Get the facts on dairy safety

Back in the ’60s, when he made his living as a trucker collecting milk from local farmers, Clifford Petty* routinely hauled cans of raw milk across dirty fields or through manure-laden calves’ pens.How times have changed. During the 36 years he and his wife, Dorinda, have operated their own dairy farm just outside Varney, Ont., Clifford has witnessed an explosion of government initiatives undertaken to ensure a squeaky-clean Canadian dairy industry.

“We always ran a clean farm,” says Clifford. “Not everybody did. But, now, everybody has to comply with guidelines about sanitation and hygiene, plus a lot of other things. There are even regulations about how wide your laneway must be so the trucks can get in.”

Regimented dairy industry
Rules and regulations dot the entire supply chain, from the care and feeding of the animals to milking procedures, storage, collection, transportation, processing and labelling.

The nature of the dairy industry–a supply-managed commodity with strict quotas–plus the layerof regulations at federal, provincial and municipal levels, not to mention powerful lobbyists like the Dairy Farmers of Canada, make it the most
regimented of the food industries.

Food poisoning cases
Still, Canadians can be forgiven for having concerns in light of recent events.

  • In the spring of 1998, salmonella enteritidis apparently found its way into the shredded cheese in a line of Lunchmate products manufactured by J.M. Schneider Inc. of Kitchener, Ont.

More than 800 people–mostly children aged six to 10–got food poisoning.

  • Then, in November of last year, Ontario auditor Erik Peters delivered a damning report on the province’s failure to safeguard the food supply.

Among the findings were high levels of bacteria in goat’s milk–an alarming 90 per cent of the samples tested.

  • And, in recent years, concerns have been raised by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) over the safety of imported cheeses and cheeses made from raw unpasteurized milk–cheeses especially treasured in Quebec.

Next page: Canadians love milk

Canadians love milk
Canadians everywhere love their moo juice, consuming almost three billion litres of the fluid stuff yearly and millions more of milk products–cheese, yogurt, sour cream, ice cream.

Despite controversy about whether human beings should be consuming the milk of other animals at all–we seem to be the only species that does–most health authorities regard dairy products as an important part of our diet, essential in the maintenance of strong bones and teeth.

Dairy has always been an integral part of Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating, although that document has been adjusted and refined over the years.

Food guide staple
Explains Gail Ewan of the Ottawa-based Dairy Farmers of Canada: “The guide was first developed in the ’30s and, initially, it was based on what people were eating–dairy, bread, butter, potatoes, meat, citrus. Then, around the time of the Second World War, there was a concern about keeping our soldiers in fighting trim, and the guide started to reflect what people should be eating. By 1948, the nutrient values of milk and milk products–calcium, protein, riboflavin–were clearly documented.”

The current version of the guide, last revised in 1992, recommends two to four servings of milk or milk products a day.

Some nutritionists recommend that the quota be bumped up for people over the age of 50 because aging bones need a calcium boost.

It’s no wonder Canadians want reassurance that our milk supply is safe.

Farm precautions
It all begins at the farm. Clifford and Dorinda Petty started out in 1966 with just a few cows.

“At first,” Clifford says, “we belonged to something called Group 2, which allowed you to sell raw milk just for non-fluid products, like powdered milk, ice cream, cheese and yogurt.”

The milking machines were more primitive than today’s, and “we still dumped the milk into cans,” says Dorinda.

A few years later, the Pettys “graduated” to Group 1, purveyors of fluid milk, just about the time that standards were getting more stringent. In 1974, the Milk Marketing Board of Ontario (now the Dairy Farmers of Ontario) decreed that the milk had to be stored in a bulk holding tank, housed in a separate facility from the barn, and kept at extremely cold –almost freezing–temperatures.

As well, the milking machines had to be more sophisticated, enabling the milk to be piped directly from the cows into the tank.

Meanwhile, as the Pettys’ operation grew, so did legislation pertaining to hygiene, feeding, testing and pickup.

Cow care
The Petty cows are milked twice a day and fed silage made from the corn, grain and hay the Pettys grow on their own acreage.

The cows are kept inside in the winter but, in the warmer months, they’re allowed to graze in the meadows of the 98-acre home farm.

“At the beginning of the season, though, we only let them out for an hour or two,” says Clifford. “In spring, there’s too much clover and alfalfa, and that can affect the taste of the milk. We allow them to graze for longer periods after everything’s been nibbled down.”

Next page: Hormones banned

Hormones banned
Hormone supplements are not an issue with the Pettys or any other Canadian farmers. While the so-called bovine growth hormone has been approved in the U.S., it’s illegal in Canada.

The only supplement Clifford Petty uses is an approved dairy concentrate, mostly composed of animal fat, which promotes milk production.

Receivers take samples
The procedures for pickup and processing are pretty standard across the country. The milk is picked up every other day–sometimes daily in the hot summer months — by truckers.

“They’re known as tank-milk receivers in the industry,” explains Lynn Wilcott, a dairy plant specialist and inspector with the B.C. Ministry of Health, “and they might collect milk from as many as five farms in one trip.”

At each farm, the tank-milk receivers take a sample of the milk to make sure the temperature registers below 4 C, and they smell and taste the milk to make sure it’s normal.

If it isn’t, the milk is rejected–which is rare. Otherwise, it’s loaded onto the truck with the milk from the other farms.

No antibiotics allowed
The truck, which is insulated but not refrigerated, proceeds to a dairy processing plant, where a sample of the load is tested again for temperature, smell and taste.

At this point, it’s also tested for antibiotics and, if any are present, the whole load of milk is rejected.

Antibiotics are only to be administered if a cow is sick. The milk from a cow receiving antibiotics cannot be collected until the drug has left the cow’s system. If antibiotics are found in the milk, the samples are re-tested to determine which farmer’s milk contaminated the load.

“Policies regarding the ‘guilty’ farmer vary from province to province,” says Wilcott, “but there’s usually a substantial financial penalty–an incentive not to let it happen again.”

Processing and pasteurizing
Later that day or the next day, the accepted milk is filtered and refiltered–so many times, says Wilcott, it’s impossible for a foreign object to find its way into the supply.

“If you find something in the bottom of your milk carton, you can bet it didn’t get there by accident.”

The milk is then pasteurized. The process was originally used to kill bacteria in beer, but was applied to milk after serious outbreaks of disease in Canada and the U.S. in the early 1900s were attributed to the consumption of raw milk.

During pasteurization, “some spores survive but they’re not life-threatening,” says Wilcott. “They’re what makes the milk go sour after it’s been kept around too long.”

The butterfat content is then adjusted for different fluid milk products–skim, one per cent, two per cent–and various vitamins added.

Flavour enhancers and stabilizers are added to cultured products, such as yogurt, sour cream, ice cream, butter and cheese.

Not all plants make an entire range of products. Some specialize in milk, some in ice cream, some in cheese. The finished products are then trucked directly to the stores, or sold in bulk to smaller manufacturers.

Extra training
At the processing stage, British Columbia and Alberta go one better than the rest of the country, says Wilcott. Personnel at the processing plants in these provinces undergo a training program, consisting of a correspondence course and a four-and-a-half day seminar, “to understand how it all works”–from the importance of pasteurization to why they should wash their hands.

“Like the training given the tank-truck receivers, it’s not rocket science, but it’s a good first line of defence.”

The second line of defence is regular inspections, conducted not only by the CFIA, the federal enforcer of food safety standards, but also at the provincial level. 

Strict labelling laws
At the product level, the processing plants or manufacturers package and label the goods according to strict government standards, adding nutritional information and best-before dates that have a built-in safety window.  

The Food and Consumer Products Manufacturers of Canada (FCPMC), a non-profit Ottawa-based association of manufacturers of packaged foods, which include non-fluid milk products, such as cheeses, yogurts, yogurt drinks, frozen pizza and noodles, works closely with the CFIA. This is to ensure that processing and packaging standards are being met and to expedite recalls.

“Everything is governed,” says Laurie Curry, FCPMC vice-president of public policy and scientific affairs, “and any change in the regulations is approached with the utmost caution. For example, until 1996, fat-free and low-fat cheeses were illegal in Canada because there were certain standards regarding how much fat went into cheese.”

Next page: What goes wrong?

What goes wrong?
The supermarkets also have to stay on their toes.

“Most big stores are on top of what sells and what doesn’t, and they co-ordinate supply and demand with the suppliers,” says John Graham, public affairs manager for Safeway in Winnipeg.

“That means rapid turnover and fresh deliveries every day.”

With all these checks and balances in place, what can go wrong? Well, no system is perfect, as those along the supply chain can testify. 

In the dairy processing plants, every precaution is taken to ensure that the equipment is fail-safe, says Wilcott. However, he adds, things can go wrong, especially when you consider that the larger plants can process 27,000 litres of milk a day, 15 hours a day.

“Pasteurizing machines are complicated pieces of equipment, so there’s always a chance of mechanical failure. There’s highly engineered backup, but you could get multiple-component dysfunction.” In other words, there’s a chance that unpasteurized milk could infect the pasteurized.

Human error potential
Another potential risk is human error. Although dairy processing personnel are required to wear special clothes, shoes and hairnets (kept on the premises) and are urged to wash their hands frequently, contamination can happen.

How it happened in the Lunchmates case is still a mystery. Doreen Moore, a regional director with the CFIA, told the Kitchener-Waterloo Record in July 1998: “We’ve investigated every possibility and come up with zero. I’ve put it in my X-files.”

Julian St-Pierre, a Montreal-based dairy specialist with the CFIA, speculates that the cheese may not even have been at fault:

“The products consist of crackers and meat as well as cheese, so the bacteria could have come from anywhere.”

Raw milk concerns
As for concerns about raw and imported cheeses, “that controversy seems to have died down,” says St-Pierre.

Part of the reason is that raw milk cheese is now required to be aged for 60 days at temperatures of 2 C before it can be sold legally. Still, St-Pierre says that while the process kills most of the bacteria, there’s no guarantee that it kills everything.

The CFIA routinely tests imported cheeses for levels of disease-causing bacteria – listeria, salmonella, E.coli and Staphylococcus aureus — “but we can’t test every product,” says public affairs director Alain Charette, who is based in Ottawa. “We just take a sample from each lot.”

Goat’s milk problem
The high levels of bacteria in goat’s milk cited in the Ontario auditor’s report were attributed to dirty milking equipment and storage tanks, with fully one-third of the farms inspected failing to comply with health standards.

While Health Canada and CFIA officials are adamant that the same regulations pertaining to cow farms apply to goat farms, they admit that things can fall through the cracks.

“In its raw state, the goat milk is probably not as thoroughly inspected as the cow milk,” concedes St-Pierre, “and standards seem to vary from province to province. 

Goat farming doesn’t even fall into the purview of the Dairy Farmers of Canada. The industry has its own association and regulations.

*Prior to publication, Clifford Petty died. His wife and three daughters are continuing in the family farm business.