Monday, January 24, 2011

Girl Scout Cookies and Milk: The Inside Scoop

By Guest Blogger:  Denise Derrer, Full-time Public Information Director for the State Board of Animal Health and Part-time Girl Scout Troop Leader

If you haven’t been asked to buy a box of Girl Scout cookies yet, you probably haven’t been out of the house lately! It’s that time of year again when girls all over Indiana are racking up orders for Samoas, Tag-a-Longs and (my personal fav) Thin Mints.

When those cookies arrive in a couple of weeks, nothing will complete snack time like a tall, cold glass of milk. Have you thought about what goes into making sure that milk is wholesome and safe for everyone to enjoy?

The Indiana State Board of Animal Health (BOAH) manages Indiana’s dairy inspection program. Every day, inspectors are visiting dairy farms and the processing facilities that pasteurize, manufacture and package the milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream we all enjoy. Since this is something few people ever really see, I thought I’d give you the “inside scoop” on what some of my coworkers do in the field.

Milk is among the most highly inspected and regulated food products on the market. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration sets the standards by which all milk must be produced. State agencies, such as BOAH, work with the farmers and plant operators of all sizes—from mom-and-pop to international companies—to make sure final products are safe.

By law, farms must be thoroughly inspected at least twice each year. Sometimes our inspectors make spot checks or revisit operations that need to correct issues from a previous inspection.
Inspections start with a general look at the farm itself: 

Is the place generally clean? Are rodents and pets kept out of the milking facility? Are weeds kept trimmed? Are the cows free of manure? Do the doors to the milk house seal tightly? Are there paper towels at the sink? Do employees wash their hands?

Those questions only scratch the surface of what’s involved in a farm inspection. There’s so much to look at!

Every piece of milking equipment is closely scrutinized. BOAH dairy inspectors look like detectives, armed with flashlights to help them peer into bulk tanks to make sure no protein residue accumulates on the sides. They’ll disassemble the stainless steel pipes, pumps and hoses to verify the insides are getting proper daily cleanings. Gaskets and seals are inspected. Thermometers are checked to ensure they are accurate, and milk is kept below 40 degrees.

Inspectors also verify any medications used on the farm are approved for use on dairy cattle. Meds must be stored properly, have the veterinary labels attached and not be expired.

Likewise, inspecting a dairy plant (where milk is bottled or cheese is made) is much like inspecting the milking facility portion of the farm—only with a lot more pipes and tanks. And I mean a lot. Some of these plants take many, many hours to inspect, often in the wee hours of the morning, when the bottling operation is shut down.

Those inspections do not even cover all the product testing that goes on to ensure product safety.

Four types of tests are completed regularly to ensure dairy products are safe:
  1. Somatic cell counts, which are an indicator of the general health of the cows. Only healthy cows may be milked.
  2. Bacteria levels, which can affect the shelf-life, quality and safety of the product. Each load of milk must be tested as it is delivered to the processing plant to ensure it meets federal standards. Dairy cooperatives (which buy the milk from farmers) test the milk at the farm-level another five to six times a month to ensure their herd is producing top-quality milk. Cheese makers will frequently test their finished products for other organisms to ensure they are safe to eat.
  3. Antibiotic drug residues, which is an issue of food safety. Just like people, cows can become ill. And, like people, they may be prescribed medications to help them heal. Milk from cows being treated cannot go into the human food chain, yet the treated cows still have to be milked daily. That means their milk has to be dumped. So the milk supply is checked frequently (and multiple times) to ensure no mistakes were made. Milk is tested for drug residues on the farm, again on the truck as it arrives at the processor (before it is unloaded), and again as the final product at the plant.
  4. Water quality, because the water used to clean the equipment and nourish the cows must be free of contaminants, including bacteria like e. coli.
All of these factors, together, help determine if a dairy farm or processing facility meets the standard to ship milk or dairy products. Any time the operation doesn’t meet the standard, the milk will be rejected. That is why farmers and plant operators work so hard to make sure they produce high-quality, safe products.

So, when you sit back to enjoy those Girl Scout cookies with a glass of milk, don’t just thank a farmer. Thank an inspector, too!

If you'd like to win some Girl Scout Cookies and Milk this week, visit us over on our Facebook Page and tell us your Favorite Girl Scout Cookie Flavor. Winner will be chosen at random on Facebook. 

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