Delegates to the bi-annual National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments yesterday narrowly defeated a proposal to reduce the somatic cell count (SCC) legal limit from the current 750,000 cells per milliliter of milk to 400,000 by 2014. The NCIMS meets every other year to discuss points in the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO) which serves as the basis of inspections and quality control for dairy farms and dairy plants that handle Grade A milk. Action taken by NCIMS is advisory to the FDA which is responsible for inspections and milk safety.

The current upper legal limit of 750,000 has been in place since 1993. Under the PMO, milk from each dairy farm must be tested for SCC at least four times every six months. Most plants test every tank from every farm. If a farm has two samples out of four that are over the 750,000 limit, it receives a notice. If a farm has three samples out of five that are over the limit, it gets degraded and no longer can sell Grade A milk. Before 1993, the legal limit was 1 million cells. Before 1986, it was 1.5 million.

Many in the industry have thought that the SCC limit in the U.S. should be reduced to 400,000 to bring the U.S. regulations more in line with those from other countries, especially those countries that serve the growing global dairy product market. Recently, the U.S. has exported the equivalent of up to 12 percent of its milk production.

The issue came to a head, in part, because of stepped-up enforcement of the European Union's long-standing regulation that dairy products imported from the U.S. be from sources with SCCs below 400,000. This now was deemed to apply to each individual farm, not just the average of a group of farms.

Proposals to lower the SCC limit to 400,000 have been submitted by the National Mastitis Council several times. The proposals primarily have been rejected on the basis that SCCs/mastitis constituted an animal health issue, not a human health or milk safety issue. There was more support for lowering the SCC limit at this week's NCIMS meeting. USDA's Dairy Industry Advisory Committee recommended that a farm-level, Grade A SCC limit of 400,000 be implemented over a 48-month period or less.

Both National Milk Producers Federation and the National Mastitis Council submitted "400,000" proposals with full implementation by 2014. According to Anne Saeman, executive director of NMC, the NMC and MNPF proposals were similar enough that they both were revised slightly and submitted as one to improve chance of passage.

In the end, the proposal to lower the SCC legal limit for Grade A milk to 400,000 by 2014 was defeated by a vote of 26 to 25. NCIMS will not meet again for another two years. Undoubtedly, there will be attempts to change the SCC limit in the 2012 Farm Bill or through some other legislation. Too bad the issue couldn't have been dealt with through the NCIMS/FDA channels rather than become even more politicized!