Got ‘Raw’ Milk?

Uncovering the good & bad of raw milk.

In December 2014, the death of a three-year-old Melbourne child was linked to drinking unpasteurised cow’s milk that was being sold at health food shops as “bath milk”. Four other kids fell ill after drinking a similar product. The incident led the Victorian government to implement regulations to add a bittering agent to raw milk in a bid to deter people drinking it. Protests by those who are pro-raw milk followed, claiming the issue had been sensationalised. It also stirred a major debate about what the actual risks of drinking non-pasteurised milk were, whether labelling needed to improve and was there a need for tougher regulations.

Milk is considered by many as an important part of our diet – containing “most of the nutrients our bodies need… protein, vitamin A and some B vitamins but the most unique contribution is as a source of calcium”. Pasteurisation involves heating milk at 72oC for at least 15 seconds in a bid to kill harmful bacteria as some animals may carry pathogenic organisms that cause disease in us. But why shouldn’t we just drink raw milk? Some experts believe it’s better for us and even has high amounts of calcium. Currently, it is illegal to sell raw milk in Australia for consumption and it must be sold for cosmetic use like “bath milk”. But it is not illegal to consume raw milk. The big question is why is there such a fuss around this issue?

Alanna Linn is a postgraduate student at Monash University, exploring the contested regulatory landscape for raw milk in Australia. She has over 10 years experience in public policy both here and in London. As a keen cheese eater when she was living in the UK– where selling raw milk is legal at a local level – Alanna decided to utilise her background in policy regulation and look at why it is banned from sale in Australia. Given that people in Australia still want to drink raw milk and eat raw cheese, she has been studying how it can be better regulated. After much research into the topic, Alanna has reached the point where she believes people should be able to make informed decisions about whether or not to buy and drink raw milk. “People should decide what risk they want to take like smoking or drinking alcohol and themselves weigh up the pros and cons,” she said. From her experience living in an area where the sale of raw milk is legalised, Alanna says “people are surprised in the UK and Europe that it’s an issue in Australia”.

Alanna believes Australia could adopt frameworks from overseas, for example in New Zealand where raw milk is limited to the purchase from the actual farmer. Currently, dairy farms in New Zealand are allowed to sell up to 5 litres of raw milk to the customer directly. From March next year, this will be expanded such that there will be no cap on the amount and raw milk can also be purchased via home delivery though still under strict requirements. She believes this kind of plan works because it regulates the risk. “If people did get sick, it would most likely be a small number people involved unlike if it was sold at a major supermarket. You know who the seller is and are more easily able to contain and manage the system,” she said.

Dr Chris Degeling is a Research Fellow at the University of Sydney’s Medical School, focused in the area of public health. He agrees that “scale is a crucial and critical point” in the debate around raw milk regulation. But Dr Degeling – who still practices vet science – argues “choice isn’t a solution where there can be significant harm”. He adds that there is no safe way of commercialising raw milk because there would need to be a different set of rules and standards to apply. “For example, if one drinks raw milk locally there is only the farmer’s standards to have to regulate plus there is an established trust relationship. But if it’s sold at a supermarket there would also need to be standards around the suppliers and the supermarket. That would make it harder to police and manage,” he said.

With pasteurisation scientifically proven as an effective public health measure and a lack of data linking it to outbreaks of illness, he believes carefully controlling the sale of raw milk in Australia is the way to go because of the health risk. “From Paddock to plate, all food is risk and there are food standards for a reason.” Dr Degeling believes pasteurisation is one of the most successful regulation processes for health safety and it shouldn’t be rolled back because a certain group of people believe raw milk is good for them.

Claudia Bowman of McIntosh & Bowman is an international cheese expert and judge. With more than 12 years in the industry, amongst her various achievements Claudia is the founder and presenter of Australia’s premier Artisan Cheese Experience company. While Claudia operates her business according to the law, she personally does not agree the sale of raw milk should be illegal. “Here we are in 2015, the beneficiaries of our fore mothers and fathers sophisticated technological developments, some 172 years post the era known as the industrial revolution where similar controls and bans were perhaps necessary. Current controls and limitations do not reflect the modern reality of societies greater access to information, better education and workplace training and certification regarding work place controls, hygiene and risk assessment and management, batch testing, traceability etc. More people in Australia die from football related injuries then from milk consumption and we don’t have the government trying to ban the playing or watching of rugby league,” she said.

Claudia says raw cheese has won competitions worldwide and is available in Australia though it is sold just over the 90 days maturation mark which makes it acceptable under the legislation that stipulates that a cheese product must not be consumed less then 90 days mature if made with raw milk (Roquefort is the exception). In fact, she believes raw cheese has a “more nutrient dense, more flavourful, more satisfying taste”. While she points to ancestral civilisations being regular consumers of raw milk, Claudia acknowledges “this smaller/shorter production/consumption chain model of our ancestors would have meant that there was greater product familiarity and production responsibility on an individual- the individual in charge of this chore”. Also, the product required less travel and actual storage time between production and consumption then the modern, commercial, urban milk production of our Australian cities in 2015. “This culminates in less variables and thus less risk in producing a safe product for human consumption.” Nevertheless, Claudia has concerns that the current Australian law doesn’t allow consumers to have a choice.

Alanna, Chris and Claudia will share their ideas about raw milk & cheese at the ‘Risky Milk Risky Cheese’ event, which is part of the Sydney Environment Institute’s ‘The Small Changes’ conversation series. It will be hosted by Dr Frances Flanagan, research affiliate, Wednesday 16 September from 6.30 – 8.00pm, Law School Foyer Level 2, Sydney Law School University of Sydney.

Top Image: by Chiot’s Run – FlickrCommons