Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Caution over raw milk risks

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A Massey University professor is urging consumers of raw milk to be more aware of the risks around its consumption, after identifying a spate of food poisonings in Manawatu.

Massey University EpiLab director and food safety Professor Nigel French identified nine cases of food poisoning in the region in 2011, linked to a single source of raw milk sold for consumption.

Infections linked to raw milk consumption have also been identified this year in Waikato, where six people, including three young children, were struck with campylobacter.

“I only investigated the Manawatu cases. These were mainly urban people who had drunk raw milk, either directly from a farm or by purchasing the milk in town supplied by the same farm,” French said.

He is helping provide the Government scientific data on raw-milk risks as the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) considers a re-write of the food safety regulations as the liquid’s trade grows.

Internet food and health sites have been endorsing the claimed benefits from consuming raw, unpasteurised milk, including reductions in asthma attacks and skin infections.

However, French is concerned at the lack of knowledge about the risks of involved with raw-milk consumption.

“One of the key things that came out is many people were quite unaware of the risk. Some countries have actually banned the sale of raw milk due to the disease risk of its consumption.” 

This includes Australia, Scotland, Canada and parts of the United States.

In the US law firm Marler Clark has filed action on behalf of a family whose daughter contracted E coli O157:H7 from consuming raw milk sold by a Washington farm.

The five-year-old suffered major kidney failure.

“In New Zealand we may not have such a litigious society, but we do have a right to ensure food is safe to consume,” French said.

“One of the key things that came out is many people were quite unaware of the risk. Some countries have actually banned the sale of raw milk due to the disease risk of its consumption.” 

Professor Nigel French

Massey University

About 150 cases a year of E coli O157:H7 were recorded in NZ, predominately in children younger than five and acquired primarily through direct contact with farm animals or the farm environment, he said.

French is involved in a project with Wellington-based Centre for Public Health Research on establishing scientifically what health benefits raw milk contains, particularly whether it helps reduce asthma.

Village Milk chief executive Mark Houston has defended raw milk and the processes behind his company’s milk collection. 

Village Milk is NZ’s first franchised farmgate raw-milk vending operation.

Houston said while raw milk was an element, it remained difficult to pinpoint as the single cause of the recent infections in NZ.

The Village Milk raw milk dispensing business operates on Houston’s property at Takaka and another near Motueka.  Other franchises are scheduled to start soon in Waikato and West Coast.

Houston said there was a significantly higher standard of milk harvesting expected from Village Milk franchised suppliers, compared to milk collected for conventional factory processing.

The concerns over disease incidence and raw-milk consumption came as the Raw Milk Producers’ Association formed last month, amid rising public interest in unpasteurised, farm-fresh milk.

Association chairman Ray Ridings said he hoped to see a code of practice developed for farmers wanting to sell raw milk on their farms.

“At our inaugural meeting there was no one out of 35 people there who did not want to see some sort or code being put into place.”

He said there was a strong possibility the code would adopt many of the practices used by the Village Milk franchise to maintain hygiene standards.

He is seeking more information on the nature of the poisonings in Waikato and Manawatu.

“Raw milk is not a bullet-proof product. It does have its own natural resistances but it still can be contaminated at any step along its process. As long as some simple steps are followed in harvesting it there is no reason we cannot avoid pathogens getting into it.”

NZ producers are following standards similar to California, which is also developing a raw-milk association in response to strong consumer demand.

Houston and Ridings are encouraged by MPI’s largely positive response to developing standards to keep the practice in NZ safe.

Two years ago MPI called for submissions on reviewing the rules around fresh-milk sales and received 1600, of which 10 were against the practice continuing.

Ridings said he was optimistic the industry could develop a code of practice acceptable to MPI.

Past experience with specialty cheese makers and gourmet ice-cream producers creating acceptable codes was a good history to follow, he said.

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