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A cold glass of milk

By Antonia Giuliano

Cheese. Yogurt. Ice cream. Sour cream. A glass of cold milk served with a freshly baked cookie. New Yorkers enjoy these foods thanks to the state’s strong dairy industry, made of up farmers, processors, haulers, inspectors, and more who work together every day under a national uniform structure to ensure the safety and consistency of dairy products. But the dairy industry in the Empire State was not always this way, and there is a 100-year history that explains why our favorite dairy products are safe to eat today.

Before the US Public Health Service introduced the Standardized Milk Ordinance in 1924, which is now called the Grade “A” Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO), safety measures for milk, including pasteurization, were inconsistently applied between and within states. Pasteurization is the process of heating raw milk to a certain temperature for a specific amount of time to kill harmful bacteria. It’s thanks to pasteurization and other safety standards that milk and dairy products in the United States are some of the safest dairy foods in the world.

While pasteurization was first used in 1862, it was not incorporated into dairy sanitary regulations until many decades later. According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), one out of every four foodborne illnesses was directly related to dairy consumption before the PMO became the national standard. Now, for every two billion servings of pasteurized milk or milk products consumed in the US, less than one person gets sick.

Safety Standards
New York State Archives records demonstrate the prevalence of milk-borne illnesses before pasteurization. In the 1920s, hundreds of outbreaks occurred throughout New York State, with thousands of individual cases and hundreds of deaths reported. Cases of septic throat, scarlet fever, typhoid fever, and diphtheria were traced back to contaminated milk.

While the PMO’s establishment dates to 1924, it took several decades for a full federal-state dairy safety relationship to develop. New York State government responded to this public health issue by establishing uniform standards for fluid milk within the state. Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the matter during a Conference of Mayors, Health Officers, and Representatives of the Dairy Industry on March 11, 1930. Roosevelt stated that while certain cities, like New York City and Rochester, had determined that no milk or cream could be sold unless it had been inspected in accordance with the State Sanitary Code, many other munici-
palities in the state received milk and cream from uninspected sources, which may lead to health issues.

Over the next two days of the conference, the State Department of Health (DOH) and the Public Health Council worked to adopt a resolution that set the foundation for uniform dairy sanitation regulations in New York State. The March 12, 1930, resolution stated that milk brought into the state must be from sources inspected and approved by the New York State Health Department.

The safety of dairy products did not improve overnight after this resolution was signed, however. State officials worked for decades to improve dairy sanitation procedures and regulations, and to educate dairy farmers, dairy processors, and dealers on their role in dairy safety. A May 13, 1939, Saugerties Post news article featured a statement by Dr. Hollis Ingraham, a DOH official who later became the state Commissioner of Health under Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller from 1963 through 1975. Ingraham emphasized the critical nature of pasteurization in the milk supply, saying, “While we recognize good farm sanitation therefore, as the backbone of the production of clean, wholesome milk, we do not feel this alone answers the problem … we have to thank, in a large measure, the cooperation of our milk dealers. … The power to deal with the occasional unscrupulous dealer is on tap and is used on occasion, but we are more interested in correction than punishment and in securing cooperation through education rather than force.”

Despite the significant progress New York State made in the first few decades of the twentieth century to introduce dairy sanitation measures, outbreaks still occurred due to the lack of widespread adoption of pasteurization. Ingraham noted this in the same May 1939 statement, as he discussed the risk to New Yorkers in urban areas who were planning summer vacations in rural areas where unpasteurized milk was still common: “People in the urban areas, able to buy only safe milk, give no heed to milk consumed during vacation periods in rural areas, and the smaller villages and hamlets still consume enough raw milk to make up about 20 per cent [sic] of the state total.”

As populations grew, particularly in urban areas, the need grew for milk to be transported across state lines. However, before the PMO was established and adopted by all fifty states, there was no national structure for milk safety regulations, leaving each state to adopt its own sanitation standards. 

Milk Safety Program
The federal government recognized the public health concerns emerging from the lack of national uniform regulation around dairy safety. In a US Senate Committee on Agriculture report dated December 22, 1926, the Committee agreed with bill HR 11768 to regulate the importation of milk and cream for the purpose of promoting the dairy industry and protecting public health. The committee cited a statement from Roy E. Batchelder, dairy inspector for the state of New Hampshire, regarding how the adoption of dairy safety regulations in certain municipalities, like New York City, had resulted in improvements in both dairy safety and consumption. He stated, “These regulations in many cases have been in force from 10 to 15 years, and in the case of the city of New York have resulted in the doubling of the per capita consumption of milk, because the people have felt safe in drinking it.”

During the next several decades, the understanding of federal and state authority over the dairy industry evolved. State milk control authorities, expressing frustration over the lack of movement of fluid milk across state lines in many parts of the country due to varying regulations, held the first National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments (NCIMS) in June 1950. Over the next several years, NCIMS worked to bring more states into the organization, which ultimately led to the FDA signing a formal agreement with NCIMS in 1977 to form the cooperative federal-state milk safety program that exists today.

All fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico currently follow the PMO. While the DOH began New York State’s milk control program in the 1930s, the program was later transferred to the authority of the State Department of Agriculture and Markets, where it exists today as the Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services.

Today, the division’s forty-five field staff and inspectors conduct public health inspections across approximately 320 permitted facilities and oversee ninety-eight Certified Milk Inspectors (CMIs), who provide direct oversight to New York’s almost
3,000 dairy farms.

The 100th anniversary of the PMO in 2024 is a reminder of the public health accomplishment that is embodied by our ability to enjoy a cold glass of milk, the dollop of sour cream on your baked potato, or a cup of yogurt in the morning.

The Archives Connection

The New York State Archives holds abundant records pertaining to New York State’s
dairy industry. This article relied on many State Archives records collections, including the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets Division of Agricultural Promotion Services Publicity Photographs (Series 14457), New York State Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt Central Subject and Correspondence Files (Series 13682-82A), New York State Governor Herbert H. Lehman Central Subject and Correspondence Files (Series 13682-53), and New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets Division of Marketing Director’s Subject and Project Files (Series A0702).

Antonia Giuliano is a senior policy advisor for food and dairy at the New York State
Department of Agriculture and Markets.