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In focus: War of words over plan to ban ‘raw milk’

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland believes banning the sale of unpasteurised milk makes sense – but not everyone agrees.

Image: Slaunger via Flickr

A GROUP of artisan foodmakers are at odds with the government’s food safety body over plans to ban the sale of unpasteurised ‘raw’ milk – rejecting claims that the ban is a logical move to reduce health risks.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has recommended that the government restore an outright ban on the sale of such milk, which had been originally introduced in the mid 1990s but overturned by a European directive in 2007.

Opponents of the proposed ban – including some of Ireland’s best-known restaurateurs - believe there is no reason for the ban, arguing that the government should instead try to educate people on how to avoid some of the potential health risks posed.

“The primary reason why we don’t think the ban should go ahead involves choice,” said Elisabeth Ryan, of Sheridan’s Cheesemongers in Co Meath, who is leading a campaign urging the government not to ban the sale of raw milk.

“We think people are educated enough and clever enough to be able to read – we’re not saving raw milk should be sold from every single farmer around Ireland! Our suggestion is that small dairy farmers, who have regulations on them, be allowed to sell raw milk – and people be allowed to buy it.”

Ryan explained that the largest consumers of raw milk are farming families who drink the produce of their own dairy herds – and that statistics from the time the original ban was introduced showed suggested that as many as 100,000 Irish families drank raw milk.

Dr Wayne Anderson, the FSAI’s Director of Food Science and Standards, says there is a genuine reason for banning the sale of raw milk – pointing to stats showing that banning the sale of unpasteurised fluids genuinely reduces human illness.

“Cornell University in the US lists outbreaks due to raw milk, and lists 17 between 2008 and 2010, affecting 159 people,” he says, saying that E.Coli O157 can regularly be found in milk that isn’t unpasteurised.

“What many people don’t realise is that E.coli O157 doesn’t show signs in cattle – cattle can be perfectly healthy, but intermittently share this organism in their milk.

You could go on and take a sample at one time, which should show up clear, and then take another shortly afterward showing the presence of E.coli… you could take it a third time and it would be clear again.

Inherent risk

Anderson also rejected assertions that farms knowingly producing raw milk for human consumption could minimise their health risks – countering Ryan’s suggestions that farms pasteurising their dairy produce could afford to be less rigorous in safety standards.

He pointed to studies conducted by the FSAI’s British equivalent which showed that when Scotland introduced a similar ban on raw milk sales, the rate of outbreaks of human diseases attributed to raw milk fell significantly – while the rates remained almost unchanged in England and Wales.

“Effectively, even under the best hygiene circumstances within a dairy… it cannot prevent these pathogens being present… we’ve always recommended that everyone should consume pasteurised milk, and we’re consistent about that.”

Ryan, however, believes there is a “nanny state” aspect to having a State agency recommend the banning of a natural foodstuff – particularly one which is so prevalent and popular among Irish people.

“Raw milk is the only natural food we’ve had the proposal to ban. We saw recently the danger that can be posed by bean sprouts, but there’s been no move to ban them.”

“I’d be quite happy with bottles of raw milk had ‘warning, danger’ on them – we’re not trying to have people buy it by accident… this isn’t a food like transfats, it’s a natural food – anyone with a rural background would have had it, or would still have it.”

Anderson acknowledges that banning a popular natural foodstuff is unusual – but says that on a global scale, raw milk has been regularly proven to be behind outbreaks of E.coli and tuberculosis.

He adds that there are documented Irish cases of similar conditions being caused by the consumption of unsafe milk. ”Without a shadow of a doubt, we have these pathogens in Ireland, and even the best hygiene conditions can’t prevent them being present.”

Even if the government does not ultimately take its advice on board, Anderson said the agency would still continue to encourage people not to drink raw milk, and to always seek a pasteurised alternative.

“We have no axe to grind with small farmers or the artisan food industry… public health measures like re-instating the ban that has existed up to 1996 seem, to us, to be the most logical.”

A government spokeswoman this evening said the final decision would rest with the health minister James Reilly, who is expected to make a decision on the matter by the end of the year.

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