Pure Genius

Do we need to worry about radiation in our milk?

Posting in Design

An expert from the country's largest dairy state talks about minuscule amounts of radiation, composting carcasses and the industry's aggressive new animal care program.

Dr. Michael Payne is a researcher and outreach coordinator at the Western Institute of Food Safety and Security (WIFSS), a center within the University of California’s School of Veterinary Medicine. He also directs the California Dairy Quality Assurance Program, which promotes the health and welfare of livestock, consumers and the environment. We spoke last week about miniscule amounts of radiation, composting carcasses and the industry’s aggressive new animal care program.

How are you responding to reports that low levels of radiation have been found in our milk from the West Coast?

To be completely transparent, I am not a radiation safety expert, and nobody inside our unit is doing that research. That said, as a milk safety person and a veterinarian and toxicologist, I do have some thoughts on this.

The important thing to remember is that the levels being recorded were 5,000 times below the levels set by the FDA. The modeling that’s been done with the EPA and FDA has always suggested that any fallout from a nuclear reactor accident in Japan would be exquisitely small, because of the 5,000 to 6,000-mile distance.

The thing is, there’s a very small amount of radioactive activity around us. Your body probably contains on the order of 120,000 pico-curies of radiation. We swim in a sea of radioactive activity. This minuscule amount from Japan is so low that it falls into the background category. I would have drank those milk samples without a second thought.

The amount of radioactive activity is extremely small and inconsequential to human health. We have very sensitive methodologies, so these amounts are detected. But I’m convinced that the only people harmed by the fallout as a result of radiation are the people who overdose on the potassium iodide pills [which some people have done]. They freaked. The idea is to take it to flush out your thyroid, but it only works if you’re exposed to radioactive activity.

What do you do to help dairy farmers in terms of outreach?

We do a combination of research and outreach. A lot of what I do is assist dairy producers in meeting their compliance. The California dairy industry is the most heavily regulated in the country. They’re really on the forefront with environmental issues and regulation. Central Valley dairy producers must, for instance, implement plans to ensure that manure is applied to crops at the right levels. They need engineered waste management programs, they need to make sure they have proper drainage and routine environmental monitoring.

For water quality regulations alone, over the last three years the cost per dairy, per year, has been about $55,000. While this includes one-time facility improvements, it does not include the costs of newly required groundwater monitoring testing, industry costs which are expected to be in the millions of dollars. The dairies have to submit hundreds of pages of documentation on air and water every year. What I think I see in the rest of the country is that they are following suit more slowly.

Exactly how big is the California dairy industry?

It’s the largest state dairy industry in the country. One out of every five glasses of milks is produced in California. It’s the state’s largest agricultural commodity, generating a total of $63 billion of economic activity and nearly half a million jobs. The state’s dairy herd is 1.8 million cows in about 1,600-1,700 dairies. The average dairy size is 1,000 cows.

What are some of the main issues you’re researching today at WIFSS?

My most recent research has to do with carcass disposal. [We’ve done] $300,000 worth of composting studies with adult dairy cow carcasses. All methods of disposal have some upsides or downsides. The best is probably rendering, but that faces both regulatory and economic hurdles. And sometimes it’s not available—such as in the case of outbreaks or poisoning. So what we were doing was determining how and if cows could be composted—in cow manure.

What did you find?

We found you could reduce the cows in 17 weeks to bone. We put salmonella, E. coli, anthrax inside and found out the temperatures at which the composting occurred cooked them out. We pretty much zeroed out the pathogens.

You offer workshops in air quality and water quality. What are you teaching in your animal care workshops?

The California dairy industry decided about two years ago that they needed a way to standardize evaluations of animal welfare. With the assistance of a variety of groups, they came up with the national FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) program.

The four major processors, responsible for 80 to 85 percent of the milk produced in California, all embraced the program. They start off with a second-party evaluation, with a 120-item checklist, including looking for things like calf care and body condition scoring, cleanliness. Our program gave 26 workshops, with about 800 participants. We explained the program and explained what it would be looking for and what it would tell them. Starting in June this year, third party evaluations will begin.

It’s a big deal. This is the most aggressive and comprehensive animal care program that’s been embraced by the dairy industry ever. It gives assurance to large corporate buyers that there is something in place and that animal care is being addressed.

Who was pushing for this?

The National Milk Producers Federation took the lead. There was an understood need to respond to consumer concerns, and good animal care is good for the farms’ overall sustainability. And there certainly was a need on the part of large corporate buyers—Wal-Mart, Safeway, Costco. Corporations that would buy a large amount of cheese from a particular creamery needed to know that things at the farm were being handled in sustainable fashion.

Did you see the HBO movie on Temple Grandin?

I loved the movie! I’ve had dinner with Temple Grandin. I love her to death. A lot of what I do right now relates to animal welfare. She’s been really helpful. When we were designing our outreach program, I got her input on things.

Such as?

I was questioning her on how we teach about farm euthanasia. If you would read her stuff, which I do--all of it--she’d say you’d want a calf care program, a nutrition program, there’s going to be cleanliness issues and disease prevention issues. When an animal becomes injured or very sick, then human destruction/euthanasia is absolutely essential, including having a program in place so you have the necessary tools, people and training.

What else will you be working on down the road?

I don’t see the general focus changing. My guess is that we’ll be delving more into issues regarding appropriate drug use.

I think there’s an unfair bias about larger farms. People forget that with increased size in farms, you can regulate them more heavily. But we forget also there comes an economy of scale that also decreases their carbon footprint.

In 1944 there were 25.6 million dairy cows. That number has dropped to 9.3 million. So there’s only one-third the number of dairy cows now. But despite that, we’re producing 59 percent more milk. We’re producing more milk with fewer cows, and the dairy carbon footprint has decreased. So there are advantages in terms of having large, efficient farms, and I don't think people really appreciate that.

What makes a cow happy?

The absence of obvious distress. People don’t realize cows have a time budget. They will spend 12 to 14 hours laying down, resting and sleeping. Four to five hours eating during a period of nine to 14 hours. Two to three hours of social interaction. And 30 minutes drinking. They can be in free stalls or in pastures but in all of those situations, cows are free to exhibit their own natural behaviors. I think there’s a misperception about this—people think they’re all locked up or not moving for a reason. But you walk into a farm. and what you really want to see is a bunch of cows laying down and chewing their cud or eating.

You said you had to clean stables this morning before our conversation. Horses?

My wife’s horses. I’m a veterinarian, and I’m quite sure the only reason my wife married me was because I fix her horses.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure