Unpasteurised Milk: A Raw Issue

[published in Irish Examiner, June 23rd 2011; listen to interview on RTE Radio 1 here]


Irish people love drinking milk: a recent study of milk consumption ranked Ireland third highest in the world. But just as consumers realise the benefits of drinking raw, unpasteurised milk, a new piece of legislation plans to ban Irish farmers from selling it to the public. 
It’s been two years since Kildare farmer Aidan Harney sold his first bottle of unpasteurised, or raw, cow’s milk.  As the owner of a 45-strong dairy herd, Aidan spent years selling his milk to a major organic processor for little more than cost price. It left him demotivated, and things were hanging on a knife edge. “We were going nowhere...it was either expand, diversify or sell up. We decided to diversify by going into direct sales.” Today, Aidan sells 400 litres of raw milk a week. 
Aidan is one of a handful of Irish dairy farmers who sell raw milk to the public, protected by 2006 EU hygiene legislation which legally permits it.  According to Aidan, who sells his raw milk for Euro 1.90 a litre, consumers can’t get enough. “We’ve seen a huge demand for it from people around here, just huge. The type of people who buy the raw milk are aware of the food they’re eating and they go out of their way to seek fresh, raw food”, he says.  What are the reasons they give for buying it raw? “They either drank raw milk when they were younger, or they want to move away from highly processed foods”, he says. “There are also those with dietary issues, like lactose intolerance, who can only drink untreated raw milk. They’re coming looking for it and everyone is happy.”
Aidan will soon be breaking the law. The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (DAFF) has drafted new legislation to prohibit farmers from selling raw milk from all animals species - including goats, cows and sheep - for direct human consumption. According to a DAFF spokesperson, this legislation is at an “advanced stage”, and it is motivated by the “necessity to safeguard public health”.  The number of people affected by this impending ban is not known, and  DAFF will not make available a list of farmers who sell raw milk in Ireland today.  The last survey of raw milk consumption looked at dairy farmers from eight counties in Ireland; 84% of them drank raw milk. 
DAFF first banned the sale of raw milk in 1996, prompted by food safety experts who expressed concerns over pathogens found in it. When EU legislation permitted the sale of it a decade later, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), the state body responsible for Irish food safety legislation, argued vociferously against the human consumption of raw animal milk.  They published information leaflets stating that raw milk can contain potentially fatal pathogens such as E. coli 0157:H7, campylobacter, tuberculosis, salmonellosis and brucellosis. They strongly recommend pasteurisation and warn that anyone drinking raw milk places themselves at “an unnecessary risk of serious illness”. FSAI’s chief executive, Professor Alan Reilly, who believes a ban should be implemented immediately, has said that “perfectly healthy animals contain human pathogens...we cannot assure, with the best farming practices available, that faecal contamination of the milk will not happen. The risk posed by it is such that it merits prohibition.” 
It’s the process of pasteurisation - heating milk to 71 degrees Celsius for 15 seconds - that kills harmful organisms, and raw milk advocates argue that in doing so, essential vitamins and nutrients are destroyed.  Many scientific experts would agree that this process also kills some beneficial components; indeed, a 2008 Safefood report on the milk chain in Ireland noted that raw milk is a source of Vitamin C and B (thiamin) but “due to the heat applied during pasteurisation”, there are “substantial losses” of these vitamins. 
Darina Allen of Ballymaloe Cookery School has long advocated the health benefits of drinking milk that is not pasteurised.  “There is much research to show that drinking raw milk helps the immune system and is preventative against the likes of asthma and eczema.” Her sentiments are echoed by the influential Weston A. Price Foundation, a US non-profit lobby group. They claim that pasteurisation ‘greatly’ reduces the effectiveness of immune-enhancing elements present in raw milk, while recent peer-reviewed scientific studies would support the claim that raw milk enhances the immune system.
But some scientists say the risks are too great.  They point to the recent E. coli outbreak in Germany (the source of which was vegetable sprouts) to illustrate the fatal dangers to humans from eating food infected with E. coli, along with the discovery of a new strain of the drug-resistant MRSA superbug that was recently found in cow’s milk and people in Britain and Denmark. 
Professor Martin Cormican, a consultant bacteriologist at NUI Galway, is vehement about the dangers associated with drinking raw milk: “I have no doubt that drinking raw milk represents an easily avoidable risk of infection". Despite huge improvements in herd health since the 1950s in Ireland, Professor Cormican claims that raw milk from Irish dairy farms can be pathogenic, saying "healthy herds of cows may have in their faeces bacteria that are dangerous for us. You cannot get milk out of a cow without getting faeces. Raw milk contains E. coli, and drinking raw milk means drinking diluted cow faeces, with all the associated risks.”  Although he drank raw milk as a child (“I remember my father squirting it from the cow’s teat into a cup and giving it to me”) he says that he would never have given it to his own children. “I would not have dreamt of giving it to my kids when they were small. I’m not a hygiene nut, but I wouldn’t have given the kids raw milk for love nor money. The risk is unacceptable and it outweighs any evidence of health benefits from drinking unpasteurised milk”. 
The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods has refused to release detailed information about the proposed ban. A Freedom of Information request on the new legislation was refused. However it is clear is that civil servants from DAFF and FSAI have been working on legislation for over four years; numerous internal emails between their staff on “the proposal to ban the sale of raw milk” were exchanged from May 2007 onwards. What is surprising is that DAFF decided not to undertake a public consultation on the proposed ban on the sale of cow’s milk. They did, however, undertake a public consultation in 2008 on the inclusion of goats and sheep milk in the proposed legislation. A spokesperson for DAFF confirmed that 17 submissions were received, but none provided evidence “that would alter the advice previously given that the ban should be supported in legislation because of serious public health concerns”.  A Freedom of Information request to see details of this public consultation was also refused.
So is an outright ban the only solution?  No, says Evan Doyle, proprietor of Brook Lodge Hotel in Wicklow. He suggests a ‘third way’ that balances freedom of choice with the protection of public health. It is modeled on the situation in England where raw milk sales are legal, but heavily regulated. Strict controls are in place to protect consumers; for example, registered holdings are frequently inspected, herds are regularly tested, and cigarette-style health warnings are mandatory on all labels.
“Let’s be clear: not every farmer should be allowed to sell raw milk”, says Evan. “We should monitor it, control it and regulate it. There are raw milk cheese producers across Ireland who are under strict control. These are the guys who should be selling raw milk to the general public - the ones that are monitored carefully.  I think at the end of the day, as long as correct monitoring is in place, and the correct information is given to the consumer, then they should be allowed to make their own minds up about drinking raw milk. It should not be banned”.  Indeed, the scientific committee of the FSAI hinted at this solution in their 2008 report on food safety and tuberculosis. They suggested that raw milk for consumption or further processing should come from registered herds that are subject to extra inspections and a 6 monthly tuberculosis testing regime; this, they concluded, would “address public health concerns in terms of food safety”.  
Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness, who grew up on a dairy farm and drank raw milk as a child, has some sympathy for Evan Doyle’s suggestion that a ban is not the way forward; according to McGuinnes “a blanket ban does not give people an informed choice”. But she agrees with what DAFF is proposing. “If I were the Minister and I wanted to be absolutely clear? Then a ban is the safest way”, she said. “The advice from food safety experts informs politics, and their advice is to pasteurise. If we are concerned about public health, then you follow the expert advice given”.  
While DAFF's position on the sale of raw milk in liquid form is unambiguous, their view of raw milk cheese is less clear. Eighteen cheese producers in Ireland use raw milk; none of them heats it to the minimum temperature needed to kill pathogens such as listeria, salmonella and E.coli which, according to Professor Cormican, is heating milk to 63 degrees Celsius "for a long time". Why does DAFF not include raw milk cheese in the new legislation?  They insist that "the purpose of the ban is to protect public health by ensuring that all drinking milk for sale is pasteurised". 
Even more confusing is DAFF’s confirmation that the sale of raw milk butter, the process of which involves no heat whatever, will not be part of the new legislative package. DAFF argue that the addition of salt (“a preservative”) and the “control of moisture content of butter” both confer a “safety element in the manufacturing” of it. This seems to go against food safety experts’ advice that the only way to kill pathogens in raw milk is to pasteurise. Moreover, there is no stipulation that raw milk butter manufacturers are prohibited from making unsalted butter. For Kildare farmer Aidan Harney, who makes butter from his raw cow's milk, the exemption of raw milk butter from the legislation is a relief. “The raw milk butter is the biggest seller”, he said. “After the ban comes in we will continue to sell the butter - people love it”. 
One Irish dairy farmer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, believes the proposed ban is the wrong thing for DAFF to do.  “I sell my raw milk direct to the general public - the demand is there and it’s growing every day. The general public love it. The proposed ban is just non-sensical. It’s just another thing that the farmer is not trusted to do properly anymore. How long do the regulators want the food chain to be? It’s crazy.” For this farmer, who sells most of his milk to a large processor, raw milk is the antithesis of commercial farming because the consumer needs to have a direct relationship with the farmer.  “The raw milk must come from a farmer you know and trust. It’s local, direct and about trust. If the herd is monitored and disease-free, then it’s a personal choice and as a democratic country, we should be free to make this choice ourselves. It should not be something that we are banned from doing.”  
Darina Allen thinks we should be “confident” about Irish milk, which is a top quality grass-fed product that is exported internationally. She emphatically believes that supporting an independent Irish dairy market would be of benefit to the agri-food sector.  “As a country that exports our milk all over the world, surely we need to be able to say we think it good enough to drink raw ourselves?”.   Raw milk sales remain legal in France, Germany, England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden. Would prohibition stop the sale of raw milk in Ireland? “Banning raw milk will just make it a contraband product, and this is not a good thing for anyone. I am arguing for people to have a choice to make their own decisions. It should be labelled - it can contain pathogens and needs a warning. But why not let people make their own choice?”
Professor Cormican understands this view, but he is adamant that a ban is best for society at large. “It is a difficult issue balancing risk and balancing rights”, he says. “I understand this point of view but you could make the same libertarian argument in favour of allowing people to let their children travel without wearing a seat belt - in a society where we all share responsibility for looking after those who suffer accident or illness, I think it’s reasonable to say that we can also agree that people must take some steps to protect themselves”. 
Meanwhile, Kildare farmer Aidan Harney will continue to sell glass bottles of ‘Ballymore Farm Raw Milk’, resigned to the fact that the ban will be implemented.  “The proposed ban is a step backwards for Ireland. Our politicians didn’t consult us, they didn’t ask the people if they wanted this or not, they just said it’s going to be banned whether we like it or not, and that’s that. It’s not a good way for this to happen.”

11 comments:

  1. if drinking raw milk is like drinking diluted faeces, should we be eating cheeses made with raw milk such as Brie de Meaux, gruyere, parmesan, roquefort, camembert... or does Prof Cormican think that this is particular to irish milk?
    - Kevin Sheridan

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  2. Wouldn't it be better to ensure the raw milk that is sold is from a herd that is disease-free and is adhering to good hygiene practices? What happened to free choice? Interesting that there is such a demand for raw milk.
    I'm not so sure though that raw or pasteurised cows milk is good for kids with eczema, it is my experience that dairy can be a severe cause of eczema and goats milk is much bettter for them.
    and yes, I am a dairy farmer :)

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  3. I am a raw milk drinker. I actually purchase my milk from one of the raw cheese producers. I'm very lucky to have this producer locally as I know they are checked regularly & their standards are very high. I am not a farmer's daughter & never had raw milk growing up but did a lot of research in the last year & based on that research, decided to introduce raw milk to my young family.

    My youngest daughter has mild eczema that has been greatly improved by our switch to raw milk. My husband is lactose intolerant & can drink our raw milk & eat raw milk dairy products. Not many people know that raw milk contain lactase which helps your body process lactose but lactase is killed off in the pasturisation process. As well as that there are so many enzymes that are so benefical for your digestive system that are killed off. The benefits of raw milk far outway the negatives. Regardless of the outcome of this law, I will continue to buy raw milk for my family. There are ways & means around the law as proved by thousands of Americans.

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  4. http://www.foodmatters.tv/_webapp_482766/The_Truth_About_Milk

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  5. Just one last thought, it is absolutely shocking that they are attempting to ban raw milk which hasn't been connected to any Irish deaths in the last 10 years but there is no attempt to ban processed meats, such as ham a regular in most Irish households, which are known to cause to bowel cancer, the second most prevalent cancer in Ireland.

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  6. If the E.U. have legislated to allow raw milk sales, can this Irish legislation not be challenged at a European level? I would imagine that the sale and consumption of raw milk is less of a public health threat then the water supply of certain parts of Ireland. *cough* corrib water scandal *cough* boil water notices *cough*

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  7. If this legislation is passed does it mean that imported dairy products using raw milk will be prohibited too.

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  8. We should have the RIGHT to CHOOSE and not have some gombeen telling us what is good for us or not. Damn it' the sale cigarettes and alcohol are legal and they cause untold damage both physically and socially. People who purchase raw milk are the onse that are 'actually concerned' about what they put into their bodies' oh the irony!

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  9. I started drinking raw milk recently and noticed that the pain in my hip vanished! Here, In California, it is easy to purchase it but the bureaucrats are trying to "play god" and are, still, trying to banish it. I agree with one comment: start banishing the sale of tobacco products and alcohol; both of which destroy bodies and lives every day!

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  10. People must refuse to accept this 'ban' nonsense.
    All happy consumers should come together on this and petition government to allow 'registered/licensed' raw milk to continue to be sold. Provided it is labelled "Raw Unpasteurised"
    people should be allowed the freedom to chose.

    In the USA they are also trying to destroy unpasteurised milk producers: the reason?
    Its getting too popular and the big dairies don't wnat the competition.

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  11. its about time the government stayed the fuck out of our lifes, i will decide what i will eat or dont eat, if they really care about our well being then they could start by taking the hydrofluoro sycilic acid, the stuff they call sodium fluoride out of our water supply, what about the damage they have caused through that over the last forty odd years, no mention of the health effects it has caused, no because its good for dumbing down the population, oops sorry i mean its good for your teeth lol :) we dont see them going after all the junk food out there with all the chemical additives, msg,hfcs, food dyes all sorts of preservatives, or what about the conventional fruit and veg market with all the pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, or worse gmo,s nope they dont attack that industry, or what about the conventional farming of the beef, lamb, pork and poultry industry with all the growth hormones, vaccinations, and anti-biotics these animals are giving frequently, and not to mention the conditions these poor animals have to live in, nope no mention of that either, nor will you either for it suits them just fine to have you eaten all the shite of the day, they dont want a healthy well nourished population, for well nourished people are healthy for that very reason and live much longer lifes because they eat only the best, its as simple as that, governments are only interested in them selves they are all on the take from big pharma and all the big chemical and agri companies,its these dirty bastard of a companies who are behind all the banning of good clean wholesome organic food, these people want to be at the top of the food chain literally, time to wake the fuck up...

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