Milk is considered a healthy, nutrient-dense product by most and because of that, many of us encourage our children to consume it.
Few of us give any thought to concerns for chemical contaminants polluting such a desirable food source. What would be your reaction to the fact that milk samples from store shelves contain iodine in levels considered unsafe for young children (1)? Are you aware of bismuth contaminants causing black spot defect (2) in cheddar cheese? Or chemical such as propylene glycol are being routinely applied to udders to reduce white cell counts in milk?
You may even be surprised to discover that some of these are even in the organic milk you find on store shelves.
The reason for these chemical contaminants is simple. Dairy farmers are forced to combat udder infections known as mastitis on a daily basis with a variety of “tools” and “technology.” Mastitis is considered the most costly problem in the dairy industry and has driven the slaughter rate in U.S. herds to nearly 50 percent annually as the udders of cows are destroyed by infections largely caused by conventional milking machines that forcibly shove bacteria up the teat canals. These infections cause udder swelling and pain as well as elevated white cell counts.
White cell count levels are a measure of milk quality with a lower value being better. Recent changes in U.S. quality regulations are attempting to drive the legal limit from 750,000 cells per milliliter to below 400,000 with a healthy animal having a level under 100,000.
Farmers attempt to control these levels with a host of chemical-based products. Iodine is liberally applied to teats before and after milking, some chemicals are infused directly into the teat canal/sinus and others are sprayed on the udder exterior. One popular product is sprayed on the udder exterior consisting of a variety of chemicals; some of these chemicals aid in the rapid transport of chemicals through the flesh into the milk ducts, while others act within the udder to reduce cell count levels.
The chemicals contained in one udder spray include propylene glycol, mint, caprylic, menthol, steareth-21, stearic acid, glyceryl stearate and others.
The USDA notes that propylene glycol can be absorbed through your skin and potentially cause allergic reactions, and liver and kidney damage in high concentrations. An article in The Milkweed publication last year revealed that a farm in Kentucky had milk refused for processing because it stank of mint which was traced back to the excessive use of an udder spray product that was absorbed into the milk through the udder.
One organic farmer recently stated he had applied an udder spray product to 39 of his 140 milking cows to reduce his herd cell count levels.
Iodine levels were measured in samples for 501 dairy farms in Canada with measured levels ranging from 54 to 1902 µg/kg (1). The mean was 304 µg/kg with the safe level established at 200 µg/kg based on the recommended daily consumption of milk for young children. A total of 411 retail milk samples from store shelves concluded that the average iodine content of Canadian retail milk was high at 393 ± 150 µg/kg.When present in excessive amounts, iodine can deregulate the thyroid gland and cause hypothyroid problems.
Like all elements consumed in trace amounts, there is not a fine line between too much and not enough.
The fact that measured levels of iodine and presence of bismuth, propylene glycol and other chemicals in milk are not monitored or controlled gives rise to concerns for individual health of consumers.
The dairy industry has taken steps to address antibiotics and artificial hormones in milk but a host of chemicals are now being used with great frequency and do not require milk to be withheld from human consumption. The result is increased chemical contamination of a wholesome product.
Data also suggests that there is a negative impact on animal welfare as the U.S. slaughter rate has dramatically risen to nearly 50 percent with the survival of average cow during her milk producing life now less than the time it takes to raise her from birth. To make matters even worse, the mortality rate has risen significantly as well. Since the 1980s, the mortality rate for mature Holstein cows has risen from 3.8 percent to over 10 percent.
Basically those animals that don’t get slaughtered soon enough are becoming more likely to just die before the end of their third year producing milk.
These are a few examples of some of the concerns related to a product generally recognized as wholesome and healthy. You can find more details at www.udderlybettermilk.com.
Consider asking your local provider of dairy products to address the issue of chemical contamination and the associated high slaughter rate of young animals. Many European counties are already discussing goals of further improving milk quality and requiring action to increase the life expectancy of dairy cows.
Nothing will change unless consumers demand it.
1 Journal of Food Protection, 73 (9), pp: 1658-1663.
2 Journal of Dairy Science, 90: 4938–4941.
William Gehm has a B.S. in Applied & Engineering Physics from Cornell University and a M.S. in Electrical Engineering from Syracuse University. He is currently a partner in a company that develops and markets innovative dairy equipment products. His early career was as a Laser Physicist followed by numerous years leading teams of engineers designing mechanical packaging for flight critical avionics. Throughout this time period his father operated a small dairy farm and battled mastitis and the associated failings of the universities in addressing this costly problem. That drove the research and development of an innovative milking system currently marketed as CoPulsation. The company’s focus remains on enabling dairy farmers to be successful in providing quality milk while milking cows in a humane manner to increase their productive life.
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Ed: Amy Cushing & Brianna Bemel
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