Kansas Farmer Logo

Earning the public’s trust in food safety

Cowtowns & Skyscrapers: Modern science keeps our food supply safe, even during animal health events.

Jennifer M. Latzke, Editor

May 3, 2024

4 Min Read
milk tanker truck
SAFETY: Modern agriculture and science ensure that our food supply is safe: from the farm, to the milk truck, to the bottler, and ultimately, to consumer tables. But it’s on all of us to earn the public’s trust.Jennifer M. Latzke

Raising food is a dirty process, no matter how much we try to sanitize it.

Because we deal with living organisms that aren’t, by their nature, sanitized. Nature is gross, when you get right down to it. Animals poop where they will. Bacteria and viruses are around every corner, just waiting to make an animal or a person sick. The very acts of planting, cultivating and harvesting are dusty, dirty and smelly.

It’s definitely not up to the expectations of consumers who don’t even pick up after their dogs in the city park, but yet expect hermetically grown and sealed food on store shelves.  

Over the last century, modern agriculture has adapted methods and tools to help us clean up the process. We have come a long way from the horrors of the food supplies of the turn of the last century, where you couldn’t trust that the canned meat in the store was meat. We have a food safety “safety net” of government agencies, publicly traded food manufacturers and farmers, who all work together to make sure that the U.S. food supply is safe.

Still, each and every time there’s an animal health crisis, such as the ongoing issue with H5N1 influenza A in dairy cattle, the public trust needs to be addressed. We can never assume our consumers understand the safety nets that are in place for their protection, or that they trust the science behind them.

We can’t even assume our fellow farmers know them either.

Pasteurization works

Take pasteurization, for example. For more than a century, we’ve used the heat pasteurization process to increase our food safety not just here in the United States, but around the world as well. We heat milk to 161 degrees F for 15 to 30 seconds. This eliminates any pathogens to a level that does not pose a risk to consumer health, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Today, in order to participate in the Grade A milk program, dairies must follow the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance, and 99% of the commercial milk supply in the U.S. comes from farms that are in the Grade A milk program. This just means that they 1) either divert or destroy milk from sick cows (like those who exhibit symptoms of H5N1 influenza A) and 2) pasteurize their milk.

So, what about the reports from media of H5N1 detections in samples of milk on shelves?

We know that pasteurization inactivates viruses — but it doesn’t remove the presence of the viral particles, according to FDA. Yeah, that’s appetizing, isn’t it?   

Now, the H5N1 influenza A is new, so testing protocols are still being worked out. But we know that we can use quantitative polymerase chain reaction testing (that’s quite a long phrase, so let’s just stick to qPCR testing) to detect the presence of H5N1 in milk. FDA reports that it cannot detect actual virus risk to consumers, though.  

For that, scientists use additional egg inoculation tests, the gold standard for determining viable virus. And, according to FDA, “To date, we have seen nothing that would change our assessment that the commercial milk supply is safe.”

Read beyond headlines

The challenge is that media outside of agriculture, or off of the science beat, will just read “H5N1 detected in milk on shelves” and run with the sensational headline. They won’t read through the rest of the press release. Worse, elected officials and their staffs will not bother to read the rest — and instead start riling up constituents that milk isn’t safe.

Scaring consumers doesn’t help. It just chips away at the public’s trust in farmers.

Look, friends, FDA and its partners will continue to test milk up and down the supply chain and develop better testing to further ensure that milk continues to be safe on our shelves. State and federal movement orders and testing mandates will help us gather more data on how this virus is transmitted and how we might diagnose it in cattle more quickly so our treatment protocols can become more effective. The food safety net is working.

Read updates on HPAI at FDA's website, bit.ly/fdahpai.

Watch this video on milk and dairy safety from the International Dairy Foods Association:

About the Author(s)

Jennifer M. Latzke

Editor, Kansas Farmer

Through all her travels, Jennifer M. Latzke knows that there is no place like Kansas.

Jennifer grew up on her family’s multigenerational registered Angus seedstock ranch and diversified farm just north of Woodbine, Kan., about 30 minutes south of Junction City on the edge of the Kansas Flint Hills. Rock Springs Ranch State 4-H Center was in her family’s backyard.

While at Kansas State University, Jennifer was a member of the Sigma Kappa Sorority and a national officer for the Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. She graduated in May 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications and a minor in animal science. In August 2000 Jennifer started her 20-year agricultural writing career in Dodge City, Kan., on the far southwest corner of the state.

She’s traveled across the U.S. writing on wheat, sorghum, corn, cotton, dairy and beef stories as well as breaking news and policy at the local, state and national levels. Latzke has traveled across Mexico and South America with the U.S. Wheat Associates and toured Vietnam as a member of KARL Class X. She’s traveled to Argentina as one of 10 IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Agricultural Journalism. And she was part of a delegation of AAEA: The Ag Communicators Network members invited to Cuba.

Jennifer’s an award-winning writer, columnist, and podcaster, recognized by the Kansas Professional Communicators, Kansas Press Association, the National Federation of Presswomen, Livestock Publications Council, and AAEA. In 2019, Jennifer reached the pinnacle of achievements, earning the title of “Writer of Merit” from AAEA.

Trips and accolades are lovely, but Jennifer says she is happiest on the road talking to farmers and ranchers and gathering stories and photos to share with readers.

“It’s an honor and a great responsibility to be able to tell someone’s story and bring them recognition for their work on the land,” Jennifer says. “But my role is also evolving to help our more urban neighbors understand the issues our Kansas farmers face in bringing the food and fiber to their store shelves.”

She spends her time gardening, crafting, watching K-State football, and cheering on her nephews and niece in their 4-H projects. She can be found on Twitter at @Latzke.

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like