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Which Brand of Milk Should I Drink?

There are many brands of milk on the market today ranging from our supermarket-labeled milk to local dairy milk to organically labeled milk.  Let’s investigate more closely the questions and steps consumers should take when buying dairy milk (from cows).

Which milk is best

1. Should I Buy Organic or Regular Milk?

This is probably the simplest way of choosing which route to take.  The consumer must decide whether the cost of organic milk is justified along with the benefits of buying organic versus regular.  There are many misconceptions about organic milk and even regular milk that consumers must overcome.   After all, one cannot simply judge the quality of the milk by its carton.

All milk, regardless of whether it is organic or not, is regulated by the FDA.  Every form of milk goes through the same guidelines put forth in the Grade “A” Pasteurized Milk Ordinance Revision 2009, which defines milk and other milk products. [1]

The criteria for Grade “A” raw milk and milk products for pasteurization are as follows:

  1. Temperature – Explains the steps on how milk should be cooled and stored after the first milking from the cow.
  2. Bacterial Limits – Individual dairy producer milk should not exceed 100,000/ mL before being mixed with other dairy producer milk
  3. Drugs – There should be no positive results on drug-residue detection methods; this means that no trace of antibiotics should be measured in the milk.
  4. Somatic Cell Count – Individual dairy-producer milk should not exceed 750,000 cells per mL

Of the four major criteria listed above, the somatic cell count should be of utmost concern to the consumer.  Although unknown to most people, the somatic cell count is important when it comes to assessing the quality of milk.

  • On a side note, consumer should be proactive and care about the somatic cell count because knowing this number indirectly indicates how well the cows are being kept.  It also gives an idea to consumers of how particular dairy facilities are being run and maintained.  A lower somatic cell count indicates better animal health [3], but more importantly, it tells you the welfare of the cow.  Of course there will be farmers who will work around the system, but the somatic cell count is currently the single most powerful number consumers have to ensure the quality of milk while also consciously protecting the health and welfare of dairy cows.

Bulk Tank Somatic Cell Count Limit

Compared to the European standards of 400,000 / ml, the US cutline for grade “A” milk is very forgiving.

Let us put into perspective the meaning of the somatic cell count number.  Statistically, cows that have a SCC less than 100,000/ml do not have mastitis (an infection of their udders).  However, an SCC of over 200,000/ml yields cows that have subclinical masitis of at least one of their udders’ quarters.  Meanwhile, a cow with an SCC of greater than 300,000 /ml is infected with significant pathogens. [3] Can you imagine the state of a cow that has a somatic cell count of 750,000/ml?

The University of Minnesota has written an article in 2007 entitled “How Do the Swiss Produce the World’s Best Quality Milk?” [5]  As in US, the standard of milk quality in Switzerland relies on three factors: somatic cell count, bacteria level, and antibiotics.  Once again, the deciding factor in determining the quality of milk is the somatic cell count.  It is interesting to note that the Swiss national average of BTSCC (Bulk Tank Somatic Cell Counts) in 1992 was slightly over 100,000 and has remained there ever since.   Austria also has a cell count a little higher than 100,000 cells/ml while many other countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK have an average cell count of less than 200,000 cells/ml. [8]

Am I drinking good quality milk

Organic milk is differentiated from regular milk by using four general criteria [12]:

  1. No Antibiotics – Antibiotics must never be used in cows providing organic milk.
  2. No Hormone Vaccinations – Cows must not be treated with recombinant bovine growth hormones aka. rBGH.
  3. Organic feed – The cow’s feed must be grown in a pesticide-free manner.
  4. Dairy cows must graze for a minimum of 120 days per year; moreover 30% of the feed should be from the pasture.

Despite these standards, organic milk does not necessarily taste better than non-organic milk.  In addition, producing organic milk does not automatically mean the cows are more humanely kept.  To cite one example, organically raised cows that become sick with a disease are not allowed the luxury of being treated with antibiotics.  This is similar to a person contracting bacterial pneumonia or strep throat but not being able to take antibiotics.  The individual would instead let his immune system win the battle without the extra help.  In this comparison, a person might have one advantage: he might be able get some rest during his time of illness.  Sick organically raised cows, on the other hand, will still be “milked” as long as their udders are producing milk with a somatic cell count of less than 750,000 /ml.

WIth non-organic milk, cows that have been treated with antibiotics must be taken out of the milking process until their milk shows no sign of antibiotics.  This is not to say that “non-organic” cows are more humanely treated either because there are other conditions which may appall even the strong hearted.  Even with the permitted use of antibiotics, it may be more cost effective to down a cow rather than nurse it back to good health. [7]  Overall, the use of antibiotics is not a major “player” in differentiating between organic and regular milk.

  • The greatest merit of organic milk is the requirement for cows to graze in the pasture for 120 days out of the year along with no hormone injections.  Moreover, there are some organic dairy farmers who go the extra mile and have management practices that exceed FDA/USDA ordinances.  Organic milk producers also tend to be more conscious of their cows’ health since the use of antibiotics is prohibited.  In addition, many consumers have a high esteem for organic farmers because they are helping out with the “green” cause.  Dairy farmers are even rewarded for having low somatic cell counts in their milk. [12]

2. Which brands of milk should I choose?

Since you have now decide to either go with organic or regular milk, it is important to know that each label of milk has its own taste.  Therefore, consumers need to experiment with various labels to see which milk suits their palate.  To start with, finding the origin of the milk may help you determine the actual source of the milk.  For instance, “Where is My Milk From”  is a nice site where you can type in the dairy code printed on every milk carton and find the source of your milk.  Incidentally, it may surprise some people that despite the different labels, various brands of milk may actually come from the same source.

The variations of milk brand tastes depend on various factors such as the following:

  1. the type of cow used for dairy use.
  2. the types of feed the farmers use to feed their cows
  3. environmental factors and the state and condition of the dairy cow when milked.
  4. pasteurization, homogenization, and processing of milk.

Most popular breed of dairy cow

The most popular breed of dairy cow is the black and white Holstein cows.  This breed makes over 90% of the US dairy herd.  By comparison, the second most popular milking cow is the Jersey constituting about 7%.  The Jersey cow has a higher percentage of butterfat and protein in its milk versus the Holstein. [4]  The reason for such widespread use of the Holstein breed is that it is very adaptable to many environments, brings forth unexcelled productions and yields greater income over feed costs.  The logo of Holstein Association USA describes the essence of its views on Holstein cows the best – “For Maximum Profit”. [10]

The type of feed farmers use to nourish their cows are different for each dairy. Corn silage, alfalfa, hay, corn, soybean meal, fuzzy-whole cottonseed, and commodity feeds are most commonly used. [14] The composition of the feed is dependent on the nutrient formula each dairy uses.  For example, if the protein content of the forages (plant material for the cows) is lower than a certain percentage, extra grains along with other supplemental diets are added to optimize the feed.  The goal of the feed is to provide enough nutrition so that milk production is maximized and balanced along with the costs to produce milk. [13] One item to remember along these lines is that the dairy industry is a “business” entity.

Pasture Raised Cows versus Production Systems

Many dairies in the US are focused toward maximal production (managed systems) versus optimal production (pasture based systems) such as in New Zealand [1].  There have indeed been changes in the US dairy industry with some dairy companies focusing on pasture-raised dairy cows and improved conditions for the cows in comparison to the industry standard.  The USDA has recently mandated that cows producing organic milk are required to spend a minimum of 120 days grazing in a pasture.

Pasteurization

Pasteurization, Homogenization and Processing all contribute to different taste in dairy milk.  There are two different methods of pasteurization practiced in the US.  The high temperature, short tIme method (HTST) heats the milk to 161°F for 15 seconds.  Meanwhile, the ultra pasteurization process also known as ultra high temperature (UHT) pasteurization heats milk to 280 °F for two seconds.  Regarding homogenization, this process essentially turns the different sizes of fat globules in the milk into one consistent form of liquid.

These practices contribute to different tastes in milk.  However, since the majority of U.S. farmers use the Holstein breed, differences in taste will boil down to the type of pasteurization used and more importantly the environment and the health of the cow being milked.  Differences in taste due to feed will be more apparent in organic milk versus regular milk.  There are even now some milk companies that sell cow’s milk where the cows are only “grass-fed”.  Overall, a well-cared-for dairy cow will be more efficient in producing milk and yielding a higher quality of milk.

In summary, when deciding what brand of milk I buy, it basically comes down to which dairy producer you trust the most?  You primarily want to know which milk company cares about the somatic cell count.  This translates into which milk company cares about high quality milk while maintaining the health and welfare of its cows.

Should I Drink Raw Milk or Pasteurized Milk?

Raw milk vs pasteurized milk

The consumption of raw milk versus pasteurized milk is a special topic that some people have recently been pushing for.  Laws vary from state to state but in general, raw milk is not allowed to be sold in stores.  However 10 states with certain restrictions do allow them to be sold in stores.  The reason for the limitation is that raw milk can contain a number of diseases such as salmonellosis, staphylococcal infection, and streptococcal infection.  As a result, milkborne epidemics of scarlet fever or septic sore throat can occur.  Furthermore, the toxins of staphylococci and other possible organisms in milk can cause severe gastroenteritis. [1]

There are advocates for raw milk who believe that this type of dairy product is more nutritious and more healthful.  Nevertheless, it is important for the cows that yield raw milk to be healthy (tested free of TB and undulant fever) and free of any infections (such as mastitis). [2]

  • On another side note, Happy Baby USA recommends that pasteurized milk be given to children and babies due to widespread safety regulations placed on standard (non-raw) milk.  Raw milk may have more nutritional having health benefits but using it does not justify the risk of diseases that can be posed to a child who still has an immature immune system.

If you do decide to drink raw milk, make sure it is from a trusted dairy farmer who can physically show you all records of the cow’s health.  It is also imperative that you understand the risks involved and know the practices of milking.  Understanding “mastitis” and “somatic cell count” is of particular importance.  In addition, make sure that the cow is completely healthy and that the cow’s raw milk does not have a somatic cell count of more than 100,000 /ml in any of its udders’ quarters.

References:

1.  Grade A Pasteurized Milk Ordinance 2009 Revision. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Food and Drug Administration.

2.  A Campaign for Real Milk.  www.RealMilk.com

3. DairyCo. http://www.dairyco.org.uk/technical-information/animal-health-welfare/mastitis/symptoms-of-mastitis/somatic-cell-count-milk-quality-indicator/

4. US EPA. Dairy Production Systems http://www.epa.gov/agriculture/ag101/dairysystems.html

5. Univeristy of Minnesota | Extension http://www1.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/dairy/milk-quality-and-mastitis/how-do-the-swiss-produce-the-worlds-best-quality-milk/

6. University of Wisconsin – Milk Quality http://milkquality.wisc.edu/

7. Dr. Pam Ruegg – Hoard’s Dairyman February 2011 Webinar

8. Quality of the Milk Supply:  European Regulations versus Practice http://www.nmconline.org/articles/qualityeuro.pdf

9. Determining U.S. Milk Quality Using Bulk Tank Somatic Cell Counts, 2011 http://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/nahms/dairy/downloads/dairy_monitoring/BTSCC_2011infosheet.pdf

10. Holstein Association USA. http://www.holsteinusa.com/holstein_breed/breedhistory.html

11. Organic Valley Farmer-Owners Receive Outstanding Quality Awards For 2012. http://www.organicvalley.coop/newsroom/press-releases/details/article/organic-valley-farmer-owners-receive-outstanding-quality-awards-for-2012/

12.  USDA National Organic Program. http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nop

13.   Profitable feeding programs for dairy cattle.  http://www.progressivedairy.com/~prodairy/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=5963:profitable-feeding-programs-for-dairy-cattle&catid=46:feed-and-nutrition&Itemid=72

14.  Feeding Dairy Cows.  http://www.agricultured.org/2012/06/28/feeding-dairy-cows/

  1. March 17, 2017 at 10:28 pm

    Thanks for this article. I wish you could mention a few companies that represent good examples of milk industry in the US

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