Food Safety from Dairy Cow to Milk Case

As a mom, I want to feed my kids safe food. Almost daily, I see an article in the news or on social media warning me to avoid a food for some reason or another. Milk seems to have more than its fair share of warnings, so I decided to go straight to the source to learn how milk is kept safe from dairy cow to milk case.

After visiting four different dairy farms across the state and talking to the farmers, I found out food safety is complex and a priority for all. 

Every dairy cow has its ear pierced and wears an ear tag with her unique identification number. Farmers keep records on each animal. These records tell if she has been sick and given antibiotics, which means her milk does not enter the human food chain.  

At one farm I visited, as the cows step on a carousel milker, which looks like a merry-go-round for cows, the ear tag is scanned and workers are notified if she is taking antibiotics. This farm, and every farm I have visited, uses leg bands to identify animals who are taking antibiotics. These bands, visible to workers when she walks into the milking parlor, identify the cows whose milk must be dumped. As a nursing mom, I have to pump and dairy cows are no different. They need to be milked, but that milk is tossed.  

Dairy cow with leg band
Bands on this dairy cow's back legs mean she is taking antibiotics.

Milk goes straight from the cow to a storage tank on the farm. Farmers take samples of the milk inside the tank to check for antibiotic reside. When the milk truck arrives at the farm, the truck driver takes multiple samples of the milk. If picking up from multiple farms, the driver takes samples at each farm.

When the truck gets to the processing plant, a sample is taken of the whole tank and tested. Milk is not unloaded from the truck until the sample is run. If there is a problem with the milk, the individual farm samples will be tested. The entire load of milk will be dumped away from the milk processing plant, so there is not risk it will accidentally get inside the plant.  

I visited a milk processing plant last year. The plant receives 27 tank trucks of milk per day, each holding 5,500 gallons of milk. I learned if a farmer milks one cow that has been treated with antibiotics and it gets into the tank, the tests are so sophisticated residue will be detected and the tank will fail. It is a federal requirement under the Food and Drug Administration that ALL milk be antibiotic-free. 

The farm where problem milk was picked up will be held liable for the entire truck of milk. One dairy producer told me if he sends antibiotic positive milk to the processing plant, he will be fined, have to dump the milk in the storage pond, and lose the income he would have received for the milk. One load could be worth $10,000. After one positive test, the producer is put on probation. If that producer sends a second load of problem milk, he stands to lose his milk contract, which means he would not have anywhere to sell his milk.

Smaller farmers who don’t milk enough cows to fill a truck will have their milk commingled with milk from other dairies. If their milk is tested positive for antibiotics, they will have to pay other farmers for the value of the milk they lost.  

As I learned on these visits, there are many steps in place to check residues to ensure the milk I buy is antibiotic-free. This may recieve the most media attention, but is only one part of maintaining food safety from dairy farm to milk case. I'll share what else I learned about milk safety during my farm visits in future posts.  

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