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Raw milk— illegal, unpasteurised—has some hard-core users. Karen Holdom goes in search of the thriving black market for pure white juice, direct from the underbelly.
I’m expecting a dairy cow to arrive at my front door. Honestly. I’ve been waiting for it since Dad visited from Taranaki, peered suspiciously at the reduced-fat milk in my fridge and growled: “You shouldn’t be feeding that rubbish to your kids.”
My ex-dairy farmer father follows through on his nutritional advice. His last beef was my iron intake in pregnancy. Suspecting me of being a closet vegetarian, he had a lamb slaughtered in my honour then cut it up, bagged it, froze it and carried it himself to Auckland to squeeze into my little city freezer.
Now he’s worried the milk I buy has been mysteriously stripped of vital nutrients; hence my dairy cow anxiety.
If I do end up with a cow in my front garden, I could set up a tidy trade supplying milk to city folk who have become part of a worldwide movement to boycott pasteurised milk and consume only the rich, creamy stuff that comes straight from the cow.
Raw milk advocates believe that the rapid heating and cooling process of pasteurisation robs milk of nutrients, makes it harder to digest and kills off important microbes that might have healthful benefits, such as enhancing the immune system. Many studies are cited to back up these viewpoints.
Health authorities dismiss most of those claims and warn that raw milk can be contaminated with dangerous organisms, such as salmonella, campylobacter and e-coli. Infection with any of these bugs can have catastrophic health effects, particularly for young children, the elderly, sick people and pregnant women. Pasteurisation, they say, saves lives. Many studies are cited to back up these viewpoints.
So, it’s up to the consumer to decide, right?
Well, no. Raw milk sales are strictly regulated, which is the reason raw milk hasn’t found its niche in the supermarket fridges alongside A2 and organic milk. People who own cows can drink the milk they produce, but farmers are not allowed to sell more than five litres of raw milk per person per day from the farm gate. Shops are forbidden from selling unpasteurised milk for human consumption.
But as with any banned substance, there’s always a black market. Some farmers break the rules for trusted customers; a secret handshake can score you a supply at the odd health shop; and some stores stock raw milk in their fridges “for pets only”. Nudge nudge, wink wink.
Who are these raw milk drinkers? They’re not all nutrition extremists following the Jesus Diet. Even people living a fairly mainstream life are opting in—such as Cecelia, an Auckland lawyer who didn’t want me to use her real name for fear people might think she was “strange”.
Cecelia regularly drives 50km on a secret squirrel mission to a Helensville farm to source 20 litres of milk from an obliging farmer. She was sold on raw milk by her brother, who introduced her to the writings of American dentist Weston A Price. Dr Price studied many traditional cultures around the world (including Maori) in the 1930s and 1940s and found that people on widely differing traditional diets were in great health and had wonderful teeth.
It made good sense to Cecelia that a diet of “basically unrefined, unprocessed foods, saturated fats, meat, seafood of varying kinds and raw milk,” was healthier.
“There was nothing new-fangled about what he was saying: he had the evidence of good health and longevity from the people he studied, and much of what those traditional societies were eating has been backed up by science. As a mother of small children I was delighted to find nutritional information that was not a passing fad, and that would ensure that they got a really good start in life. It’s the sort of diet that my grandparents probably grew up with.”
Cecelia enjoys showing her two school-age children that food isn’t made in a supermarket. “Being city folk it’s really neat to show the kids just where milk comes from; we get the milk out of a milk tank, and we see the cows it all came from in the paddock not far from the shed.”
Cecelia’s sense that fresh, unprocessed food is just better is shared by a growing number of health-conscious New Zealanders. So, does the risk of contamination really justify pasteurising our entire milk supply?
Apparently not. A major Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry review of raw milk regulations is proposing to allow a substantial supply of raw milk to manufacturers of niche dairy products like fine cheeses, chocolates and icecream. This change has been triggered by the lifting of import restrictions on some unpasteurised milk products like the famous French Roquefort cheese, once considered too dangerous for New Zealanders to eat. The rule change will give local manufacturers the opportunity to compete with these imported cheeses; an indication that there is something better about unpasteurised milk—even if it’s just the taste.
The New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) is currently setting up quality and safety guidelines to ensure the raw milk used in these products is safe – and that retailers and consumers are better educated about the potential risks of eating them. But don’t hold your breath for unpasteurised milk to become widely available to consumers; the NZFSA sees no reason to even consider that.
“There are no nutritional benefits to drinking raw milk,” says NZSFA spokeswoman Philippa Ross-James.
“Pasteurisation does not affect the quality of milk. It’s a belief rather than a fact, and we find a lot of that around food issues.”
Professor Paul Moughan, a highly regarded agricultural scientist with a special interest in protein digestion, holds the same view.
The co-director of the Riddet Centre for food science and human nutrition research at Massey University dismisses claims that raw milk is more digestible or has more available nutrients than pasteurised milk.
However, he says, there may be something to the claims about the immune-enhancing properties of raw milk.
“In milk there are proteins which may have beneficial effects in the digestive tract in particular, and they may be immune-enhancing effects. It may be that when you pasteurise milk you denature those proteins and some of those properties are lost.”
He stresses that this small potential benefit shouldn’t be “overplayed” when weighed up against the reason for pasteurisation: guaranteeing safety.
But surely, with today’s strict hygiene and safety regulations, raw milk can’t be that dangerous? Indeed, raw milk advocates think health authorities overstate both the risks of raw milk and benefits of pasteurisation.
“If it’s processed and collected in the right way [raw milk] can be consumed without pasteurisation and have no ill effects,” says Professor Moughan. “But it only takes one or two suppliers to let the side down and you can have serious health consequences.”
Which brings me back to Dad, and his concerns about the milk in my fridge. He has no problem with pasteurisation but regards low-fat milk as practically a waste product, left over when all the good stuff has been taken out to make other dairy products like cream, cheese and butter.
I can see his point. I feel nostalgic to think of Dad trudging up the driveway each morning after milking, with a billy full of fresh whole milk just in time for breakfast—and I can’t help thinking that’s the way milk ought to be. Super-fresh, and straight from the cow.
Funny thing is, I hated the stuff—far too rich and creamy. But if Dad does deliver a dairy cow to my doorstep I’ll grab the chance to feed her milk to my kids. I’m just not sure I’d have the same confidence buying raw milk out of a bottle.