I work with farmers to help communities to access food. My interest in the dairy industry stems from being a consumer and family farm defender. Within the realm of farming, I find dairy attracts vocal criticism. It is an industry which is currently undergoing historical growth. It is becoming far more sophisticated with innovative technology in processing equipment, means of storage, and incorporating new ingredients in products such as cheeses and ice cream, while at the same time addressing environmental concerns relative to the increased focus on pathogen control. Any farmer’s ability to keep up with all of these changes amazes me. As an important piece of my own work, I can’t keep up with changes in social media and that seems small scale to me when I consider what my farmers face.

I pride myself in keeping up with topics important to farming. In my line of work defending the family farmer, as relating to food access in urban and rural communities, I use a variety of tools such as mucking through pastures beside my farmers and conversing with them while they slop pigs, herd cattle, and harvest vegetables; as well as social media, online research, conferences and scanning news releases. The latter of which inspires today’s writing.

This week Farmington, Maine’s Sandy River Farms made international headlines when the Maine Department of Agriculture released to media that their batch of whole milk being sold as pasteurized, didn’t pass the required testing for “pasteurized whole milk” labeling. Subsequently, the farm voluntarily recalled the batch, which amounted to about 30 gallons. Run by the York family for 60 years, they are a small dairy in the Western Mountains of Maine. In full disclosure, I love all of my farmers, because I understand their work ethic and dedication under the most trying of conditions in getting food to our tables. Even so, I endeavor, as my own reputation is at stake, to search out truth in the face of adversity. Such was the case this week.

Sandy River Farms

Yes, Sandy River Farms voluntarily recalled their last batch of whole milk, because it failed to pass this week’s inspection. Their milk is tested regularly, more than the industry standard of a couple of times a month. The York family is not unlike most dairy farmers, in priding themselves on providing the best tasting, safest, milk products we can buy. They see their customers as an extension of their own family. So this week when their whole milk being sold as pasteurized was reported as “stage 3” it was alarming because of this reason, not because the milk presented any danger.

Let’s put Stage 3 test results in perspective, because for sure, it can sound scary. Stage 1 indicates death can result, Stage 2 indicates there is a health hazard that could result in illness and stage 3 indicates no health risk. It means the milk didn’t pass the phosphatase test, which is an indicator the milk has not been heated sufficiently to qualify as “pasteurized”, in accordance with Maine’s dairy industry testing standards. As it doesn’t present a health risk, it is not typically reported to media. However, for the farmer, stage 3 results can indicate anything from failing equipment to operator error. A follow-up inspection indicated there was too much air space in the vat of milk, which can prevent the milk from heating to pasteurized status. All of their processing equipment checked out and the York’s will be following-up to make sure this doesn’t happen again. In the meantime, no more milk from this batch will be sold and the next batch will be tested before sale to be sure there are no lingering issues.

Media reported there was concern that pathogens could grow. Technically, that wasn’t the case, as no bacteria was present which would encourage such growth. When testing for pathogens, turnaround time, accuracy, and standardized testing is essential for safe milk products – pasteurized or raw. These are things which enable supply chain benefits to the farmer and the consumer. For the consumer the good news is that by expression in the media of a concern with a milk product, they have an opportunity not to be frightened, but to engage with their farmer and hear how milk is produced, what are true concerns that may impose a danger, and become more educated overall on concerns farmers face every day to get safe, wholesome products to the table.