Dairies work to keep milk antibiotic-free

Argen Duncan

While people may worry about overexposure to antibiotics, local dairy industry representatives say a system of safety checks keep those substances out of milk produced in the area.

“Most antibiotics in the dairy industry are used in a very cautious manner, and there are several reasons for that caution,” said dairy owner Alva Carter Jr. of Portales.

Antibiotic-tainted milk, which comes from cows treated with the medicine, could be a problem because some people are allergic to certain antibiotics and overexposure could produce bacterial resistance to the medications.

Also, said state Department of Agriculture inspector and milk specialist Johnny Ogden, antibiotic-contaminated milk would mean an adulterated food supply.

“We don’t tolerate that in the milk industry,” he said.

Ogden, who is based in Portales, is responsible for about 75 dairies in Roosevelt, Curry and Lea counties. He said 400 to 500 loads of milk are produced each day within a 100-mile radius of Portales, and of those, he sees about 10 antibiotic-contaminated loads per year.

Carter said the federal government sets separate standards for different antibiotics, requiring cows to be removed from the milk stream for a specific number of days after being treated with those medications. This allows the antibiotics to leave their bodies.

At Carter’s dairy, workers test loads of milk for antibiotics before the milk leaves the property. The tests he uses are 98 percent to 99 percent effective, he said.

Ogden said every load of milk is screened at the processing plant as well. If the milk tests positive for antibiotics, a sample goes to a state lab for confirmation.

If the state lab confirms the presence of antibiotics, Ogden continued, the milk is either dumped or diluted and fed to calves that won’t enter the food system for two years.

The lost load of milk can cost a dairy $7,000 to $9,000, depending on milk prices, he said.

Carter said Dairy Farmers of America pays for 75 percent of a tainted load for member dairies in an insurance-type program, if the dairy discovers the problem. However, if the cooperative finds the antibiotics, or if the dairy files a claim more than once in 12 months, the payment level drops.

After the discovery of antibiotics contamination, a state representative goes to the dairy and looks for the cause of the problem and a solution. The dairy’s permit is suspended, meaning it isn’t allowed to sell more milk until it produces a clean load, Ogden said.

If milk from the same dairy is found to be contaminated again within 12 months, the same process happens a second time. If it happens a third time, Ogden said, the dairy owner must go through a hearing to decide whether his permit to produce milk in New Mexico will be permanently revoked.

Ogden said any problem of contamination is addressed immediately, even if it’s Thanksgiving Day.

“We’re adamant about protecting public health in this area,” he said.

Carter said the milk industry is well-regulated and milk is tested at every stop, so milk tainted with antibiotics isn’t allowed to get into the food system.