By ANSON TEBBETTS
From time to time, folks will ask our agency, “How safe is the milk we buy in our stores?” The simple answer is, “Very safe.” Let’s dig a little deeper.
Caring for cows and all farm animals in Vermont is a top priority. It starts with our dairy farmers monitoring the health of their animals. If an animal is thought to be ill and requires medical treatment, the farmer immediately removes it from the routine process of gathering milk for distribution. This protects the milk supply and consumers. The cow is given time to recover while being treated by a veterinarian or the farmer. This recovery period is essential to protecting the cow and the consumer. Farmers are well aware of the risks if they do not follow well established rules.
Vermont State Veterinarian and Director of Food Safety & Consumer Protection at the Agency, Dr. Kristin Haas, says her office works with the Federal Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state officials, veterinarians and farmers directly to confirm that antibiotics and other medications for dairy animals are used appropriately.
“Our collaborations with these groups are meant to ensure that antibiotics and other medications are used only as needed to treat sick animals, and to prevent violative medication residues from reaching the milk and meat supplies,” Dr. Haas said.
Another tool available to assist Vermont dairy farmers with achieving gold-standard management practices that exceed the minimum requirements established by law is the Food Armor Program. It provides veterinarians with the expertise needed to work with their client farms to establish best practices regarding veterinary medication use. This program is not limited to antibiotics and is meant to encourage prudent and cautious use of veterinary medication on farms, thereby helping to ensure a safe meat and dairy food supply. (More on the program online at foodarmor.org.)
To further ensure that milk is safe when it leaves the farm, Vermont state law requires that every bulk load be tested for residual antibiotics. The Food and Drug Administration has established public health-based tolerances for antibiotics, and the test results of all bulk loads must fall below these tolerances.
Milk that does not pass this rigorous public-health testing is discarded and never makes it to store shelves. Tainted milk is also prohibited from being repurposed as livestock feed, which means that drug residues are prevented from entering our meat-based foods. Public health-based testing completed prior to milk processing also confirms that bacteria levels do not exceed public safety-based regulatory limits.
The agency’s Dairy Section regulators investigate every positive tanker load to verify that milk is discarded and to recommend corrective actions to the farmer intended to prevent future mishaps. These efforts have paid off and continue to be effective. Since 2011, the number of loads having to be disposed of has steadily dropped from 42 that year to 20 in 2015; 2017 saw 17 loads test positive and so far this year, only a dozen loads have been rejected.
The numbers are low and trending downward and dairy officials will continue to work towards zero.
While those efforts and the support programs are important, the farmers do the real work. Vermont farmers are at the leading edge of some of our most important food-safety efforts, and without their leadership, the food we consume would be much less safe than it is today. In fact, milk that is available to consumers on grocery store shelves is tested more rigorously and comprehensively to ensure safety than any other food product we consume.
We will continue to work together to protect public health and safety, but also to raise and support a healthy dairy herd and industry. Working together, we can assure the public of the safest and best dairy in the world.
Anson Tebbetts is Vermont secretary of Agriculture, Food & Markets.