Is this milk antibiotic-free? You bet!

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These Jersey cows are calmly chewing their cud while being milked in the parlor. Their milk will be tested before it is loaded on the truck and again at the processing plant because all milk – no matter what is on the label – is antibiotic-free. Any milk found to contain antibiotics is discarded. Protocols and penalties are in place from farm to consumer.

By Sherry Bunting

Author’s note: This 2014 column in the Hudson Valley Register Star brought in more email than any other column. I was amazed how many people shared it when it ran and how many reached out to say they did not know this! 

Organic. Natural. Antibiotic-Free. Are you confused by food labeling? Do you question what milk to bring home for your family? How is milk tested and regulated before it reaches the dairy case at my supermarket?

It’s important to break down these labels to understand what they mean — or don’t mean — in terms of the safe, healthful and nutritious qualities of milk and dairy products.

Let’s talk specifically about antibiotic-free milk. The good news is that all milk is indeed free of antibiotics! And all dairy milk is among the safest, most nutritious food and/or beverage on the planet, no matter what special label it does or doesn’t carry. In fact, milk, butter, natural cheeses and many other dairy products are among the cleanest labeled foods and beverages you can find. Unlike the fake stuff, milk is minimally processed, if at all, and no long list of ingredients. Dairy milk is just milk, straight from nature to your fridge. No mystery vats full of additives. Just a bunch of hard-working dedicated people loving what they do — taking care of cows making nutritious delicious natural milk!

Not only does milk contain protein (8 grams per 8 oz glass!), calcium and 9 essential vitamins and minerals, all dairy milk — no matter whether it is organic, conventional, labeled “antibiotic-free” or not — is heavily tested and truly antibiotic-free!

I often hear from consumers who believe organic-labeled milk is their only antibiotic-free choice. Let’s examine this.

“So many people think there are antibiotics in milk not labeled organic. We are pleased to report that we dispelled that myth at the Just Food conference in New York City,” reported Deb Windecker. She and her husband and their two children milk 100 cows near Utica in Herkimer County. She again recounted the steps that ensure all milk is antibiotic-free during an interview with staff writers for Farm Aid ahead of the concert at Saratoga Springs in September 2013. Today, the Windeckers are a certified organic dairy farm, which means they are not permitted to use antibiotics as treatments, but this is not to be confused with antibiotics in milk, because all milk, no matter the label, is tested multiple times to ensure it is free of antibiotic residues. The same goes for meat.

Farm Aid’s emphasis in recent years has gravitated toward organic as the symbol of family farms producing wholesome products, but the truth is that farm families operate farms of all sizes, organic and conventional. In fact, the most recent Ag Census shows that 98 percent of all farms in the U.S. are family owned. Furthermore, as unique as farms are in their management practices, there are certain things all dairies have in common — shipping antibiotic-free milk is one of them!

It’s important to know how highly-tested all dairy milk is at multiple intervals from the farm to the consumer, and how penalties and protocols are in place on the farm, at the processing plant and with regulators.

“These steps insure the milk you drink and the dairy products you eat are totally antibiotic-free,” Windecker explains.

On the farm, dairy producers sometimes use antibiotics when a cow or calf is sick — just like a mother would treat a sick child instead of watching that child suffer. On an organic farm, the producer may treat that animal also, but then the animal must be sold to a conventional farm because even after the treatment clears the animal’s body, she cannot be milked on the organic farm after she recovers. The owner must sell her to a non-organic farm even though all of her treatment is gone and no residues are left in milk, meat or even the filtering organs of the body!

So, what happens when cows are treated on a nonorganic, conventional farm? The treatment is recorded, and the cow’s milk is kept out of the milk tank not only during treatment, but for the prescribed time after treatment that it takes for the medication to totally clear the blood system.

Medications have “withdrawal” instructions on the label or per the veterinarian’s prescription, and farmers often do a quick-test or send samples with the milk hauler to be checked at the plant to be sure they’ve waited long enough BEFORE putting that cow’s milk in the tank.

Residue avoidance is of huge importance to dairy producers because they care about the quality of the milk they produce for consumers, and because if that milk were to be shipped, the sample tested would show the residue and the whole tank — or truckload — of milk would have to be dumped. In that case, the farmer would not be paid for his milk, and he would be liable for the value of other milk on that truck, because it would also be dumped.

When I worked on the dairy farm, we avoided treating cows unless absolutely necessary because withholding their milk during and after treatment is something farmers stay conscious of. This is why dairy farmers pay attention to details and take time to observe their cattle to adopt preventive protocols that help to avoid illness in the first place. Farmers certainly can’t afford to spend money on unnecessary medications or to lose a whole tank of milk, and the penalties that go with it, by accidentally milking a treated cow into the tank.

Good record keeping, identification methods, and employee communication are important at the farm level. But, rest assured, if mistakes happen, they are caught when the farm sample is tested at the milk processing plant.

After filling the tanker-truck, the milk hauler provides the processing plant with the test samples he has collected from each farm’s milk tank. Those samples are taken before the milk is loaded on the truck. Those samples are tested at the plant, and fresh samples are also taken of milk in the truck at the plant and again from storage units before processing. Packaged milk is also randomly tested in commerce to ensure further accountability.

Milk testing in the dairy industry is precise and covers a range of trace substances in addition to antibiotic residue and bacteria levels. Each testing interval from farm to store ensures milk’s safety, quality and goodness. Feel free to enjoy with confidence, and without fear.

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Sherry Bunting is a veteran journalist writing on agriculture and food topics for 35 years.