Chinese milk quality

Quality of milk in China has improved since the melamine scandal, but consumers still lack confidence in purchasing milk produced in China.

Quality is ultimately what sells milk and builds a bridge of trust with consumers. The melamine scandal, even seven years later, still impacts consumer confidence in milk produced in China. Quality has improved by some measures, but is still lagging in others. 

The average somatic cell count (SCC) of milk in China was around 600,000 cells per ml in 2008. In a relatively short period, that level has been reduced to below 300,000 in 2015. Many other countries have achieved that level of quality, or better, but the rate at which China achieved it is remarkable.

As a Michigan State University Extension dairy cattle health and production educator, I had the opportunity to speak at the University of Minnesota China Dairy Conference in Hohhot, China this October. There were two tracks producers could attend; one was on mastitis and milk quality, supported by National Mastitis Council (NMC). Many attended this track and showed great interest in learning more about milk quality. 

The China story of milk quality seems good, but behind the good news, there are reasons for deep concern. First, averages don’t reveal anything about the range for SCC. In an informal survey of Chinese farms by DeLaval, 27 farms (70 percent milked, more than 1000 cows) responded with the quality measures from their most recent test. Of those farms, 11 percent shipped milk with a SCC of greater than one million cells per ml. 

Somatic cell count is only part of the story about milk quality. In a presentation at the conference by Lynda McDonald of DeLaval in China, she reported on quality problems that must be addressed for the industry to produce products that meet international quality standards and gain the confidence of the Chinese consumer. 

Foremost among the structural problems for dairy is the pricing system that does not consider quality. While quality and components are measured, pricing is based solely on volume. Quality standards are either not set by the government and left to individual processors to determine or are set at levels much less stringent that in other major dairy countries. 

The total bacteria count (TBC), equivalent to the Standard Plate Count, standard in China is 2,000,000 cfu per ml. Most farms do better than that, but still the official average is currently 160,000. In the U.S., by comparison, a common SPC standard is less than 10,000 cfu per ml and most farms maintain levels below 5,000. 

Pasteurization kills bacteria. However according to the Dairy Foods website, specific concerns with high bacteria in raw milk include: increased risk of some cells surviving pasteurization with subsequent outgrowth and spoilage; production of heat-resistant enzymes at sufficient levels to cause quality defects; and milk that is already damaged when processed. High bacteria counts in raw milk are associated with levels of microbial enzymes that affect fermentation and cause breakdown of proteins and fat. 

Of the farms that responded to the survey, 26 percent shipped milk with greater than 100,000 cfu per ml TBC, a level which does not meet international standards for the sale of milk. Only 11 percent had a TBC less than 10,000 cfu per ml. Similar percentages carried through with Total Coliform Count and Lab Pasteurized Count. Clearly, bacterial quality is a critical area in which improvement is needed. 

Where payment is based on milk volume alone and business integrity is not strong, the temptation to add water exists. Based on freezing points (FP) greater than negative 0.51 degrees Celsius (C), McDonald estimated that 25 percent of producers had added water in their milk, with 11 percent having added a significant amount (FP greater than negative 0.49 degrees C). Beyond the integrity issue of diluted milk, and the deceit inherent in shipping adulterated milk, is the fact that water quality is also a problem in some areas of China with the potential for water to be contaminated with heavy metals and bacteria. If the water was contaminated, adding it to milk contaminates the milk as well. 

Vertical integration and standardization of operations provide opportunity to improve quality, but quality begins with personal commitment by all involved and is backed up with integrity. In China, those ingredients need to be chosen and developed so that Chinese consumers can have faith in dairy products “made in China”.

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