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Minimising Hormones and Antibiotics in Dairy Products: When being 'natural' can mean using clever technology

Published: 14 Jun 2010

By Joe Lederman
FoodLegal Lawyers and Consultants
© Lawmedia Pty Ltd, June-July 2010

I recently visited Israel and was very impressed by an array of outstanding technologies that I saw in agricultural and food industries during my visit. Several dairy groups and leading research companies showed me various technologies being used by the dairy industry.

One of the most interesting ones was an electronic technology to monitor the natural behaviours of animals. The following article elaborates on this technology.

Around the world, food marketers emphasise the goodness of all things ‘natural’, so it is unusual to see a technology that can enhance a more natural way of doing things. While the Israeli dairy industry itself operates on very intensive feed-based lines and lacks the space for pasture-based dairy production systems, nonetheless some technologies have potential for use in ‘organic’ and other natural systems of production too without compromising the organic or natural status of the final product.

This article features a technology called the Heatime® system, which potentially facilitates reduced usage of hormones and antibiotics. It provides a simple illustration of how farmers can maximise the goodness of nature through a man-made technology. Unfortunately there are some people who decry modern technology for farmers and seemingly prefer ‘natural’ disasters to the alternative course of taming the best of nature for the common good.

Declaration of Author: Joe Lederman hereby declares that he has no financial interest in marketing the Heatime® system presented by him in this article. It was one of numerous impressive technologies that he saw operating throughout the revamped Israeli dairy industry.

Background to the use of hormones and antibiotics in dairy farming

1.      Background to the use of antibiotics: Hormones are typically used throughout Australia in dairy farming to synchronize oestrus (i.e. cows ovulating, also known as being on ‘heat’) across the cow herd and to increase success in a breeding program such as through a timed artificial insemination based breeding program.

A cow produces milk only after calving and it is therefore a common practice in modern dairy farms to shorten calving cycles in order to increase production and profitability. In order to achieve this end, dairy farmers need to determine when a cow is ovulating and ready for artificial insemination. Traditionally, heat detection has been done with visual observation, but high labour costs and the degree of inaccuracy involved has led to the decline of this natural method for monitoring cow ovulation cycles. As dairy herd sizes have grown, farmers have sought simpler and more expedient means to enhance profitability through oestrus synchronisation by means of the injection or implant of hormones into the cow so that the cows come into heat at a predetermined time, thus facilitating more efficient artificial insemination with higher success rates and more frequent and shorter calving cycles. 

2.      Hormone usage: Hormones are chemicals that are produced naturally in the bodies of all animals, including humans. They control important body functions such as growth, development and reproduction. The types of hormones that are already used for oestrus synchronization, such as estradiol and progesterone, are female sex hormones naturally present in milk.

As it is difficult to differentiate between the sex hormones produced naturally by the cow and those used to synchronize oestrus, scientists have few certain ways of measuring how much of the hormones used for oestrus synchronization remain in the milk. Different cows produce their natural hormones at different rates compared with other cows, which makes it even more difficult to judge the difference between the same hormones to the hormones that are quite naturally found in the cow. 

3.      Health concerns about using Hormones: Scientific studies on any dangers of consuming milk with hormone residues from oestrus synchronization have been inconclusive.

On the one hand, a study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health claimed that there could be a causal link between dairy consumption and hormone-dependent cancers such as testicular cancer and breast cancer. A comparison of diet and cancer rates in 42 countries among men aged between 20 and 39 showed that testicular cancer rates were highest in countries like Switzerland and Denmark, where milk and cheese consumption is high, while countries such as Algeria, where dairy is not widely consumed, produced lower rates of such cancer.

However, on the other hand, the amount of hormones present in milk is negligible relative to the amount of naturally produced hormones in the human body. Furthermore, cancer may take many years to develop, and the impossibility of distinguishing between hormones naturally present in milk and residues from oestrus synchronization means that scientists could never state conclusively that drinking milk from oestrus synchronized animals
would be a cause for the development of a hormone-dependent cancer.

Furthermore, it would be difficult, in most instances, to prove that a cancer is necessarily hormone-generated or hormone-dependent.

4.      Regulations in place in Australia with regards to hormones in milk: Synthetic hormones are regulated as a chemical residue under Standard 1.4.2 of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (‘Food Standards Code’). Unless a chemical is listed in Schedule 1 of the Food Standards Code, there must be no detectable residue of that chemical.

However, ‘chemical’ in Standard 1.4.2 is defined to exclude ‘a substance naturally present in food’. Therefore, it is likely that the presence of naturally occurring hormones (as opposed to synthetic hormones) for oestrus synchronisation, such as progesterone and estradiol, might not be restricted by any current provision of the Food Standards Code.

5.      Antibiotics in dairy farming: In addition to hormone residues found in milk, the use of antibiotics in dairy farming has also raised expressions of concern. Antibiotics are used to control diseases and the nutritional well-being of livestock. However, the use of antibiotics in dairy farming, such as for the treatment of mastitis in cows, has created problems for both milk processors and consumers.

For dairy processors, antibiotic residues after mastitis treatment can inhibit cheese and yoghurt starter cultures, while for consumers, exposure to antibiotics in milk may lead to the development of antibiotic resistance. In extreme cases, some antibiotic residues in milk, such as penicillin, may even induce allergic reactions in sensitive individuals.

The food safety concerns of antibiotic residues in milk are not just focused on the health of an individual, but also on the effect of creating antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria and the weakening of immunity and disease resistance throughout the population. This issue has previously been considered in a FoodLegal Bulletin article in August 2007 titled “Antibiotic use in the food-chain” (click here).

6.      Antibiotic residues in milk and organic farming regulations in Australia: According to Clause 3.2.2.1 of the “Code of Practice for Dairy Food Safety”, produced by Dairy Food Safety Victoria, only antibiotics registered by the National Registration Authority (NRA) may be used to treat cows. [The NRA has since been succeeded by the Australia Pesticides and Veterinary Medicine Authority, see link here: http://www.apvma.gov.au/]

As with the regulation of hormones, the maximum permissible limits for antibiotic residues in milk are set out under Standard 1.4.2 of the Food Standards Code. Milk containing more than the maximum residue limit must not be sold for human consumption, and is typically dumped or segregated from all other milk for separate disposal. (It is believed from anecdotal information that sometimes this milk may be fed to male calves that are to be slaughtered for their meat. This may raise other issues that might be the subject of other discussion).

In addition to the Food Standards Code requirements and any applicable industry codes of practice, organic dairy farms must also comply with either the ‘Australian Standard for organic and biodynamic products’ (AS 6000-2009) for organic product destined for the domestic Australian market or the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) administered ‘National Standard for organic and bio-dynamic produce’ (the ‘AQIS Organic Standard’) for exported organic products. Under clause 2.15.2.4 of the AS 6000-2009, antibiotics may only be used to treat a sick animal if phytotherapeutic (plant extracts) or homeopathic (plant, mineral or animal substances) alternatives have been used as the first remedy and shown to be ineffective. After treatment, milk from the antibiotic-treated animal must not be added to the bulk tank for 180 days if the farm wants to maintain its ‘organic’ status.  These requirements are mirrored under clause 3.15 of the AQIS Organic Standard.

Can a technology overcome these concerns?

Heat-detection technology as an alternative to the use of hormones synchronization: Heatime® is an animal behaviour monitoring system developed in Israel. The system uses a tag, attached to the cow’s neck, to measure a cow’s activity levels and their intensity. A cow entering oestrus (heat) typically becomes restless, leading to increased activity. This has allowed large herd dairy farmers to use the Heatime® system to accurately predict heat of each individual animal, avoiding the need for the use of hormones to synchronize the herd’s oestrus.

Using heat-detection technology to reduce the need for antibiotics: Rumination is a sign of a cow’s well-being. Changes in rumination provide early indications that a cow may be ill, and in turn, early detection makes it easier and cheaper for farmers to deal with the illness.

The same heat-detection system such as the Heatime® system can allow the farm to identify cows with lower-than-normal levels of activity and thereby track down whether the animal is sick. Taking immediate steps to treat the illness and prevent its deterioration and spread to other cows is therefore facilitated by the technology. Similarly, early detection of illness via rumination behaviours could mean that organic farmers do not have to resort to the use of antibiotics, or that the use of antibiotics can be minimised substantially. This in turn reduces the cost of dumping milk adulterated with antibiotic residue.

I was told since its inception in 2004, the system has yielded a 95% accuracy rate, while enjoying the advantage of being a non-intrusive device. The system is now being used in many countries.