Dairy Quality Assurance: Past, Present, and "Oh!", What A Future!

Mr. Tim Demland, OSU Extension Associate and Executive Director Ohio Dairy Producers 

Quality assurance has been around for many generations. At least at one level or another, producers and handlers have always taken precautions to ensure that a desired standard of quality has been met. In order to help assure dairy's reputation as one of nature's most perfect foods, the dairy industry has wisely placed a priority on providing a high quality, safe, and nutritious product through both market incentives and industry regulation.

Competition for a place in consumers diets from other protein sources demands that the dairy industry continues to work toward these ends. In today's marketplace, retailers were some of the first to recognize the trend of escalating consumer expectations and have adjusted their marketing practices to keep pace. Therefore, in keeping with the dairy industry's tradition of providing a top notch product, it will be prudent for dairy stakeholders to anticipate consumer demands, and then fine tune production philosophies to better meet these new market opportunities.

It does not take much time for one to come to the realization that the customers of tomorrow will continue to require more. Not only will there be a call for high quality and safe products, there also will be greater expectations that foodstuffs be produced in a manner that is both environmentally friendly and humanely sound. There also will, most likely, be a requirement for a practical means to verify that these production conditions are met.

At first, these prerequisites might appear to be unrealistic, but when one considers all the events that have been taking place throughout the world, it actually becomes quite logical. Increasing consumer expectations in reality are about the only way that an informed society can practically respond to the "News" of our day, such as the latest health "study", continual threats of terrorism, and the increased activities and notoriety of anti-livestock groups.

An Example Has Already Been Set!

Fortunately, several livestock industries have already begun to address these issues, and it may be helpful for dairy stakeholders to explore their initiatives to get a better understanding of what quality assurance programs are all about. In response to marketplace demands, both the poultry and pork industries have implemented programs to help producers meet consumer's expectations. One of the most successful means has proven to be the implementation of the on-farm quality assurance programs. These programs help producers identify improvements that can be made in daily activities that not only boost customer confidence but also assist producers in becoming as efficient as possible. Through the programs, producers are instructed in the proper use of practices that have been proven to be the most effective.

Upon completion of on-farm third party audits and verifying the regular use of Best Management Practices (BMP), producers are eligible to receive certification in their respective quality assurance (QA) program. In many cases, processors have accepted the programs so completely that they require certification in order to gain access to the market. These QA programs have become widespread as an industry standard because of this marketplace support.

The situation is somewhat different in the dairy industry because the industry has developed a standard of quality performance supported by product testing and regulation to provide access to its markets. This system of inspection and testing has proven reliable in meeting past standards of quality and safety, but today's marketplace expectations are changing! Besides looking just for a wholesome, high quality product, consumers have begun to ask questions, such as: "How was this produced?" "How were the animals treated?" and "Did the production process harm the environment?"

Many industry experts have spent abundant hours attempting to affirmatively answer these questions, some of which are unmistakably fundamental to a dairy producer's daily routines. Yet, certain doubts continue to arise regardless of the industry's best efforts to appease consumers concerns. Therefore, the question remains, "How does the dairy industry meet the increased needs and demands of the consuming public as well as providing producers the best possible opportunity to remain sustainable?"

Fortunately again, the dairy industry does not have to reinvent the QA process. A wonderful foundation has already been laid by other livestock industries. All that is needed is a little industry specific expertise to develop and implement a dairy quality assurance (DQA) program and the industry's own set of BMP. Of better news yet is the fact that the dairy industry has already been active in this area and that there are several options that can be utilized.

California, through the use of government funds, has implemented the California Dairy Quality Assurance Program and adopted a "voluntary program that provides education, resources, and funding for the certification of dairy producers in the following areas":

1. Environmental stewardship,
2. Johne's Disease,
3. Food safety and emergency preparedness, and
4. Animal welfare.

Producers who have completed the program consider it a worthwhile investment. One participant provided his impression: "We wanted to do the right thing and getting certified through the third party evaluation was a way of earning recognition for the work we'd done. We also were able to identify a few other minor alterations that needed to be worked on. The solutions were surprisingly practical and straightforward. We saved money by knowing what really needed to be fixed and what was fine. Now we're really confident that our dairy is in compliance. The investment has paid for itself in peace of mind." (taken from the California DQA program brochure)

There is also a good example on the east coast of DQA programs. The New York State Cattle Health Assurance Program (NYSCHAP) "is an integrated disease prevention program which utilizes a team of advisors in developing a farm specific herd health plan". The NYSCHAP offers a series of educational modules that assist NY dairy producers to:

1. Define farm goals and areas of concern,
2. Assess health risks to the herd,
3. Develop a herd plan,
4. Review the herd plan with dairy personnel to ensure its proper implementation, and
5. Review the plan quarterly with the herd veterinarian and annually with the entire herd health team.

Much of the information that NYSCHAP offers is available through a detailed on-line program, but the success of the program relies on the active participation from the producer, herd veterinarian, nutritionists, key employees, and any other advisor the manager deems to be a vital link in the success of his operation (http://nyschap.vet.cornell.edu).

Ohio Dairy Producers and Dairy Quality Assurance

In response to current market trends and taking the example of other livestock industries into consideration, the leadership of the Ohio Dairy Producers has begun to investigate and to establish an Ohio DQA certification program. The merits of a proactive and producer driven program far outweigh any drawbacks that can be foreseen because meeting the needs of a viable and growing market has to be the top priority of any industry in order for it to remain healthy and sustainable. Dairy producers, like most other product suppliers, need to move past the idea of correcting problems as they occur. They need to move towards and accept the concept of identifying critical control points along the production process and then implement the BMP available. The goal is to stop problems/inefficiencies before they occur. When this is done, then records can be used to critique and adapt these BMP to increase efficiencies even more.

In other words, if dairy producers in Ohio are to continue to compete with producers in other states and around the world, they will need to identify and implement systems that enable them to improve productive performance and assist them in maintaining compliance with an ever increasing level of governmental regulation and environmental responsibility.

The Five-Star Dairy Quality Assurance Certification Program

Before a program can be adopted, certain perimeters must be established. First, the program must be practical and effective in identifying the industry's generally accepted BMP. Secondly, the program must have a reliable means of evaluation and a high level of credibility. Thirdly, the program must guarantee confidentiality! Fourth, it must be able to adapt new technologies and regulations as well as be able to give sound evidence as to the viability of its standards. Fifth, it must be broad in scope, encompassing great diversity, yet firmly promoting fundamental practices. Finally, a successful DQA program will need to be widely accepted by the entire industry.

In considering all these factors, the Ohio Dairy Producers has identified the FIVE-STAR Dairy Quality Assurance Program as just such a program. Its authors and administrators are the same as those that have developed the Milk and Dairy Beef Quality Assurance Program - a program that dairy producers across the entire Nation have come to know because of its use as an educational enforcement tool to address milk adulteration and antibiotic violations.

The FIVE-STAR Dairy Quality Assurance Program is a national voluntary quality assurance program for the dairy industry. Its developers state� "It's not enough to just do business as usual and assume everything is OK! Each dairy needs to prove its case, to be able to 'show the evidence'." Consumers want proof that the owner, the management team, and/or the employees:

  • Provide approved animal care,
  • Manage nutrients to protect the soil, water, and animals,
  • Utilize family and hired labor correctly,
  • Provide safe and high quality milk,
  • Implement pathogen management to protect the public, and
  • Market safe and wholesome beef.

"The FIVE-STAR Dairy Quality Assurance Program goes beyond the law! It is not a 'meet the minimum' program."

FIVE-STAR also comes with a host of industry endorsements. Organizations such as the Food Marketing Institute, National Council of Chain Restaurants, Holstein Association, National Mastitis Council, Milking Machine Manufactures Council, Professional Dairy Heifer Growers Association, and American Association of Bovine Practitioners are just some of those who have given their support to its use.

One of the great advantages to the Program is that the individual producer is allowed to determine the extent to which he/she would like to become involved. The first step in earning recognition in the Program is to complete a Producer Self-Audit using DQA Consultation Guides or other appropriate materials. When this has been completed, producers then can request a "Walk-Through" verification. This is the second step of the program and is done by a DQA Certified Professional Consultant. Upon the completion of a successful "Walk-Through", the farm will be awarded either THREE STARS for above average dairy farms or FOUR-STARS for dairy farms that are committed to meeting the DQA standards. However, only the best dairy farms earn the FIVE-STAR Rating. A producer can also request additional "Walk-Through" in order to obtain a higher rating.

"When completed, each individual certification will serve as positive proof that the dairy industry is committed to providing consumers with products that are consistently safe, high quality, and produced in a responsible manner that is cost effective for producers."

"Quality is not a destination-it is a continuous journey."