Unpasteurised Milk Sales
The risks, benefits and regulations around raw milk farm gate sales in New Zealand
Milk fresh from the farm dairy can be contaminated with a variety of pathogenic bacteria. Pasteurisation is needed to remove the risk of infection and is required for milk offered for normal retail sale. Farm gate sales of raw milk are legal but consumers are restricted to 5 litres and the milk can be used only for them and immediate family. The MPI is reviewing regulations around raw milk sales.
Some people believe that the pasteurisation process partially denatures milk proteins, reduces the availability of some vitamins and minerals, and changes its health benefits and flavour. Studies of farmers’ children suggest that consumption of unpasteurised milk may protect against allergies and asthma, and this is the subject of research being funded by the NZ Medical Research Council and carried out by Massey and Lincoln. They are looking for participants in a survey of raw milk users.
Health authorities warn the public off raw milk, highlighting disease outbreaks attributed to its consumption and the possibility of serious illness, particularly in children. Despite this there is small, increasing consumer demand for raw milk.
The battle over chilled raw milk sales is hotting up. Health authorities point out that milk can pick up many contaminants from udder to vat, and that even at fridge temperatures a number of disease-causing organisms survive and some can still multiply and produce toxins. Outbreaks of sickness in NZ attributed to raw milk consumption in the past two years have involved E. coli, Cryptosporidium and Campylobacter, with about 60 people being laid low – most of them children.
Pasteurisation, which generally involves heating milk to 72 deg C for 15 seconds then cooling, is effective in preventing tuberculosis, brucellosis, diphtheria, and scarlet fever. It also kills many harmful bacteria including Salmonella, Listeria, Yersinia, Campylobacter, Staphylococcus aureus, Campylobacter, and Escherichia coli O157:H7. Consequently the drinking of unpasteurised milk is frowned on by conventional public health interests.
However, pasteurisation also causes the loss of some vitamins, minerals, and probiotic (beneficial) bacteria and enzymes. Raw milk fans argue that they should have the right to choose what they consume, but health authorities say they find that many people who have become sick from drinking raw milk are not really aware of the risks involved.
Dairy farmers are often bemused by it all. Many grew up drinking milk taken from the vat, and they say their families have had no problems. One theory is that if you are raised in a dairy farm environment you are likely to come into contact with pathogens in small doses and hence build up some resistance.
One producer who has no problem with consuming or selling raw milk is organic farmer Mike Chapman. Mike milks a herd of 300 mixed breed cows on 160ha at Aokautere, near Palmerston North.
“I don’t like giving away money, and when I stopped using antibiotics and dry cow therapy I found that it actually didn’t make a big difference. I questioned the use of urea on this farm because it is predominantly river silts and it tended to make the ground go like concrete, and the turning point was when Fonterra announced that they would offer a premium for organic milk so I thought ‘why not?’”, says Mike.
“When we were certified organic in 2004 there was a strong enquiry for raw milk, and that got me started. We drank raw milk as kids and had no problems, so if people wanted the product I was quite happy to supply it provided that they knew what the risks and benefits were, so it was up to them as individuals to make that choice.”
“There was already a Food Safety Authority Act in place at that time with rules around the general public coming to get milk, so we were able to supply 5 litres of milk at any one time to people for their own use or their immediate families.”
Mike’s farm gate sales started in small volumes and today they are still relatively small, he says, typically 80 litres per day. He diverts the milk from the first two rows of cows in the afternoon milking to a small vat separate from the main vat.
“I choose the first batch of cows because the machine is cleaner at that stage so there is less chance of contamination and I always make sure that the cows are clean and have no health problems. In regard to plant hygiene there are no special actions needed over and above what a good conventional farm would do. MPI inspections are just as for conventional farms supplying the dairy company,” says Mike.
“I prefer to take milk from the afternoon milking because it generally has a higher fat content and people like to see plenty of cream on top.”
After milking he fills 2-litre plastic bottles from the small vat and stores them in a fridge operating at 4 deg.C. Customers can come at any time to pick up bottles and put $3 per bottle in the honesty box. Sales average 40 bottles per day but it varies, and Mike aims to put out just enough for each day.
“I think customers know the benefits of using milk that is produced straight from grass – no palm kernel, no meal, no antibiotics, no synthetic foods, and all those inputs certainly alter the make-up of the milk. It’s just going back to the old adage that we are what we eat, and that applies to cows too.”
Mike believes that being an organic producer of raw milk gives him an edge over conventional farmers.
“A lot of people want antibiotic-free milk so I would advise anyone to purchase raw milk, preferably organic. They are often the sort of people who search the Internet for information and the wonderful thing these days is that we have all that information at our fingertips,” he says.
“People can actually make some very good choices about the food they eat, and we are hoping that with whatever the MPI decides, it never takes that choice away because consumers know what is best for them.”
One consumer who is convinced raw milk is doing him a lot of good is Phil Sadgrove who regularly buys from Mike. With a background in biochemistry, Phil believes he is in a good position to judge what is right for him. A keen runner, he prefers food that has had little or no processing and so likes to drink milk that has not been pasteurised or homogenised.
“I understand how proteins are denatured by heat, and I think pasteurisation could be the reason that some lactose intolerant people can drink raw milk with no problems,” he says.
“I have been using raw milk for about a year and I have felt very well in that time. I prefer to avoid processed foods and even when I make smoothies with raw milk I mix them by hand rather than use a blender.”
Phil is careful to store his milk at low temperatures and use it raw. Other people, who prefer the taste of raw milk but want to avoid any risk of disease, heat the milk before drinking it.
Nigel French, Professor of Food Safety & Veterinary Public Health at Massey University, advocates heat treatment of raw milk.
“Good hygiene and milking practices will help to reduce contamination but not eliminate it from raw milk. It must be stored properly at chill temperature and in sterilised containers and not stored for too long,” he says.
“It is best to heat treat it before drinking but if you do want to then take care. There are several types of harmful a few bbacteria that come from contamination during the milking process that can survive well and even multiply at low temperaturesdo multiply at 4 deg C and some can produce toxins.”
Professor French points out that there is an increasing number of instances of food poisoning after consuming raw milk. Most of those affected are children and a few become seriously ill. Consequently he advocates pasteurisation of milk to avoid such illnesses.
OUTRO – RAW MILK STUDY
“There is some evidence that the consumption of raw milk has health benefits, but the evidence is limited. Massey University is conducting a Health Research Council-funded study on the potential health benefits of raw milk, and is looking for families that have one member regularly consuming raw milk to take part in this study.
If you are interested in taking part, please contact:
Centre for Public Health Research
0800 080 706