Op-Ed | Food and animal safety are top priorities on New York’s family farms

Farmer pouring raw milk into container
New York’s Department of Agriculture and Markets focuses on bolstering the benefit of local farms by ensuring experts are able to support animal health and wellness.
Photo courtesy Getty Images

I entered veterinary school with the desire to work with food animals. Being part of providing a safe and nutritious food supply, while ensuring animals were well taken care of was really my dream. I can attest from my experiences visiting hundreds of farms throughout my 12-year career, the last four with the Department of Agriculture and Markets, that dairy farmers prioritize animal welfare and employee safety.

 Local veterinarians are often visiting farms weekly, and state veterinarians, like myself, visit annually to offer additional expertise. We keep an eye out for any emerging trends or disease that may compromise animal or food safety, educating farmers and other veterinarians to identify them quickly. 

A locally produced food supply is necessary to counter national supply chain frustrations and economic challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. New York’s Department of Agriculture and Markets focuses on bolstering the benefit of local farms by ensuring experts are able to support animal health and wellness. This improves the animal care and quality of the products that end up in our food pantries, groceries and farmers markets.

In addition to its high-profile management of the Great New York State Fair and the newly established Nourish NY program, the Department manages a team of regionally-based veterinarians, milk inspectors and food safety inspectors who are pivotal in overseeing the safety of the food we consume. Whether it’s a gallon of milk from a New York City bodega or cheese and yogurt from the local farmers market, consumers can rest assured that the animals behind each product received the highest quality care.

As a veterinarian, my expertise is in large animal medicine. I’ll spend several days each week visiting farms across the North Country. On each visit, I’ll tour barns, observe animals, visit with farmers and vets, and help facilitate conversations on improving animal health and welfare.

Oversight of milk and other dairy products is largely defined by the federal government under the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance, along with state law. Milk inspectors regularly visit family farms and milk “plants” to inspect milking, equipment and processing facilities, ensuring it continues to be safe and healthy for you and me to consume. There are even programs through Cornell’s Veterinary School designed to help support dairy farmers in providing quality milk. I had the honor of working that program for almost five years before joining the state.

When I’m not working my day job, I’m lucky to have additional and direct perspective of animal care through my husband’s 1,500-head dairy farm in St. Lawrence County. I can say through my experience that the effectiveness of processes in place on family farms, as well as the individualized care that animals receive, ensures that dairy products are safe and healthy. Thanks to checks and balances within the dairy industry and the teamwork of local and state veterinarians, incidents of diseases of concern to human health from food products are almost completely eliminated.

For many New Yorkers, knowing where your food comes from is important along with understanding how food is produced. I can assure you, as a veterinarian who has worn many hats, our family farms are working 365 days a year to make sure cows are healthy, well cared for and producing a safe, high quality, tasty product for you to feed your family. New York’s family farms, and the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets are key links in a supply chain that provides the biosecurity to keep animals and people healthy. 

I encourage consumers to follow the Department of Agriculture and Markets (@NYAgAndMarkets) on social media, as well as the New York Animal Agriculture Coalition (@NYAnimalAg), to learn more about farming and the care farmers provide to the animals, the land, and their teams of employees. The State Fair features a Dairy Cow Birthing Center (a favorite volunteer activity of mine), which is streamed live on YouTube and Facebook. This event offers a great opportunity for consumers to get answers to questions in real-time.

The more we talk about food, animal care, and the sustainability of local food, the more educated and better off we’ll all be.

Jessica Scillieri Smith is a New York state veterinarian specializing in food safety and security.

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