By Trina Wood
Chances are when you’re scooping that vanilla bean ice cream into your bowl for dessert, you’re focused on the flavor about to hit your taste buds, not on whether it may give you a foodborne illness.
That confidence in the safety of California’s dairy products — the state’s top agricultural commodity, valued at nearly $7 billion in annual retail sales — results in part from the efforts of the San Bernardino branch of the California Animal Health and Food Safety laboratory system.
This network of laboratories, headquartered at UC Davis and administered by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine on behalf of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, performs surveillance and diagnostic testing for livestock and poultry.
The San Bernardino laboratory carries out such work on milk and dairy products that are submitted by the state’s Milk and Dairy Foods Safety Branch. The lab’s on-site bacteriology section tests for a variety of disease-causing microbes including Listeria, Brucella, Salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli O157:H7 — all of which can cause severe illness and even death.
Protecting against foodborne diseases
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year roughly one in six Americans (or 48 million people) get sick with a foodborne disease. Of these, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from these illnesses.
However, such diseases have almost been eliminated from licensed milk and dairy products, thanks, in large part, to a strong regulatory framework, including adherence to pasteurization and laboratory standards.
Approximately 1,500 samples of milk, dairy products and water arrive monthly at the San Bernardino lab resulting in approximately 4,200 tests conducted by a team of eight technicians. These microbiological assessments monitor bacteria populations and the effectiveness of pasteurization in destroying harmful bacteria.
Partnering with California
“The laboratory system has been a successful partnership between the state and UC Davis since 1987,” said its director, Richard Breitmeyer.
He noted that it was natural in the 1990s to expand the lab’s statewide regulatory testing services to include milk products. Before then testing was limited to samples from only Southern California.
In 2000, the California Department of Food and Agriculture was so impressed with the accuracy and timeliness of the California Animal Health and Food Safety laboratory system that it placed all such statewide regulatory compliance testing in the network of labs, in a move that enabled the state to cut costs, speed analysis and consolidate testing.
The San Bernardino lab
Three years ago, the state asked the laboratory system to also begin testing milk and dairy products for chemical components such as fat and protein content. The San Bernardino lab now provides this service.
“I’m proud of our efficiency,” says Jose Gallegos, the San Bernardino lab’s supervising dairy analyst, who has been with the laboratory system for 20 years and oversees the milk quality testing lab. “Results are rapid and consistent, and reduce the number of people who become ill in the event of an outbreak.”
The San Bernardino laboratory is considered the state reference lab for California and holds the distinction of being the only veterinary facility in the nation set up as a regulatory testing facility. In addition to running tests for the state, the laboratory also is certified by the U.S. Food and Drug administration, under the National Conference of Interstate Shippers program guidelines to run microbiological tests.
Testing dairy products
As part of this testing program, the state sends samples from three sources: the farm, processing plants and retail establishments where the finished product is sold. The lab also tests some exports such as ice cream for microbiological components and dry goods such as powdered milk.
State milk and dairy officials may submit samples from a location if a report comes in that someone has become ill after eating or drinking at a particular business. State and federal investigators also routinely check farmers markets and small establishments for raw or illegally processed milk and dairy products that could pose a serious health risk. Those products are sent to the San Bernardino lab to be tested for the presence of bacteria or improper pasteurization.
Samples sent to the lab must be transported at the proper temperature, arrive within 60 hours of collection and be properly packaged before they are tested for general bacteria populations. If the testing criteria aren’t met, those samples are rejected for testing and reported to the state for recollection. Any test results indicating the products were not produced in compliance with state regulations are reported to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which is authorized to enforce the regulations.
After milk samples have been analyzed for bacteria and other indicators of improper sanitation at a facility, they move on to be tested for drug residue and other unwanted substances such as antibiotics, which may have been used to treat sick cows.
Farmers are required to keep milk out of the supply line until the medication has cleared from the cow’s system and the milk meets strict requirements established by the FDA. Other testing, such as checking for proper pasteurization and possible water contamination, complements the tools used by state officials to ensure the quality and safety of the milk supply.
“We’re always looking at developing better tests and working with our partners to provide the highest level of service,” Gallegos says. “Knowing all the quality testing processes in place, I feel great about drinking milk!”
CAHFS is a public service program of the university. The primary objectives of the CAHFS are to provide appropriate and timely diagnostic support to safeguard the health of California’s dairy, livestock and poultry industries and to protect the public health from animal disease.