Most people trust the milk they buy at the grocery store is safe to drink, and with good reason. But recent headlines — from the troubles of a legendary Texas ice-cream maker to advocates for unpasteurized milk at the Texas Capitol — might have some wondering how they can be absolutely sure the milk they purchase is safe for themselves and their families.
As a proud Texas dairy farmer, I believe National Dairy Month in June is the ideal time to reassure the public that the safety of the milk supply — and the consumers who drink it — is foremost in our minds with every action we take on the farm.
After all, it isn’t just nameless, faceless consumers who drink our milk and eat dairy products made from that milk — it’s ourselves and our families, friends and neighbors.
Milk and dairy products are among the most highly regulated foods in the nation. Dairy farms and processing plants must meet stringent safety requirements and are inspected regularly (sometimes unannounced) by federal, state and local officials.
On the farm, safety starts with the cow. Importation of cows into Texas is highly regulated to guard against disease outbreak. Strict standards govern how the herd is housed, fed and medically treated. In the milking parlor, strict sanitation standards include disinfection of a cow’s udder before each milking and the thorough cleaning of equipment before and after each use. Milk is immediately placed into a refrigerated holding tank to preserve freshness and keep it at safe temperatures.
Milk is tested numerous times from cow to bottling at the processing plant to examine milk quality and to detect the presence of antibiotics and bacterial contamination. If a milk shipment fails to meet stringent standards when it arrives at the processing plant, it is immediately discarded.
Yet with all the precautions and testing, pasteurization, which has been routine in the United States for almost 100 years, is the biggest contributor to safe milk. Pasteurization — the process of heating milk to at least 161 degrees for at least 15 seconds and then cooling it rapidly to kill any disease-causing bacteria — is the only way to ensure milk does not contain harmful bacteria, including listeria and salmonella, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children are especially vulnerable to the dangers of unpasteurized — sometimes called raw — milk, which are well documented and backed by a mountain of solid scientific evidence.
That’s why the Texas dairy industry opposed a bill this past legislative session that would have expanded the sale of raw milk in Texas. We just can’t take a chance that any of our milk or milk products could sicken or even kill someone when prevention (pasteurization) is so safe and simple.
Thankfully, that bill once again died during this most recent legislative session.
Dairy producers, like all agriculture producers, take a great deal of pride in our chosen profession. We work tirelessly, day in and day out, caring for our cows, employees and natural resources so that we can continue to feed our state and world.
Even though some days, weeks, months and even years can prove a struggle, it is a true blessing to be part of an amazing industry.
Joe Osterkamp is a dairy farmer who has owned and operated Stonegate Farms near Muleshoe for 11 years. He also is chairman of the board of directors of the Texas Association of Dairymen.