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PETA launches 'Got Pus?' campaign

03-Oct-2002

As the World Dairy Expo currently gets into full swing in Wisconsin, US, dairy industry officials are having to respond to charges by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) that US-produced milk contains antibiotics and pus.

PETA launched its "Got Pus?" campaign in Madison, Wisconsin this week, on the eve of the annual event that draws about 65,000 dairy industry attendees.

This is not the first time that PETA, the Virginia-based, nonprofit organisation, has played off the dairy industry's famous "Got Milk?" slogan. PETA has also used "Got Beer?" and "Not Milk." But no matter how PETA plays it, experts insist that drinking milk has neither antibiotics or pus. Indeed the response from the dairy and meat industries has historically been heated, with industry heads strongly denying PETA's allegations and often rubbishing them.

Currently every tanker of milk is tested for both components when it leaves the farm and when it arrives at a processing plant, said Tom Leitzke, director of the Bureau of Food Safety and Inspection in the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Under federal regulations, set by the Food and Drug Administration, milk must be dumped if it has any trace of antibiotics, Leitzke said. Milk also must be dumped if it has too many somatic cells, white cells that can indicate mastitis, an udder infection.

Such occurrences mean that the entire tanker is dumped at the expense of the offending dairy farmer, Leitzke said.

"The cost of a tanker of milk is about $5,000," depending on the price of milk, he said.

Farmers who routinely violate standards can have their licenses downgraded from Grade A to Grade B, which will translate into a substantial pay cut, or they can lose their licenses altogether.

"In the first half of this year, we've dumped 215 tanker-loads of milk, which totals over 7.8 million gallons," he said.

Somatic cells are white cells that are present in both humans and cows, said David Reid, a dairy veterinarian in Hazel Green. While white blood cells are present in pus, they do not constitute pus in and of themselves. At proper levels, somatic cells prevent cows from getting mastitis, Reid said. High levels of somatic cells in milk indicate that a cow is sick and should not be milked until it is treated, he added.

National debate has raged in the industry over the past years on whether the United States should lower its maximum somatic cell count from the current level of 750,000 per millilitre to 400,000 per millilitre, the standard in Europe.

In Europe PETA has launched similar awareness campaigns, but the problem with pus in dairy produce is not generally deemed to be as pronounced in the US because of tighter regulations. There the use of antibiotics to treat such infections is much less also.

The average somatic cell count in the US state of Wisconsin, where studies have been carried out on milk contents, is about 400,000 per millilitre, Leitzke said. Most farmers now aim at 100,000 to 200,000 per millilitre.

Lowering the limit might aid international trade, but it has no impact on human health, Reid said.

"The FDA has found that there's no evidence that those somatic cell counts have any impact on people who consume those products," he said.

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