Got Milk?

Probably not, because milk is apparently evil and only for baby cows.

Milk has been a staple in most households since any of us can probably remember. It’s been a part of many public health food guides and is generally well known as a healthy beverage for all ages, and necessary for growth and development in children and teens. I have been hearing more and more about how people are avoiding milk for one reason or another. I have also heard many claims that milk contains pus, blood, antibiotics, hormones and all sorts of “toxins” that are not good for human consumption. If you want my take on toxin’s and the need to detox, please read more here.

Anywhooooo,

Today, I want to clarify some of the bunk out there so you have a better understanding of how our Canadian milk supply is handled along with why milk can fit into a healthy diet. This will be a multi-part series as there is a lot to review! I will note as a dietitian I often hear that as dietitians we only follow what the government tells us to say (Canada’s Food Guide) and Dairy Farmers of Canada pays us to say these things. Full Disclosure: I was and will not be paid by anyone to support the consumption of milk, I also did not go to university for 5 years and work my butt off to only say what the government tells me too. I use critical thinking skills to assess quality research to come a conclusion to best aide you, the public in better understanding nutrition research.

Alright, so let’s get right into this.

Perhaps you have read or heard that milk contains pus. Articles like this one from nutritionfacts.org have certainly played their part in spreading this myth, claiming that mastitis runs rampant in the dairy industry and that the milk from these cows is saturated with pus and that milk and pus gets to our table and into our belly.

I’ll start with a little background on the milk and dairy industry and all of their standards to ensure we receive quality milk. Government and industry partners work in close cooperation to coordinate the movement of milk from the farm to your table. Dairy Farmers of Canada, the Dairy Processors Association of Canada, the Canadian Dairy Commission, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, provincial marketing boards, dairy processing companies, cooperatives and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada all work as partners to ensure a strong and dynamic industry of quality dairy products.

Strict quality standards applied throughout Canada’s production and processing chain contribute to the excellent reputation of Canadian dairy products. When reading about something online, ensure they are discussing Canadian standards. The standards in the US and other countries are quite different than ours, and likely what you are reading is not applicable to Canada and the milk that is in your fridge.

So here a breakdown of the main quality assurance mechanisms that ensure milk and dairy products are safe and high in quality:

  • Dairy plants are often Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) and/or ISO certified.
  • The on-farm food safety program “Canadian Quality Milk” is a HACCP-based and certified by CFIA.
  • Sound welfare practices are in place in the Code of Practice of the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle.
  • National biosecurity standards, protocols and strategies designed to protect animal resources.
  • National eradication programs for serious cattle diseases (several of which have been eradicated from the dairy herd).
  • Mandatory control and monitoring in accordance with international agreements, particularly World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) agreements, protecting Canadian livestock from serious diseases.
  • Development of a full traceability system is a priority in Canada which includes three basic elements: animal identification, premises identification, and animal movement.

Dairy Farmers of Canada has also launched the proAction Initiative, a national framework that will incorporate modules on milk quality, food safety, livestock traceability, animal care, biosecurity and environmental sustainability into a single assurance program.

There are quality checks on every farm to ensure we as consumers receive only the highest of milk and dairy products available. Quality checks include the following:

  • Every farm is inspected and certified before it can produce milk.
  • Certified farms must meet provincial standards for quality milk production and clean premises. This includes all milking equipment, milking procedures, the milking parlour, and barn – everywhere the cows go must be kept clean and well maintained.
  • Farms are inspected regularly to ensure that quality standards are maintained.
  • Cows are monitored regularly to ensure good health. Only healthy cows produce optimal amounts of milk in the most economical way.
  • Growth hormones such as BST or rBGH are not legal in Canada and therefore not permitted for use with dairy cows.
  • As soon as milk leaves the cow it is cooled and is kept cold at all times.
  • Before milk can be picked up it must be inspected and graded by a licensed bulk milk tank grader. It is the grader’s responsibility to ensure the milk is cold (below 4°C), smells fresh and looks clean.
  • A milk sample is taken from every farm tank when the milk is picked up. This sample is then taken to a certified lab where it is tested.
  • Milk is transported to the dairy in stainless steel tanker trucks. These trucks are also certified before they can carry milk and are inspected.

I want to point out two things:

1) Milk is inspected A LOT before it ever reaches us.

2) THERE ARE NO GROWTH HORMONES IN CANADAIN MILK.

Where do rumors like pus and hormones begin?

Like all mammals, cows produce milk after giving birth. Occasionally a cow develops an infection of the udder called mastitis (this can also occur in lactating women). Mastitis is an infection that occurs when white blood cells are released into the mammary gland in response to bacteria of the teat canal. Mastitis can occur as a result of a chemical, mechanical, or thermal injury. This disease can be identified by abnormalities in the udder such as swelling, heat, redness, hardness or pain. Other indications of mastitis may be abnormalities in milk such as a watery appearance, flakes, or clots. When mastitis is detected in a cow the milk from that cow does not enter the supply chain until the infection has cleared. Depending on the severity of the infection, antibiotic treatment may be necessary, however, when a cow is treated with antibiotics, her milk also does not enter the supply chain and is discarded until the drug-specific withdrawal time has passed.

Additionally, all milk is tested on the farm and at the processing plant for antibiotic residues; if residues are detected, all contaminated milk is discarded and the farmer responsible pays a hefty fine. Once a cow has recovered and her milk has tested clear of antibiotic residues, her milk is once again shipped to the processing plant.

Okay, so definitely no growth hormones or antibiotics in our Canadian milk. Whew.

Now, let’s chat pus cells that anti-dairy groups claim is in the milk you drink. (Who here also hates the word pus?! … ick)

First things first there is no such thing a pus cell. Pus is an accumulation of dead white blood cells that form when the body’s immune system responds to an infection, these dead white blood cells can then be mixed with dead skin cells and bacteria. Since we know the milk that any cow with an infection is taken out of production, we know there is no chance that there is pus in our milk. To give them the benefit of the doubt, what they may be referring to is somatic cells. Somatic cells are actually living white blood cells that are in the udder of the cows, they help fight infections. A healthy cow has about 100,000- 200,000 somatic cells per ml, this indicates she is not fighting off any form of infection. An elevated somatic cell count indicates that the cow is fighting an infection and should be assessed. Again, milk is tested both on the farm and at the processing plant and one of the tests is a somatic cell count. When the count is greater than 500,000 it indicates there is likely an infection present.  Most dairies aim to keep their somatic cell count level under 200 000.  In Canada, the maximum allowable limit for somatic cells in milk is 400 000. This line is drawn to ensure that sick cows are treated and that their milk does not enter the food chain.

The bottom line?

Milk is rigorously tested and inspected to ensure quality and safety so we can be rest assured there are no antibiotics, pus, blood or growth hormones. We know once the herd is milked, there are many safety standards that are followed, including milk inspections and equipment sanitation, again, to ensure high quality. The milking equipment is cleaned after each milking and the bulk milk tank is cleaned every time it is emptied. The milk hauler grades the milk before it goes into the milk hauling truck in order to determine that the milk’s quality meets prescribed standards. If the milk doesn’t comply with our high standards, it can and will be rejected, rejections mean huge losses for the farm so these are avoided by following the all of the above-mentioned standards and inspections.

If you stopped drinking cow’s milk or switched to an alternative, leave me a comment and share your thoughts!

Stay tuned for part 2 where I dive into why milk is a nutritious and healthy option for all ages, and why it is not “just for baby cows”.

Nutritiously yours,