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Time to tackle milk residues and beat the yanks!

by
01 June 2017, at 1:00am

PETER EDMONDSON looks at the current figures for residue failures and suggests farmers and vets should get behind the Milksure initiative

JUST IMAGINE WALKING INTO A NEWSAGENT and the headline on the front page of the Daily Mail reads “Antibiotics found in milk”. The impact on the UK dairy industry would be catastrophic as milk, quite rightly, is deemed a safe food for our children and the elderly. In Slovenia, such a thing happened many years ago and milk sales slumped by 90% overnight. It took a long time for consumer confidence to return. Animals are allowed to get sick and so just like humans are entitled to be treated. Antibiotics will always be used in animals and one of the ways we can reduce the risk of any medicine residue accidentally entering the bulk tank is by reducing use. Practices have been very proactive in moving to selective dry cow therapy and helping farmers reduce the need for treatments. There are around 12,000 dairy farmers in the UK and every month around 90 bulk tanks fail a residue test. This means on average, one in 11 farms will have a bulk tank failure each year, and these are the ones the dairy companies find. Remember that some farmers just dump milk when they know they have made a mistake and so the true losses are higher. Penalties can be very severe. One milk buyer penalises the farmer 25% of the value of the milk plus the loss of value of the milk sales. So let’s take a tank of 4,000 litres with a value of around £1,000, typical of a farmer with 150 cows in milk. If there is a residue failure, the total loss will be £1,250 (the £1,000 value of the milk plus a 25% penalty). For the 400-cow high-yielding herd, this would be around £3,500! That is pretty demoralising and a very significant financial loss that could pay for a lot of training! Every tanker of milk, which often contains milk from several farms, is tested before it is unloaded at the milk depot. In addition, a Delvo test is carried out on an individual farm sample approximately once a week. The failure rate is approximately 0.15%. This level has remained unchanged for many years. Let’s compare this to the US. In 2016, 350 failures were identified from 3,085,627 individual bulk tank tests. This level is 0.011% and has been consistently falling year on year. Denmark and Sweden are running around 0.05%, a third of UK levels. So what has this to do with us? The answer is a lot. If you ask a dairy vet what their role is, they might talk about animal health and welfare. We need to remember that we are in the food business. Just look at the impact of BSE, salmonella in eggs, milk powder contamination in China... We span the whole food chain and ensuring that food is safe is essential to protect human health.

Reducing the risk

We prescribe and dispense most medicines. It is very much in our interest, and our responsibility, to ensure that any risk of food
contamination from medicine residues is minimal. Farmers know that the financial consequences of contamination are very great. What we now know is that our residue failure rate is far higher
than other countries and we are not making any progress in reducing this. Something has to change. Why have the Americans been so successful? Every year the farmer and his vet have to work through a HACCP risk assessment as part of their dairy contract. This is certified by the farm vet. It takes time, costs money and is
highly successful. The UK now has such a programme with Milksure (www.milksure.co.uk), which was developed by Owen Atkinson and comes under the DairyUK and BCVA umbrella. This is a very practical and comprehensive tool to minimise residues in milk. There is a farmer workbook and manual and a vets’ training guide. If people get behind this, we will reduce residue failures. Some vets and farmers might be sceptical of the value of such a programme, but I think every farmer will have to have this carried out annually as part of their contract to sell milk. A friend of mine was caught speeding recently and opted to go on a speed awareness course. He was complaining what a waste of time it
would be. He actually enjoyed it and learned some very useful things that have improved his driving. The same is true with Milksure. Some farmers were sceptical about the benefits and
commented, “All we need to do is ensure we put tell tape on the cow; what else do we need to know?” Our high failure rate tells us there is a great need for improvement and not complacency. Think of the impact on profitability and the worry that any failure causes. Of course there will be a cost for the programme, but this will be minimal compared to the cost of a failure. Interestingly, farmers who have attended have been really enthusiastic and it has completely changed their view on medicines and residues. They
understand the process and the risks involved. They have improved their procedures as part of the Milksure HACCP analysis. There will be some practices which will try to run such programmes themselves, but why re-invent the wheel? The presentation and content of the workbook and manual would be hard to improve. It is so comprehensive, it would seem folly to try to replicate it with a “practicebranded version”. As veterinarians, we should get
behind Milksure and get trained up in how to deliver it to our clients, actively promote it and encourage as many farmers as possible to come along. Everyone wins from this. Farmers will have fewer residue failures, consumer confidence rises and as a
profession we help protect food safety and human health as well as our right to prescribe and dispense.