Myth Buster: There’s pus in the milk! (No, not really)

When you’re a city kid, like me, and you’ve grown up disconnected from the farm world, like me, it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s false when it comes to what you eat and where it comes from.

I’ve read it in books. I’ve heard it from peers. I’ve heard it from smart, educated people whom I respect. “There’s pus in the milk! The milk pumps irritate the udder, and there’s blood and pus that comes out with the milk! I saw a video of it!”

… no. My farm-savvy relatives nipped that one in the bud the moment I mentioned it. And now I have the opportunity to hang around dairies regularly and report what goes on.

Here’s a basic rundown of how it works at a California dairy. The cows are milked about twice a day. So far, I’ve never seen pus come out of udders as I stand to watch, washing off my work boots in the milk parlor. I see the dairy workers “stripping” the milk—a phrase that means “squirting some milk from the udder on the floor so they can see if there’s any pus or blood in it”. I see the dairy workers dipping the teats in a “pre-dip”, an antiseptic to kill bacteria (all the cows are using the same milk pumps so you want to make sure you prevent disease outbreak in the same way that you would wash your hands). These little suction pumps are put on the cows and they are milked. Purportedly, they enjoy this—some of them wait outside the milk parlor to be milked. Then, the dairy workers dip the teats again so no bacteria gets inside the teat. Bactera can cause a painful condition called mastitis.

Some humans might be familiar with mastitis. It happens to women as well. And whether you are a cow or a woman, lactation always carries a risk for mastitis. The symptoms? Inflammation, pus and blood.

But wait. I just said there ISN’T pus in the milk, right?

Let me explain.

First of all, there was the milk stripping that happened before anyone was milked. If there was, the cow would be marked to go to the sick pen. After that, guess what the curative treatment is?

You milk it out.

This milk doesn’t go into the bulk tank (where all the other milk is) but you have to milk out the pus to give the udder a chance to heal. Maybe this process is what people are seeing in undercover dairy videos. But it wouldn’t go into the bulk tank at a conventional dairy. Practically impossible.

Want to know why?

We got to the part where the cows were already milked. The milk is then stored in a bulk tank, where it awaits the milk truck to take it all away. The man on the truck takes a small sample of the milk for testing, which will go to a lab. The man then loads all the milk on the truck, to be pooled with all the milk the truck picked up from different dairies that day.

The milk sample goes to a lab. The lab tests for something called “somatic cell count”—a high number of somatic cells indicates potential mastitis. The magic number for the federal government is not exceeding 750,000 cells per milliliter. Remember, some cells are not avoidable. They’re tiny. Whenever you touch anything, you leave your cells behind–same thing for a cow. Nevertheless, California standards are stricter—not exceeding 600,000 cells per milliliter. As if to say, We’re California. We Take Our Milk Seriously.

But that’s not all. California tests for bacterial counts, generally, and coliform counts, specifically (coliform is a bacterial strain reflective of sanitation). Again, it’s impossible to have no bacteria. It’s impossible to live in an antiseptic world. The magic numbers for California: (Raw milk) not more than 50,000 bacteria per milliliter of milk. Not more than 750 bacteria per millilliter of laboratory-pasteurized milk. Not more than 750 coliform bacteria per milliliter of laboratory-pasteurized milk. (Market milk) not more than 15,000 bacteria per milliliter of milk. Not more than 10 coliform bacteria per milliliter of milk.

What happens if one sample from one dairy exceeds the limits?

All the milk on that truck is dumped. All of it. And the dairyman responsible for the waste pays for it.

So, no. Maybe, maybe you have trace amounts of red or white blood cells in milk, but like I said, it’s trace amounts.

And I keep hearing, “The blood is there, you just can’t see it because it was homogenized.” O.K. I’m no artist, but I didn’t know that red and white make white. Tell you what. Take a measure of blood, a good one or two ounces, and dump it in a half-quart of milk. Run your blender. When the blood disappears, call me.

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5 responses to “Myth Buster: There’s pus in the milk! (No, not really)

  1. Pingback: Is there pus in milk? | The Adventures of Dairy Carrie... I think I Need a Drink!

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed this article, do you have any more? How about taking the calf away from its mom. It’s funny cuz people assume cows have a natural mothering instinct like a human and automatically knows what they are supposed to do with the thing that just fell out of its rear. Thanks to cartoons we now give animals human thoughts.

    • Kelsie Do you really think that animals don’t have mothering instincts and feelings for their young?

      • Without commenting specifically on cattle, there has been a general trend to breed against the mothering instinct in domesticated animals. For example, junglefowl probably make good mothers, but many breeds–not all, but many–of domesticated chickens are fairly poor mothers. When I volunteered at a rescue ranch, we found chicks drowning in water troughs a number of times, and that was even though the hens had all but 3-4 chicks per mother taken away. They couldn’t even keep track of those few babies.

        Additionally, not all animals have mothering instincts. Mammals tend to be great mothers and sometimes even raise each baby as a community effort, but some animals die before their offspring are born, some mothers only care for the eggs but not after they hatch, and others abandon them immediately after giving birth. And then also, some mothers learn to be good mothers by helping raise their siblings first, rather than relying on pure instinct. Human mothers do have certain instincts but best practices are often learned from more experienced people.

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