The Cow Factor

Novinite Insider » EDITORIAL | October 6, 2003, Monday // 00:00
The Cow Factor Bulls prove a rare view in Bulgaria nowadays almost like pure milk in this country that struggles to get in line with EU standards for dairy production. Photo by Yuliana Nikolova (

By Milena Dinkova

Unusual din has abruptly cast away the blissful drowsiness so he opened his eyes and started slowly lifting his body from the ground. As he struggled to get to his feet, the spectators who had gathered around him suddenly dropped their noisy conversations. They stared breathlessly as this 800-kilogram-creature was lazily wriggling up.

Most of them have never seen a bull at all (even if they have happened to visit farms) in this era of artificial insemination. They are city people - newspaper reporters who have had a three-hour ride to the east from Bulgaria's capital Sofia to come to the place where the bull Dinko rules over a herd of seventy cows. Actually, he is not the only attraction here, as the press people have also never seen a farm like this before. The Land O'Lake ranch near southeastern Bulgarian town Nova Zagora has few analogs in the country. And what makes it so unique is the fact that it is simply no different from the farms in the European Union.

Put aside this exemplary place and another fifteen that look like alike, and you'll come to realize Bulgaria has a milk problem. No, you are not mistaken - this is the country that is known worldwide as the home of yogurt!

Millions of people around the world, who do not have the slightest idea where Bulgaria is, happily swallow the content of packs labeled Bulgarian Yogurt every day. They believe this food will make them strong and healthy and with a good reason since the benevolent bacterium which is used to produce yogurt - Bulgaricum - has been proven to have wonderful effect on human organisms. At the dawn of the 20th century, French scholar of Bulgarian origin Iliya Mlechnikov was awarded the Nobel Prize for his research after he noticed Bulgarian villagers living mainly on yogurt often reached more than 100 years in age.

What is unique about this food is that the good bacterium that makes it can be found only in Bulgaria: a different climate causes it to mutate. The word "yogurt" which is now used around the globe but is usually snubbed by Bulgarians was also coined in the country. The ancient people that inhabited the territory of contemporary Bulgaria - the Thraceans - used to eat a lot of "thick milk" that in their language sounded like "yog urt."

However, in 1990s when European experts first came to the country (an EU applicant) to have a glimpse at indigenous farming, they found out that raw milk was being produced in a fashion much resembling the methods the Thraceans might have used. In Bulgaria, there are practically no big farms - most of the milk comes from village households that own one, two or three cows at best. Milking is usually done by hand and then the wholesome liquid is being stored and delivered to dairy mills in plastic Coca Cola bottles.

Of course, the European Union is not happy with that and it wants Bulgaria to adapt to its standards of raw milk production in order to get into the club. Brussels has given Sofia till 2010 -- a deadline that extends even beyond 2007 - the date scheduled for Bulgaria's entry into the Union (inspectors must have been really stunned!) -- to render dairy products good enough for Europe.

In an effort to comply the country has started with dairy mills. Indigenous inspectors have already shut down 300 out of the 652 mills counted in Bulgaria in 2000. According to Dr. Peycho Kopankov from Bulgaria's National Veterinarian and Medical Control Service, extremely bad hygiene was the ground for closing those mills, some of which housed in garages.

However, the expert says he and his colleagues are not yet done with the sloppy dairymen. "We do not carry guns so we are sometimes helpless when non-complying mill owners simply refuse too close down," Dr Kopankov complains. He proposes that mayors and police be assigned the authority to tackle such cases upon a signal from the medical control service - a solution the doctor has seen working out well during a recent business trip to Italy.

It is mainly due to the efforts of such inspectors that Bulgaria seems to have made progress in revamping its mills. The mission that Brussels dispatched to the country's mills from September 15 to 19 found no fault with the methods used to process the Bulgarian milk. However, they still had recommendations to make that (might be a bit embarrassing!) sounded like this: Keep the flies out, rub the stain away and wash the mud off the floors!

What the European Commission really wants is pure milk, free of germs and antibiotics. It has set a standard of less than 100,000 microorganisms and 300,000 somatic cells in a litre of raw milk. Bulgaria currently has an elaborate quality/price system in which the best milk has up to 300,000 microorganisms and 400,000 somatic cells. A way too much!

So it is high time to have a peep into the milking rooms as well. Germs are really speedy at multiplying when given the opportunity to thrive outside the fridge - only in the first hour after the cow have been milked one bacillus has turned into ten others. You can imagine what breeding spree rages in the above-mentioned plastic bottles.

To prevent "pollution", milk should be kept cool all the way from the cow's udder to the consumer's shopping bag. It takes expensive equipment such as that in the Land O'Lake farm - the one that welcomed the group of journalists who started getting more curious about milk production as the EU deadline presses closer.

The government in Sofia in set not to allow dairy mills purchase raw milk that does not fit European standards after 2010. That will make the families of those farmers who fail to buy the necessary equipment their only clients. And since you cannot afford to spend thousands of euros on machines when you milk only two cows, the situation in Bulgaria looks as a stalemate and bodes social unrest.

To avoid the looming calamity, some dairy producers are already thinking of solutions. Land O'Lake is the product of such a mindful approach on the part of yogurt maker Danone-Serdika, a branch of French DANONE Group. The company helped the ranch's owners buy cutting-edge equipment with a loan payable in raw milk. Danone-Serdika which boasts more than seven brands and 40 products in its portfolio currently plans to invest 40 million Bulgarian levs to assist local farmers live up to Europe's expectations.

At this stage, Land O'Lake and several other Danone-contracted farms produce raw milk that is exceptionally pure even for European standards. According to Evgenia Stoitchkova, marketing director at Danone-Serdika, this makes yogurt so good that it actually suffers something as a boomerang effect in a country not yet used to high quality. She calls that the Danone mythology: people think the company uses inhibitors and does not put in the Bulgaricum bacterium since its products won't spoil for twenty one to thirty-four days: much more than what Bulgarians have come to expect. "In fact there is no mystery at all. We do everything as it should be done but we just use raw milk whose purity fits the European standard. And the purer the milk, the longer it lasts," Stoitchkova insists.

All this might indicate that Bulgaria -- so proud of its natural products wonderfully unaffected by farming abracadabras -- now also faces the cow factor. Maybe it is less daunting than the mad cow disease but it's still pretty annoying.

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