What is this monster called Raw Milk?

Posted by Peter Niepel (New Zealand) on November 14, 2011

Not that long ago nobody did actually know the expression “Raw Milk” because all milk was raw milk. That was before the 1940ies when pasteurisation wasn’t that common. And people survived drinking raw milk.

I was born 1961 and I still remember that we bought milk from a small dairy shop in Germany. We had our glass bottles and the lady behind the counter filled them from a pump. By the time we arrived home we had a thick layer of cream on top. So that must have been beginning 70ies. Still, nobody died from drinking it.

About one year ago, I received a reply from the Minister of Food Safety’s office HON Kate Wilkinson telling me that: “The harm that is produced by tobacco is generated through decades of use, mainly by adults. Whereas, a single ingestion of contaminated milk or cheese could kill, especially as this is a product more likely to be given to infants and children or the immune deficient, often by extremely well-meaning family members.” So raw milk is more dangerous than tobacco? What happened between the early 70eis and today?

What happened was that milk became industrialised. The milk you buy in the supermarket comes from a factory. It is a processed food item and different flavours are marketed. Skim Milk, High Calcium, Low Fat, Full Fat, lite, calci+, mega, trim, supertrim, A1, A2 – milk is not just milk anymore. Milk is a product, a brand, big business. Milk is produced and processed and stored and controlled. Technology has advanced to allow the biggest profits, to create a product which can be stored until demand is high.

Homogenisation – normally fat from cow’s milk separates after a while and creates a layer of cream on top of the bottle. This is not consumer friendly. The milk fat should be distributed throughout the volume of the milk so that the last drop has as much fat as the first. Nowadays milk is pressed through small jet tubes which create smaller fat globules. These smaller globules do not separate that easy from the rest of the milk. But it makes the fat globules more vulnerable to enzymes which would create bad flavour. So we need – Pasteurisation – initially thought to make milk healthier by killing bad germs and bacteria is nowadays mostly applied to kill any bacteria which could cause a natural souring process of milk. Also prevents the rancidity of the smaller fat globules. Ergo: Milk can be stored longer without becoming sour. Which benefits the milk factory and the shops.

So where is the benefit for the consumer in this?

The Minster for Food Safety tells me that raw milk is a high risk food. You can die from it. There is a health risk for the public. Listeria, E. Coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella, Tuberculosis. According to them these bacteria monsters are all floating around in your raw milk and they have only one purpose: to kill you. Well, but they potentially also hop around on your raw meat. And your spinach and lettuce. And your sprouts (yes the health food) and melons (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_United_States_listeria_outbreak). So why is it allowed to sell raw meat? Melons? Spinach and Lettuce? Because they are a consumer product with an industry behind it and raw milk isn’t. Would the Minster for Food Safety shut down the butcheries and meat works? There are more food poisoning cases coming out of them!

Before we look at some statistics I want to get one fact to you: In New Zealand there is no raw milk sold legally at this point in time. Yes I know you read the articles in the newspapers. But according to MAF/NZFSA they never received an application for a Risk Management Program (RMP)for the sale of raw milk at the farm gate. The sale of 5 liters per day per customer under a RMP is the only legal way to sell raw milk in New Zealand. So if they never received a RMP application, nobody sells Raw Milk legally in New Zealand. I was always under the impression that a dairy farmer contracted with the big dairy factory would be covered by the RMP they have to supply the milk to the factory. But this is not so. The sale of raw milk involves e.g. to fill milk into containers at the farm dairy. This would have to be included in an RMP. But it isn’t if the tanker picks up your milk etc.

Let’s look at the FBI Report 2010 (FBI? What an odd name! But it stands for Food Borne Illness). E. Coli infection are grouped into VTEC and STEC (Verotoxin-producing Escherichia coli and Shiga Toxin-producing Escherichia coli) In 2010 there were 138 infections from E. coli. That is 3.2 cases per 100,000 people13 were hospitalised, nobody died. The number on cause is contact with household pets. Although not food borne, the government should consider to disallow people having cats and dogs. But hey look, second most cause: “Consumed Dairy products”. But were these raw milk products? No. Because if we go down the table we actually find 14.8 per cent said they “Consumed raw milk or products from raw milk”. But you need to read the statistic properly. Because it doesn’t mean that 14.8 per cent became sick from raw milk. It means 14.8 per cent said that consumed raw milk before becoming sick. They might have also said they had contact with the family pet or touched a baby with dirty nappies (47.7%). 82.6% actually said they consumed raw fruit/vegetables. 77% answered they consumed beef products. There are no detailed statistics about Campylobacter outbreaks. A table tells us there were 14 food associated outbreaks. 3 of them were suspected to come from unpasteurised milk. 6 are from chicken meat related food, on from water and the rest unknown. Salmonella, from 10 outbreaks, one was from pasteurized milk, others from Pizza, drinking water, egg and poultry products and unknown reasons.

Now I am sure the Food Safety people will see this as an achievement resulting from the strict regulations which basically reduce the sale of raw milk to almost nothing. The argument might be that if they would allow the distribution of raw milk we might have full hospitals with people who are close to their death due to drinking a glass of raw milk. But I believe that there is actually quite a lot of people consuming raw milk in New Zealand. We are a nation of dairy farmers and lifestyleblock owners. Based on the experience I made with my clients of my home cheese making supplies business I know that many of our dairy farmers consume the milk from their farm, make butter and cheese, yogurt and cream.

A small survey I did on the www.lifestyleblock.co.nz forum showed that from just over 100 people who answered the survey, 40% used raw milk from their own animals and almost 25% got raw milk from other farms. That’s a majority of over 65% who consume raw milk (numbers based on the survey at the time I wrote this article. You can see the results and the discussion online athttp://www.lifestyleblock.co.nz/vforum/showthread.php?t=30305. If this survey is representative for the over 4,500 registered members of this forum we have about 2,900 consuming raw milk. By the way, almost 30% answered they would love to use raw milk if it would be available and close to 4% said they think raw milk is too risky and wouldn’t drink it.

So if we have so many people consuming raw milk and we have so few cases where raw milk is suspected to play a role in food borne illnesses, why does the government not allow us to buy it. And why do they allow us to buy raw meat, raw vegetables and poultry products if they actually pose a higher chance of getting sick from them? And if our government has only our health in mind, why do they allow all these fast food chains which not only play a big role in food borne diseases but also make us obese and sick?

I wouldn’t ask for shutting down the local McDonalds or Burger King. I do not expect that MAF is asking Spinach growers to get their spinach tested before they sell it. I wouldn’t even assume that Lettuce growers should have an expensive Risk Management Program. I don’t even think that sprout growers should be audited on a yearly basis. So why do all these restrictions I just mentioned apply to raw milk if it is actually less dangerous? Is it because there is a lobby behind the upkeep of all these restrictions?

I need to ask: Consumer, what do you want? I know we all want to live in a country where we have a choice. Where we are allowed to make our own decisions. Where we can say “No, I don’t get my take away from this shop, they look dodgy” but where we are also free to say “Yes, I saw how they milk their cows and it is all clean and healthy. I want to buy milk from them”.

Now is the time when we can have a say in this. Not many people know that the government is actually in the process of radically changing our food safety system (that’s another story altogether). As I mentioned above, in the current Food Safety Act a farmer is allowed (if he wants to invest a couple of thousands of dollars each year) to sell 5 liters per customer per day. This section is not included in the new Food Bill 2010. MAF/NZFSA admits that there is a need for a regulation of raw milk products. So they are asking for submissions. You can download the consultation paper here: http://www.foodsafety.govt.nz/consultation/. Submissions close on the 5th of December, 2011.

Let’s be real, raw milk is delicious and if handled correctly not more dangerous than your BBQ sausage, your spinach or melon. And definitely not more dangerous than your hamburger from the fast food shop.


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