Milk quality control in Flanders

The NMC Regional meeting in Ghent had a review of the history of milk quality in Flanders stretching back over 50 years. The presentation was given by Luc De Meulemeester who is in charge of the Milk Control Centre in Lier, Belgium.


As in many countries, milk production has always been of paramount importance – and Flanders is no exception. In the early days, udder health was a major issue for organized animal health care and milk quality control.

milk quality control in flanders CELL COUNTING
In Belgium, programmes to provide individual cow cell counts from the monthly milk records (DHI) were established in the late-1980s.

Luc De Meulemeester made the distinction that traditionally, milk quality was a matter for milk producers and the dairy industry while udder health was dealt with by the veterinary profession. However, Luc said that things have changed hugely in the way all parties are now involved in milk quality.

Early days

In the early days agricultural production and milk production in particular came from large numbers of mixed farms owned and run by the farmer and his family. Milk quality was assessed by the dairy factories, based on hygienic parameters such as reductase and filtration tests. Based on the results of these tests, milk was classified as first, second or third class.

Luc recalled that mastitis control was limited to the treatment of clinical cases, often with success. He believes that the availability of a succession of new antibiotics and the high prevalence of sensitive bacteria, including Streptococcus agalactiae, were the main reason for this.

There were exceptions for premium AA grade where the prevalence of Staph. Aureus was assessed. On AA grade dairy farms, lactating cows were sampled every two months and tested for udder pathogens and treated with antibiotics if necessary. Because the difference in milk price between AA and ordinary milk amounted almost to 100 % these extensive and costly procedures were accepted by the dairy farmer.


Luc reviewed the significant milestones of the 1960s and 1970s. These included the official start of quality control by the provincial Committees for Milk Quality in 1964; the introduction of the compulsory coagulation test for antibiotic residues in 1966, in effect this marked official recognition, for the first time, the problem of antibiotic residues.

In the mid-1970s Luc highlighted the introduction of the total bacterial count based on culturing methods, some 18 times a year and with milk graded on a qualification system based on points.

Cell count and mastitis

As regards mastitis, Luc recalled an IDF Seminar on Mastitis Control, held in Reading, England as the first international seminar that focused solely on mastitis control. Luc said this was instrumental in establishing somatic cell count as a measure of udder health, the need to reduce subclinical mastitis, correlation between somatic cell count results and milk production, and the role of milking technique and the performance of the milking machine in mastitis control. The seminar emphasized the five-point control program based on teat disinfection and dry cow therapy. Luc recalled that it was not all plain sailing and there was, at the time, some opposition to the use and benefits of cell count as a quality measure.

Nevertheless, information from the seminar led to a number of Flemish representatives from the dairy and veterinary world gathering data on the prevalence of mastitis in Flanders and measures to control it.

Committees for Milk Quality and the Animal Health Centers together with the local dairy factories took the lead. Dairy farmers were bombarded with information campaigns in the form of brochures, lessons from pilot farms, courses milking techniques, all of which proved to be essential and had a very positive impact. Mastitis became a hot topic among dairy farmers.
The bulk milk somatic cell count became a parameter for the AA class milk; thresholds were fixed at 500,000 cells and 350,000 cells per ml for AA dairy farms. Interestingly, as at the Reading seminar, not everyone agreed with these new standards; a few influential people in the sector considered somatic cell count not particularly important for assessing milk quality.
Financial support became part of the scene and Luc recalled that from 1979 onwards, Flemish dairy farmers were offered European financial support to receive, free of charge, a monthly BMSCC and, when necessary, support by specialists in machine milking and advice from veterinarians on treatments.

In Belgium, every milk delivery is screened for antimicrobial residues as part of a uniform milk quality system that was agreed upon by all stakeholders in the 90s.
In Belgium, every milk delivery is screened for antimicrobial residues as part of a uniform milk quality system that was agreed upon by all stakeholders in the 90s.


The 1980s

According to Luc, it was only in the late-1980s that the industry saw big reductions in somatic cell counts in milk. This occurred when cell count (and total bacterial count) was included in a new Flemish milk quality system and results for an individual farm wee included in a milk price scheme by the dairies.
As the measure of cell count as an indicator of sub-clinical mastitis in a herd, programmes to provide individual cow cell counts were started.
And when cell counts were provided from the monthly milk records sample (DHI), cell count information for individual cows became widespread and commonplace. In turn, the results highlighted accurately which individual cows required further examination to identify pathogens.

The turn of the century

From the 1990s and into the new century, Luc outlined the substantial changes taking place in the Flemish dairy sector. The number of farms dropped by 80% to just over 5,000 recently; the number of dairy cows dropped by a quarter of a million to 285,000; while milk production per farm increased by a factor of five to 390,000 litres per year.

From a veterinary point of view, the efficiency of antibiotic treatment became less successful and cure rates of less than 50 % were generally accepted in the field. More attention had to be paid to prevention of mastitis, housing, milking equipment, nutrition, selection and the possible impact of other cattle diseases on udder health such as BVD.
The various stakeholders started the Good Milking Practice project where 100 prominent dairy farms were followed over a two-year period and the experiences and results gathered on those farms were summarized in a brochure and distributed to the rest of the dairy farmers.
The turn of the century marked also the end of an era of free services for dairy farmers. European, national and regional subsidies to support initiatives to enhance milk quality and mastitis prevention came to an end.

EC regulation on the Hygiene of Food of Animal Origin, 853/2004

In Luc’s opinion, the regulation changes the playing field for farmers in all Member states. It laid down minimum conditions for the milk quality in all member states but with flexibility on application.
In Belgium, a uniform milk quality system was agreed upon by all stakeholders which has gradually evolved into the present-day system.
This includes sampling each delivery of milk with an approved automatic sampling system, testing for TBC at least twice a month, testing for cell count at least four times a month, screening each delivery for antimicrobial residues, screening each delivery for water contamination, and conducting a filtration test for visible contamination once a month.
Fat and content is measured of course, and coliform counts can be provided where necessary.
A system of penalty points was introduced in Belgium with a commensurate financial loss; for persistent offenders, dairies have the power to half milk deliveries until results improve.
As would be the case in other countries, Luc confirmed that milk quality has improved over the years. Last year TBC averaged 10 thousands per ml, SCC averaged 214 thousands per ml, antimicrobial failures represent 0.04% of all samples, and total coliform count is under 9 per ml.
Traditionally somatic cell count results were the main reason for an unfavorable classification, which illustrates that even today udder health is of the highest importance in modern dairy farming.

The present day

In Luc’s book, progress does not stop and a voluntary integral chain control system that focuses on animal health and welfare, milking procedures, cleaning and the environment has been developed. Since last year specifications have been extended with 32 additional checkpoints related to sustainability and including tests for dioxins, anthelmintics and Listeria spp. have been introduced. Although the system is voluntary more than 85 % of all dairy farmers have come on board.
In addition, Luc referred to Paratuberculosis as a health risk for animals and humans and a voluntary program to detect mparaTB- infected cows in the early stages of the disease, (before any risk of excretion of contamination in milk) has been introduced. Participants agree to test all lactating cows once a year via milk or blood samples and to cull positive animals at the appropriate time. Some dairy companies have recently chosen to make participation compulsory for their dairy producers.
Finally, Luc said that while treatment and prevention of udder infections are the main reasons for using antimicrobial preparations, farmers are taking care and the results of residue monitoring are very good. The Flemish dairy sector is fully aware of the need to use antimicrobials carefully and responsibly and all stakeholders support this view.

Text: Tom Morrow
Photos: MCC

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