Is raw milk natural goodness or food safety Russian roulette?
Queen Elizabeth reportedly drinks raw milk and advocates swear it helps prevent allergies and is more nutritious and easier to digest than the pasteurised stuff. However, foodborne illness outbreaks linked to raw milk have led to new regulations restricting its sale.
We've looked at whether some of the reasons people drink raw milk stack up and have some tips to reduce your risk of getting sick.
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Raw milk isn’t pasteurised (heat treated), which means it misses a process that kills harmful bacteria, such as campylobacter, listeria, and toxin-producing strains of e.coli.
From November, consumers will only be able to buy milk from farmers registered by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI). These farmers must be verified, test their milk for pathogens, keep sales records and have appropriate labelling on products. Labels must give use-by dates, storage advice and warnings about the risks of raw milk for high-risk groups.
The regulations don’t limit the amount of raw milk that can be sold to a person – previously a buyer was limited to 5L. But farmers can only sell raw milk directly from the farm gate or by delivering to your home – you won’t be able to pick it up from a collection point, such as your local health food shop. Customers also need to supply contact details so they can be reached if a batch of milk fails bacteria testing.
It doesn’t matter how carefully the animals are milked, there is a risk of harmful bacteria getting into the milk and there’s no way of telling by taste, sight or smell. Getting sick from these bacteria can result in diarrhoea, stomach cramps and vomiting. Severe cases can also lead to kidney failure, and even death.
Not everyone who drinks contaminated milk will necessarily get sick. The young, elderly, pregnant women and people with a weakened immune system are more susceptible to the bugs. MPI recommends these high-risk groups don’t consume raw milk.
In 2014, raw milk was associated with 10 foodborne illness outbreaks in New Zealand that affected 41 people. Nine of the outbreaks involved children under 15 years old and two children developed a severe complication that may lead to kidney failure. In 2015, 13 people got sick in outbreaks associated with raw milk.
For most outbreaks raw milk is not the only risk factor – contact with farm animals and contact with untreated water are often mentioned. This means there’s usually no definite proof raw milk caused the illness but it’s difficult to confirm because in many cases the suspected batch of milk has already been consumed.
Because of the disease risk, medical and scientific organisations, such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend only drinking pasteurised milk.
Drinkers of raw milk told us it tasted better, was less processed, and had health and nutrition benefits. So do the benefits stack up?
Registered dietitian Amy Liu says there’s no evidence pasteurisation reduces milk’s nutritional value. Minerals and protein levels in milk are stable under pasteurisation, especially calcium, which is an important nutrient in milk. Vitamin B2 and vitamin C are reduced by pasteurisation but milk is not a major source of vitamin C in the diet and vitamin B2 is in other foods such as meat, eggs, nuts and seeds.
In 2015, the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman undertook a review of MPI’s scientific assessment of the risks and benefits of raw milk. The review agreed with MPI’s assessment that for most nutrients the claimed benefit was unsupported, or where there was a difference, it was negligible.
Some studies suggest children growing up on farms are less likely to develop allergies and asthma. But farm-life exposures such as contact with animals, straw and feed meant the studies couldn’t prove raw milk was a determining factor.
A research project, to be published in 2017, is being carried out by the Centre for Public Health at Massey University. The study is assessing the effects of raw milk on allergies and asthma in non-farming families.
Allergy NZ chief executive Mark Dixon said the organisation did not currently recommend drinking raw milk because it could carry harmful bacteria. “It is hoped that the Massey study will help identify whether raw milk can protect against the development of allergies and if so, how raw milk can be consumed safely,” he said.
Auckland University of Technology Adjunct Professor John Brooks says there’s no evidence of any benefit for lactose-intolerant people in consuming raw milk. “Although raw milk may contain more active enzymes than pasteurised milk, they are not thought to be important for human health,” he said.
Professor Brooks said the benefits of pasteurisation outweigh any perceived benefits of consuming other milk-borne bacteria.
But not everyone agrees. Doctor Ron Hull, an Australian microbiologist and an advocate of raw milk, believes raw milk is easier to digest. “Raw milk contains lactic acid bacteria that are killed during pasteurisation. Lactic acid digests the lactose in milk, which is why some people who can’t tolerate pasteurised milk can drink raw milk.”
However, a literature review of the risks and benefits of raw and pasteurised cows' milk published by John Hopkins University in the United States in 2014 found pasteurisation of milk created no noticeable difference in lactose intolerance.
The composition of milk can vary throughout the year. Most manufacturers standardise the fat and protein levels of milk. One way of doing this is by adding permeate.
Permeate is a by-product of dairy foods and is made up of lactose, vitamins and minerals. The Food Standards Code allows manufacturers to add or withdraw “milk components” to or from milk as long as the total fat level remains at least 3.2 percent (for full-cream milk) and the protein at least 3 percent (for any milk). Permeates don’t need to be disclosed in the ingredients list. Not all pasteurised milk contains permeates. Brands that don’t contain permeates usually state it on the label.
Healthy animals don’t guarantee bacteria-free milk. Some bacteria that are part of the natural microflora of a healthy cow’s gut are not harmful for the cow but can make humans sick. Also, the bacteria can come from cow faeces coming into contact with the milk, infection of the cow’s udder, bacteria that live on the cows' skin, insects and other animals, and cross-contamination by people and the processing equipment.
Globally, no consensus has been reached about the best approach to protect people’s health and still provide consumer choice when it comes to raw milk.
Canada and Scotland prohibit its sale. In Australia, raw cows’ milk can’t be sold but in some states consumers can buy raw goats’ milk. In the United States, some states ban sales while others allow farmers to sell raw milk directly to consumers from the farm and in certain shops.
In Europe it’s a mixed bag. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland sales are permitted, with restrictions about where the milk can be sold and how it’s labelled. In Italy, raw milk can be sold from farms or in registered vending machines. The milk must be labelled with an expiry date and a warning to boil the milk before drinking. In France, consumers can buy raw milk from the farm, via vending machines, distributors or cooperatives. The milk must be labelled with a warning to boil before drinking for high-risk groups. Germany has two classifications for raw milk. Standard raw milk must only be sold from the farm and have a warning that it must be boiled before consuming. Certified raw milk has stricter standards and can be sold through retail outlets.
Ray Ridings, chairman of the Raw Milk Producers Association of New Zealand which represents about 50 producers, says the association generally supports the new regulations. “It’s important our industry has some regulations because the danger of having cowboys selling raw milk puts everyone at risk – both consumers and responsible producers,” he said. However, Mr Ridings thinks the regulations have gone too far in banning collection points. “We agree with MPI that there were some unsafe collection points, but it’s disappointing we weren’t given the opportunity to work through some safe options.” Mr Ridings says the banning of collection points will mean reduced access for consumers, especially in areas, like the city, where it isn’t viable for farmers to deliver.
Village Milk has five operators across New Zealand that sell raw milk through automatic milk dispensers. Managing director Richard Houston says the company also supports the regulations. “Producers who don’t have a clue about the quality of their milk will now have to test it, which is better for consumer safety,” he said. Mr Houston said some customers will be affected by availability but as the quantity a consumer can buy isn’t restricted this may help with access.
Mr Ridings says farm practices reduce the risk of bacteria getting into the milk: the farmer washes off the soil and faeces on the udder, pre-dips the teat in a spray to redcue bacteria and dry the teat before putting on the milking cup.
Some smaller producers have criticised the new rules saying the costs of implementing the regulations and paying for inspections will force them to stop selling raw milk.
MPI animal products manager Judy Barker said its priority is protecting consumer health and it sets rules according to food safety risks. That’s why the same rules and fees apply to all raw milk farmers, irrespective of size. MPI says suppliers can minimise compliance costs because inspections will be based on performance – farmers who manage the food safety risks well will be audited less frequently and face fewer costs.