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Raw milk

Pasteurisation helps destroy undesirable and disease-causing organisms. But at what cost to milk’s nutritional value?

Pasteurisation helps destroy undesirable and disease-causing organisms. But at what cost to milk’s nutritional value?

Under flickering fluorescent lights, next to the plastic-wrapped cold cuts and the lidless freezers, a teenager is stacking plastic milk bottles in the far corner of your local supermarket. The bottles are adorned with pictures of happy cows and beautiful landscapes. But the scale of modern milk production means that it’s increasingly removed from this natural idyll – as much as we might try to ignore the milk tankers, dairy factory smokestacks and hundreds of cows lined up for milking.

All milk on offer in stores today is pasteurised and almost all is homogenised. Homogenisation reduces fat particles to the extent that they no longer separate out, so the milk has a longer shelf life.

But at what cost nutritionally? Research by a pair of Connecticut cardiologists found homogenisation caused the enzyme xanthine oxidase (XO) to blend with fat particles, allowing it to pass intact into the bloodstream, where it can contribute to atherosclerosis and increased risk of heart attacks. In raw milk, XO is free-floating and is harmlessly digested.

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Raw milk advocates cite better taste, a reduced carbon footprint and a list of health benefits. “We’ve been drinking raw milk for more than 12 years and I would only ever drink raw milk,” says Liesbeth Kouwenberg, a Kiwi nurse and mother of two. “Not only does it taste so much better than pasteurised, but it’s full of life, healthy enzymes and nutrients.”

Wellington-based nutritionist Deb Gully also believes raw milk is better for you. “Many people see an improvement in health when switching from pasteurised milk to raw milk,” she says. “Typical reactions might be a decrease in allergies, improvement in digestion, better calcium absorption and better immunity.”

A report published in the British Journal of Nutrition says drinking raw milk can strengthen the immune system by fostering antibodies and immunoglobulins.

Meanwhile, long-term, early-life exposure to raw milk “induces a strong protective effect against development of asthma [and] hay fever”, concluded a study published in the Lancet in 2001. And the PARSAVAL study of 15,000 children published in Clinical and Experimental Allergy in 2007 found raw milk consumption was the strongest factor in reducing the risk of allergies and asthma – better than living on a farm or having a pet. But given that pasteurisation destroys undesirable and potentially disease-causing organisms, skipping it can be risky.

“Raw milk can cause severe illness due to the possible presence of harmful bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli O157, Campylobacter and Listeria monocytogenes,” warns the New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries on its website. Last year eight New Zealanders became seriously ill from a disease associated with raw milk, while a 2009 campylobacteriosis outbreak in Northland due to raw milk affected 16 people. The risks are clear – but can milk be produced so that it’s safe to drink in its raw form?

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One Golden Bay family is looking to change the way raw milk is sold. Mark and Phillippa Houston want to deliver a consistent level of quality raw milk using a sleek imported automated dispenser. After dairy farming successfully for more than 30 years, they sold their farm in Riverslea and bought a smaller operation in Golden Bay. Starting with milking one cow and supplying one customer, they got to thinking how they could supply others: “But we didn’t want to be at the shed 24/7 selling milk, so we started to look at what was out there.”

After extensive Google searching and a trip to Europe, Mark returned buzzing about the possibilities. Italy differs from New Zealand in laws governing raw milk – farmers can sell their milk at dispensers in the centre of towns and cities. New Zealand advocates say raw milk producers here are disadvantaged by rules limiting sales to the farm gate.

While this has always been an option for the conventional dairy farmer, few want more chores to add to their lengthy daily list – especially when profits are limited. Raw milk still represents a tiny percentage of the overall market in New Zealand; last year Kiwis drank more than 19,000,000 metric tons of conventional milk and according to Organic Products Exporters of New Zealand (OPENZ), just over one percent of that was organic. An even smaller percentage was raw milk.

Mark knew it would be an uphill struggle to get permission in New Zealand to sell raw milk in city centres, Italian-style, but he figured he’d use the machine to exercise his right to sell milk from the farm gate. So he bought one of the automated milk dispensers for $60,000 and set it up in a newly built shed in his farmyard.

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“The thing that I love is that people actually come to the farm,” said Phillippa, who jumped right in with Mark in developing the new initiative. “The whole connection for the children and even adults is that this is the dairy farm. It’s about connecting with where your food comes from. Children have lost that; they don’t know where milk comes from.”

What started as a friendly farmer selling raw milk has since developed into the savvy, boutique brand of Village Milk. After ‘re-skinning’ the machine with a new logo and covering up the original Italian instructions with English ones, the operation quickly developed a loyal customer base and now sells between 200 and 250 litres per day to more than 100 carloads of visitors.

The Houstons are determined to change the image of raw milk by raising the standards of hygiene and quality. Mark says the key to their success is the extraordinary measures they take to make sure the milk is clean and free from Escherichia coli and other pathogens.

In contrast to conventional dairy farming, where the size of the herd makes individual teat-cleaning impractical, the Houstons have developed what they call the Village Milk Method, which involves washing each teat, sterilising it with an iodine spray, then wiping and drying it with a disposable towel before the milking cup is applied. “It takes just as long to do the preparation as it does the milking,” says Phillippa. “Because [the milk’s] not homogenised or pasteurised, we’ve got to make sure that standards are as high as they can be.”

“We take it very seriously,” says Mark. “People are going to drink the milk and so you can’t have that stuff in it. There is no pass mark other than 100 percent.”

This meticulous commitment to sanitation has impressed both customers and authorities alike. The Houstons were given full certification for their raw milk operation earlier this year. Since then they’ve set their sights on a national roll-out of Village Milk franchises. What began as a retirement project has tapped into a growing consumer trend for more authentic, local food sources and less processed products.

Mark and his son Richard imported another milk dispenser and showcased it at this year’s Fieldays event. Mark was pleased by the response but knows it will take time to convince farmers to switch over to selling raw milk direct to consumers. “We’re not out there with the hard sell,” he says. “It’s a really good system. It’s ready to go. Five years out, ten years out, there may be 500 machines all over New Zealand.”

While some might see Village Milk as a threat to the Fonterra model, Mark is quick to point out that it’s complementary, rather than competitive: “Mainstream dairying is export[-driven] and don’t ever think that’s not seriously cool. Our economy would be a mess if we didn’t have it and I would never rubbish that effort.”

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With more than $10 billion in dairy exports, 4.25 million cows and one-third of the global powdered-milk trade, Fonterra’s business is well insulated from the diversion of a few hundred or even a few thousand customers who might switch to raw milk. Like Mark, Fonterra is eager to differentiate what it offers from Village Milk, saying that they are two very distinct products.

“Fonterra doesn’t sell raw milk,” said a spokesperson. “If our farmers choose to do so at the farm gate it’s at their discretion. We have strict quality control procedures in place and test all milk to ensure quality and safety. Fonterra’s risk management program is designed around milk being heat-treated to meet these quality and safety standards.”

Raw milk advocates say these safety regulations designed to protect the public are actually destroying milk’s nutrients. But the government maintains that pasteurisation has limited impact: “Pasteurisation has minimal effect on milk fat and protein composition. It does not affect mineral stability, milk mineral content, or mineral bioavailability,” says the Ministry for Primary Industries. “While it is true that the heating process can inactivate some enzymes important for human health in milk, the pasteurisation process adopted in New Zealand has minimal effect on enzymatic activity.”

Such reassurances are unlikely to dampen the enthusiasm for raw milk. For people like Liesbeth Kouwenberg, Village Milk is not only tasty but helps reduce waste. “When I go to Village Milk I reuse the same glass bottle and we’re not destroying the planet with mountains of plastic containers. It’s good for me and for the environment.”

After 30 years of selling their milk to Fonterra, the Houstons are now committed to expanding the raw milk market – and to supplying their local customers. “There’s such a difference between the plastic milk at the supermarket and real milk,” says Mark. “How did we get to this? We’ve accepted that green-top watery stuff! To me that is completely the wrong direction in terms of the local milk that people drink. Village Milk is another alternative.”

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