. That puts us at a quality disadvantage as our leading competitors - New Zealand and the European Union - have implemented stricter 400,000 SCC guidelines.

Many of the NCIMS delegates who voted against the phased-in SCC reduction will point out they are charged with ensuring safety, not quality. While that is the organization's stated purpose, NCIMS delegates cast three affirmative votes on SCC standards at previous conferences. The first action took place in 1967 when they created the initial 1.5 million SCC standard. In 1983, ballots were cast to implement a 1 million SCC minimum followed by the current 750,000 limit 10 years later.

NCIMS once played a leadership role in improving milk quality; however, it has repeatedly passed on reaffirming its commitment since 1997. As the super majority of our industry has galvanized behind enhanced milk quality standards, it appears alternative avenues such as legislation may be needed to implement the 400,000 SCC quality standard and finally clear this hurdle.

This article appears on page 374 of the May 25, 2013 issue of Hoard's Dairyman.