In the beginning there was milk, and the milk was raw. But some people may read this and wonder what does the term ‘raw milk’ mean? Surely milk is milk? Not so my friend! Allow me to explain.

In the UK, the only milk we can buy in our shops has undergone a heat treatment, known as pasteurisation. Most consumers of milk purchase white water that sits in plastic bottles on a supermarket shelf, with little distinction between products except for the colour of their lids. They don’t realise that there are more choices to be made than simply skimmed, semi-skimmed or whole. There is an alternative to pasteurised milk, and many argue that untreated milk has a range of important health benefits. Whilst others argue that drinking raw milk poses unprecedented public health risks.

Raw milk is simply milk – milk which has not undergone pasteurisation, homogenisation or ultra-filtration. It’s more what the cow had in mind when she produced it. So perhaps what we actually have is milk and pasteurised milk.

Bottles of raw milk

If you’ve never tasted raw milk, then I strongly urge you to do so. If you can find it that is. It’s not easy. It can prove rather elusive due to the fact that UK legislation states that in order to buy the raw product, you have to go ‘direct to the farmer or the farm gate,’ which means you will never find it sitting on the shelf at your local supermarket or corner shop.

Milk is pasteurised to kill-off any bad bacteria that may or may not be present in the raw milk. UK law states that this must done, and for the same reason it restricts the sale of raw milk. This legislation only concerns cows milk, as currently there are no restrictions surrounding the sale or consumption of goat, sheep or buffalo milk, even though the milk from these animals could easily pose the same potential public health risks.

On 31st March this year, a consultation was held in Bloomsbury hosted by the Food Standards Agency regarding the current legislation of raw milk.

The FSA is considering changes to the legislation of raw milk’s marketing and distribution. They wanted to talk to people, both consumers and industry professionals, about their opinions on raw milk.

On the day they proposed four options on changes to current legislation to consider, but they were quick to point out that there may be more options out there that they haven’t yet considered. The options outlined were:

  1. Do nothing
  2. Pasteurise the milk of all species of ruminants
  3. Allow sales from virtually any retailer
  4. Harmonise and clarify current controls on the marketing and distribution of raw milks

Steve Wearne, Director of Policy for the FSA was very clear in pointing out at the consultation that the preferred choice is option four. Though rather ambiguous, it appears that option four mainly concerns changes to current labelling and would include all species of raw milk.

I had never attended an event such as this before and had no idea what to expect. It wasn’t invitation only, anyone could attend. I’m not a microbiologist, nor am I a fully-fledged raw milk activist. I don’t drink raw milk every day; in fact, I barely drink it once a week – not because I don’t want to, but because I cant get hold of it. And quite frankly, I don’t like the taste of pasteurised milk. It literally leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I was there because I give a damn about our food choices, and I fear that if legislation surrounding the sale and consumption of raw milk changes, then it could have an adverse effect on the milk that is used to make our glorious raw milk cheeses in the UK.

I am told by many within the industry that the proposed legislative changes have no impact on milk used for cheese making, indeed a delegate posed exactly that question on the day and it was rebuffed by the speaker. It worries me that when Sarah O’Brien, who is on the Advisory Committee for the Microbiological Safety of Food for the FSA, was asked if she had tasted any raw milk products, her response was a complete refusal to ever try them. I find it sad to think she will never get to taste something as stunningly glorious as a spoon of molten Baron Bigod from Suffolk or a robust and punchy chunk of Lincolnshire Poacher, where you can almost taste every blade of grass that those beautiful cows have been grazing upon.

For me, the low point was listening to Luisa Candido, from Dairy UK, state her company’s viewpoint: ‘Dairy UK believes that all dairy products should be pasteurised in order to protect human health.’

Really? Given that Dairy UK is, in its own words, ‘the voice of the UK Dairy industry’ it seems a little odd, if not neglectful, to cast out some of its fellow dairymen in such a public manner during their hour of need. What concerns me most is that the people influencing decisions on the amendments to raw milk legislation show a complete and utter lack of ability to accept change or consider alternatives.

The results of the consultation will be announced around July this year and we just have to hope that the FSA saw how much raw milk means to consumers in the UK. More importantly, how much having the freedom to choose means to consumers in the UK.

Producing good, clean raw milk is no easy feat. The farmers that do so work excruciatingly hard to ensure that their animals are in the best possible health, therefore producing milk that poses little threat to human health. All the milk that is sold as raw drinking milk in the UK is tested rigorously to ensure its quality, and the standards that must be met are higher than those for pasteurised milk and higher than anywhere else in Europe.

Peter Campbell-Mcbride, a raw milk consumer, who spoke at length about his experience of consuming raw milk products over the last 15 years, very proudly and emotionally, announced that ‘our dairy farmers in the UK are some of the most responsible and professional people you will ever meet.’ So shouldn’t they be allowed the opportunity to produce a quality product, as nature intended, to the best of their abilities? and shouldn’t consumers have the freedom to choose the level of risk they consider acceptable when deciding what foods to eat? After all the government allows me to make my own mind up about whether or not to smoke, surely I can be entrusted to decide for myself what type of milk I want to drink?

Feature image by Stephen Ritchie

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