In New Zealand, the regulations governing raw drinking milk – that is milk that hasn’t been pasteurised – will be evaluated this year, two years after their implementation. Prior to November 2016, consumers were able to collect milk from collection points across the country. Under the current regulations raw milk can only be purchased from farmers registered with the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI), but registration can be costly – reportedly between NZ$10,000 and NZ$15,000 annually.
Raw milk is a divisive issue in dairy sectors in many developed countries. Fans will cite health benefits associated with raw milk, and the damage done to nutrients from the pasteurisation process. Many of the world’s best cheeses are traditionally made with raw milk that foodies say allows a depth and complexity of flavour development not possible using the pasteurised stuff.
On the other side of the debate, while the health benefits of drinking raw milk are unproven, the risks are real. In New Zealand, prior to the new regulations being implemented, there were 46 outbreaks in which consuming raw milk was a risk factor. Of these at least 70% involved children aged 16 or younger.
In Australia, a toddler died from organ failure in 2014 after drinking raw milk, and four other children became seriously ill. The children had been drinking raw organic bath milk that was labelled “not for human consumption”. A coronial inquest linked the death to raw milk consumption. The A 2017 study from the US Centers for Disease control found that despite raw milk making up a miniscule share of consumption, it caused 96% of all milk-related illness in the United States.
Back in New Zealand, MPI has conducted 111 investigations into raw milk between 2014 and 2018 resulting in six product recalls. Seventy-two incidents relate to illegal sales – by unlicensed and/or non-compliant sellers. MPI manager of food compliance says their work-load has increased with the new regulations, with more people reporting cases of potentially unsafe milk.
The new regulations have been hard on sellers, even those doing the right thing, according to Village Milk managing director Richard Houston. He hopes the review will lead to more support and guidance for producers. There are currently 27 raw drinking milk sellers registered with MPI, and sellers must also keep a record of buyers so they can be contacted if milk test positive for harmful pathogens. It’s claimed that the stringency and cost of regulations are sending raw milk underground – with illegal sales occurring from non-MPI registered sellers, including online.
The results of the review will be closely watched on both sides of the Tasman. In Australia – regulators have taken an almost zero-risk approach, and the sale of raw cow’s milk for human consumption is effectively banned. In the wake of the 2014 toddler death Victoria now requires sellers of raw milk to treat the product to ensure it is not consumed and can be used only for cosmetic purposes.
There is no doubt that consuming unpasteurised milk is risky – particularly for children. Even with the very best practices, producing milk that is completely free of faecal contamination is near-impossible. While farm families often consume their own milk without incident, urban consumers are used to the safety and longevity of pasteurised milk, and are often oblivious to the risks. Perhaps there is a middle-ground between advocates who maintain that raw milk is perfectly safe and regulators whose risk-averse approach can send the trade under-ground – offering consumers a truly informed choice?