Contributed by Alison Lee on Saturday, 12 November 2011
As recent campaigns see the popularity of raw milk rise in Ireland, Alison Lee explores why this could be an important issue
A group of chefs, food critics and farmers have recently taken on the government over its plan to issue a complete ban on the sale of unpasteurised (raw) milk to the general public. The group, which call themselves CRMI (Campaign for Raw Milk in Ireland) include acclaimed figures in traditional Irish cooking such as Darina Allen and Neven Maguire, and formidable food critics including Paulo Tulio.
On the 29th August 2011 the group published a letter in The Irish Times, explaining their position: they believe raw milk tastes better and is more natural than heat-treated milk. They also claim that drinking raw milk can reduce allergies and asthma. Although these health benefits remain disputed, it is indeed true that if raw milk comes from cows in excellent health and remains free from contamination, then it is theoretically safe to drink – indeed many dairy farmers and their families consume their own unpasteurised produce.
Ireland is famed for the quality of its dairy products, but it only takes one hygiene slip-up or cattle disease outbreak for a batch of raw milk to become contaminated with dangerous bacteria like E. coli, Salmonella or even Mycobacteria, which cause tuberculosis. These bacteria would normally be eliminated during the pasteurisation process, which involves heating milk to seventy-two degrees centigrade for fifteen seconds.
If such milk were to cause a disease outbreak in humans there’s no telling the damage that could be done, not only to those who consumed the product but also to Ireland’s dairy industry. Considering how badly Spain’s cucumber industry was affected by this summer’s E. Coli outbreak, and considering our precarious economic situation, Ireland must be careful to do all it can to uphold its ‘clean and green’ image.
Another issue is that of immunity. Dairy farmers and their families may be able to drink home-produced raw milk safely; they have been exposed to any microorganisms present in the milk all their lives and have built a solid immunity to them. The same may not be true of your average suburb-dweller who hasn’t set foot on a farm in years; to them, these ‘harmless’ bacteria may not be so innocuous.
Until 2006, it was illegal to sell unpasteurised, or “raw” milk in Ireland, even in artisan delicatessens or farmers markets. The situation changed when the EU introduced new food hygiene rules which allowed raw milk to be sold directly to the consumer. However, Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney has scientific evidence from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland on his side which he claims proves raw milk poses serious health risks to the public, and recently announced that the ban would be introduced “as soon as possible”. However, lobbyists such as CRMI might yet have their way – watch this space for further developments in the dairy dispute.