It’s a bucolic image. A herd of dairy cows grazing a verdant hillside, languorously moving from one delicate nibble of sweet fresh grass to the next. In a bright blue sky the sun shines warmly, birds circle the thermals overhead, and the cattle swish their tails lazily against flies. This is the Land of the Happy Cow, a glorious pasture in which our bovine friends spend their days turning lush green grass into thick, creamy milk for our coffees, our baked goods, our cereal.
The problem is that this is not really how the magic happens.
Unlike the halcyon days of small-scale milk production – say, last century or maybe the one prior – dairy farming is no longer a gentleman’s pastime. It is a business. A mega business. In fact, in a 2016 article published in Dairy Herd Management – an online business magazine for the dairy industry – a survey of 15 farms in Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin (averaging 4,972 individual animals per farm) found that the combination of increased yield, higher milk prices, government subsidies, and lower wages led to a ‘$21,050,540 in milk profit over cost of production, or an average profit of $1.4 million per farm.’(1)
And it’s not only a lucrative product, it’s also one that we’ve been taught is necessary to maintaining our health. Until comparatively recently, milk has been promoted as ‘doing a body good,’ but that may not in fact be the case. Aside from the fact that we are increasingly aware of lactose intolerance and despite being the only species to drink the milk of another animal even past the point of weaning from that of our own mother, this ‘wholesome’ beverage intended for baby cows is also an excellent vector of food-borne infection. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there have already been no fewer than sixteen recalls of milk-based products in 2017 alone. And we are only one quarter of the way through the year.
The recalls include potential contamination by Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, and Escherichia coli (E.coli)
– all of which are potentially lethal bacteria and, depending on the specific pathogen concerned, can result in diarrhea, vomiting, kidney failure, paralysis, stroke, miscarriage, and death.
Earlier this month, the FDA reported on the expansion of a recall of Vulto Creamery’s raw milk cheeses which were potentially contaminated with listeria. According to FDA documentation, as of March 10th tainted products from this artisanal creamery based in Walton, NY, were found to be responsible for 6 illnesses and 2 deaths.(2) And then there’s the listeria contamination in Monterey Jack Cheese from Biery Cheese Co. of Louisville, OH. Also Meijer’s Munster cheese. Yoke’s Fresh Market cheese, Lipari Foods cheeses, Lakeview cheese (from Basha’s Family of Stores), Dutch Valley Foods’ cheese, gouda cheese from Saputo Inc., and more.(3)
But how is such contamination possible?
How do pathogens like listeria end up in the milk? The answer is both simple and enormously complicated, and is based upon the fact that we demand far more milk than our system – and the cows’ bodies – are designed to produce. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average milk yield in 2016 was up by around 2% over the previous year with 22,869 pounds per cow, in a survey of more than 8.67 million individuals counted in 23 major milk producing states.(4) That’s a lot of milk. And for cows to produce milk they have to be pregnant or to have recently given birth. They are artificially inseminated when around twelve month old and, like humans, are pregnant for nine months. They will lactate for ten months after the birth of their calf, before being inseminated again and starting the whole painful cycle once more. A cow’s natural lifespan is around 20 years but dairy cows are considered ‘spent’ – no longer useful to the industry – when their milk production wanes at around age seven. At that point they are simply slaughtered and replaced. The majority of dairy cows live on large-scale feedlots – also known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) – which are about as far from the pastoral image we depicted at the top of the article as it’s possible to be. Their diet is unnaturally high in protein in order to stimulate excess milk production and, because of this excess, mastitis – an inflammation of the mammary glands – is common. Alongside excess milk production, an unnatural diet, and a high-stress environment, mastitis can be caused by any one of over 150 different bacteria, including E. coli. And each time an infected cow is milked, somatic cells from her teats will enter into the ‘bulk milk’ supply. Generally, milk is deemed acceptable for human consumption use when the Bulk Tank Somatic Cell Count (or BTSCC) reaches no higher than 750,000 cells per milliliter.(5) And just to be clear, the term ‘somatic cells’ includes white blood cells – also commonly known as ‘pus.’
Already prone to developing mastitis, cows who are milked using automated milking machines have elevated somatic cell counts. In one Danish study, cows subjected to such systems showed ‘acutely elevated cell counts during the first year compared with the previous year with conventional milking. The increase came suddenly and was synchronized with the onset of automatic milking.’(6) And then there’s the impact of the human handling of the milk. In a study cited in the Journal of Veterinary Science & Technology, ‘Sources of Contamination of Bovine Milk and Raw Milk Cheese by Staphylococcus aureus Using Variable Number of Random Repeat Analysis,’ a total of 537 S. aureus isolates were genotyped. The fact that certain genotypes were identified as existing in both cows and humans pointed to ‘the existence of cross-contamination [due to the] involvement of human handlers in the contamination of milk and cheeses.’(7) Swabs taken from workers’ hands and nasal cavities confirmed these results. We leave you to draw your own conclusions…
But that is accidental contamination. What about deliberate fouling? On August 27, 2015, Oliver Rhys Hutchinson, a disgruntled farm worker in New Zealand, injected an 18,000 liter vat of milk with a syringe full of the antibiotic penicillin. The contaminated milk was subsequently collected by tanker and mixed with its existing contents from other farms. Hutchinson was ordered to pay compensation for the cost of the spoiled milk which was in excess of $10,000. But, permitted to pay off his fine in $20/week installments, he is presumably not crying too hard over that particular spilled milk.(8)
So, given the scale of modern milk production – and in light of a dip in confidence with regard to product safety –
how can we ensure consumer safety?
There are three possible paths forward, let’s take a look.
One potential solution may be coming out of a uniquely forward-looking European partnership forged at the University of Parma, one of the oldest universities in existence.(9) In a project funded by a $3.5 million grant from the H2020 Industrial Leadership program and the Photonics Public Private Partnership Support, TresClean – whose convoluted acronym stands for High ThRoughput lasEr texturing of Self-CLEANing and antibacterial surfaces – is using laser technology to produce components that are sensitive to bacterial contamination. Using ultra-short pulsing lasers, a surface topography is created that actively repels liquids. Having observed that the micro-structures of a lotus leaf use 3D epiticular nano-features that naturally repel fluids, the researchers found a way to create a similar surface shape that ‘can capture miniature pockets of air that minimize the contact area between the surface and the liquid.’(10) The contact angle is very high (>150°) which prevents the layer from getting wet. Let’s think about that. Not only does this mean that storage containers would be antibacterial – as bacterial would not have the opportunity to adhere to the surfaces – but, utilizing this technology, they would, in effect, also be almost contactless.
And although early adopters of this antibacterial technology would likely be in the domestic, home appliances market, it does offer significant benefits to the food industry. In conventional facilities, heat exchangers are used for heating and cooling milk products, but as anyone who’s ever scalded a pan of milk will know, when milk proteins and fats come into contact with hot surfaces precipitation occurs. This leaves a skin on the bottom of household pans and a ‘fouling’ of industrial equipment. In order not to allow this fouled material to enter the food chain, all equipment must be thoroughly sanitized, resulting in between two and four hours of downtime and the use of large quantities of chemicals, water, and power.(11) At this level, the tailored surfaces of the TresClean system hold out the potential of superior antibacterial performance without the use of potentially harmful chemicals, resulting also in decreased downtime for cleaning.
But since the use of this technology on a broad scale is still some ways into the future, is there another way to ensure milk safety? A second path forward might be the increased adoption of a technology widely used in Europe: aseptic processing. Already popular within cheese-loving countries such as Switzerland and France for handling milk-based products such as yoghurt or soft cheeses, aseptic food processing is a relatively new but growth area in the US. So much so, in fact, that Jerome Cheese Co. of Jerome, ID, recently constructed a 140,000 square foot plant to handle the 6.5 million pounds of raw milk it receives each day. With over 5,200,000 pounds of milk converted daily into over half a million pounds of cheese,
Jerome Cheese Co. needed a system that incorporated an ISO Class 8 to Class 9 cleanroom into its facilities.
Processing milk for cheese and whey products, the plant combines a 130,00 CFM of 95% filtered air that allows for between 15 to 20 air changes per hour. Added to that, the plant is pressurized with the air flow moving from the process areas to the outside.(12) That’s a lot of technology to ensure that your slice of Swiss is Staphylococcus-free.
And could there be a third alternative? Indeed. And take a breath: it’s not cockroach milk! Since the early dark days of plant-based milk production, the landscape has changed dramatically. Gone are the beany, grainy concoctions our forebears suffered and in their place are healthful, sustainable beverages that have been nowhere near a cow. And the demand for non-animal alternatives reaches now far beyond the usual markets – the hipsters, the lactose intolerant, and the vegan community. In fact, according to an article published in MarketWired.com (now part of NASDAQ, Inc.), the global market for plant-based milks is set to reach almost $10.9 billion by 2019. This figure is extrapolated from the 2014 data of $5.8 billion and assumes a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.3%.(13) What’s not clear is how many types of plant-based milks this encompasses. While the report highlights the popularity of soy, rice, and almond milks, no mention is made of the new generation of varieties. Answering health concerns about the presence of ‘somatic material’, bovine growth hormones, antibiotics, and bacteria in cows’ milk, modern grocery shelves rarely restrict themselves to the conventional ‘big three,’ opting instead to cast their nets wide to ensnare those consumers with a taste for the more adventurous plant-based milks – hemp, coconut, cashew, walnut, hazelnut, and – a personal favorite – macadamia nut.
And it is not only the beverage we splash on our morning cereal that’s facing change. Earlier this year, Baileys – maker of the famous, milk- and cream-heavy, whiskey and chocolate confection, ‘Irish Cream’ – announced a radical departure. Their new non-dairy Irish Cream alternative tipple, Almande, is, as the name suggests, crafted from almonds and (at time of publication) is set to launch within the next few weeks. From ‘wholesome’ breakfast staples to ‘adult’ liquor beverages, it seems the landscape may be shifting away from the traditional and towards the decidedly avant-garde. Which is good news for the lactose intolerant, vegans, and cows alike.
Do you have a favorite plant-based milk? Or would you never give up on the traditional beverage? We’d love to know your thoughts.
- For a comprehensive list of recent cheese recalls, please see https://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/default.htm
- L. Ruegg, “Practical Food Safety Interventions for Dairy Production,” Journal of Dairy Science 86 (2003): E1-E9.
- Morten Dam Rasmussen et al., “The Impact of Automatic Milking on Udder Health,” Proceedings of the Second International Symposium on Mastitis and Milk Quality (Vancouver: 2001).
- Founded in the 10th century in Italy by the imperial decree of Otto I, the University of Parma now boasts more than 26,000 students across 18 departments.