NEWS
10/13/2018 17:40 EDT | Updated 10/15/2018 09:32 EDT

Should Canadians Be Worried About American Milk Quality?

A dairy expert weighs in on commons misconceptions in the wake of USMCA.

A dairy cow at a Quebec farm on Aug. 31, 2018.
Ryan Remiorz
A dairy cow at a Quebec farm on Aug. 31, 2018.

The latest tri-lateral trade deal will open Canada up to more American dairy products — and farmers argue that will disrupt a finely tuned system that has successfully buoyed Canada's industry while many of the developed world's dairy farmers teeter on the brink of bankruptcy.

"The message sent to our passionate, proud and quality-conscious farmers and all the people who work in the dairy sector is clear: they are nothing more than a bargaining chip to satisfy President Trump," Dairy Farmers of Canada president Pierre Lampron told Sudbury.com.

Producers aren't the only critics of the United-States-Mexico-Canada-Agreement (USMCA). If the #BuyCanadian campaign on social media is any indication, many Canadian consumers aren't pleased either — largely because, well, a lot of us think American milk is gross:

But is our fear warranted? As Canadians face the prospect of more red-white-and-blue options in the dairy aisle, here's some insight on common concerns about American milk.

Darryl Dyck
Dairy cows walk in a pasture at Nicomekl Farms, in Surrey, B.C. on Aug. 30, 2018.

Does American milk contain growth hormones?

Yes, but the impact of those hormones on humans is unclear.

Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand have all banned or blocked American milk because of a synthetic growth hormone called recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBST). This hormone is injected into a cow so it produces more milk.

The hormone was reviewed by Health Canada in the 1990s. At the time it was determined that rBST didn't pose a health risk to humans, but did compromise the health and welfare of cows. The hormone was never approved for sale in Canada.

By contrast, rBST is approved for use in the US, and a handful of recent studies have led some researchers to float concerns about its health risks for humans.

That's because milk from rBST-treated cows has been proven to contain elevated levels of IGF-1 — a hormone that may influence the development of prostate, breast, colorectal and other cancers, if present at high levels in humans.

But that's not something that's likely to affect Canadian consumers.

"As a result of public awareness campaigns by consumers, the number of American farms that treat their herds with the hormone have been reduced dramatically," Mike von Massow, associate professor of food agriculture at the University of Guelph, told HuffPost Canada. "So first, it's unlikely you will consume the milk of an rBST-treated cow. Then, the likelihood of consuming enough of it to have an actual impact on your health is even slimmer."

The USMCA is set to have a serious impact on dairy farmers. Story continues after video:

There's another reason, too.

"Because it's tremendously expensive to ship fluid milk, it's going to be [solid] American milk products that show up on Canadians shelves," von Massow said. "And in the rare event that those products are made using the milk of rBST-treated cows, hormone levels are reduced so as to be negligible."

Is there pus in American milk?

The short answer? No. But there may be more disease-fighting cells kicking around.

Let's back up a bit.

One way to measure milk quality is the somatic cell count (SCC). Somatic cells are leukocytes, or white blood cells, that are produced by the cow's immune system to fight internal inflammation. This is where animal rights organizations like PETA succeed in confusing the argument: they use white blood cells and pus interchangeably. They are not the same thing.

SCC is the total number of cells per millilitre of milk. A lower SCC count means better quality milk — if the count is too high, it could mean that the cow is sick.

In Canada, the maximum SCC permitted is 400,000. That's significantly lower than the American standard at 750,000 — the highest allowable somatic cell concentration in the world.

We're not talking about bricks of cheese being sent over the border in the trunk of a car. Our systems work well to prevent quality and safety issues of any kind.Mike von Massow, University of Guelph

However, while legal SCC limits remain the same, American dairy producers have consistently reduced their SCC counts in the last decade, bringing them much closer in line with international standards. Stringent inspection standards also ensure that cell counts don't impact human health or flavour, von Massow said.

"If slightly higher SCC counts affected American milk quality, flavour or healthfulness, it would be a different story," he said. "But they don't."

More from HuffPost Canada:


Is Canadian and American milk subject to different standards of inspection?

Both countries use multiple levels of inspection to ensure safe products.

While the United States Food and Drug Administration regulates the inspection of milk products stateside, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), along with provincial governments, are responsible for enforcing standards here.

"U.S. dairy imports will be subject to the same inspection, labelling and quality standards that Canadian products are under the CFIA," von Massow said. "We're not talking about bricks of cheese being sent over the border in the trunk of a car. Our systems work well to prevent quality and safety issues of any kind."

Nathan Denette
Canadian cheese on display in Toronto on Oct. 18, 2013.

Perhaps the most acute difference is the sheer scale of each respective dairy industry, and therefore the number of farms each system must regulate: While Canada has about 11,000 dairy farms, each with an average of 85 cows, there are roughly 41,800 dairy farms in the U.S., each with about 225 cows.

Still, von Massow isn't concerned.

"There are plenty of good reasons for people to buy Canadian products, but consumers should rest assured that a fear of inferior quality is not one of them," he said. "Whether it's a Wisconsin jack or a chèvre from Quebec, consumers can feel confident that the milk products they see on their grocery shelves are high-quality."

Earlier on HuffPost: