Thursday, December 7, 2023

Regulations capture raw milk risks, Food Safety says

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Two recalls of unpasteurised milk in two weeks ‘a coincidence’
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Despite two recalls in two weeks for raw milk products from different retailers, New Zealand Food Safety is confident the regulations governing the sale of the high-risk product are sound.

On June 28 a recall was issued for batches of  organic raw milk produced by Lindsay Farm in Hawke’s Bay, on grounds the product may contain campylobacter bacteria.

Then on July 8 NZ Food Safety published an alert on the recall of raw milk batches from sale from Raglan-based Dreamview Creamery. The recall did not affect any of the company’s other pasteurised milk products.

NZ Food Safety acting deputy director-general Jenny Bishop said the fact the batches were identified through testing and isolated was a good indication regulations introduced eight years ago are proving effective.

There have been no reports of consumers getting sick from consuming the milk.

“It is a high-risk product, but these alerts mean the system is working. The hygiene and testing procedures are all part of these regulations,” she said.

Listeriosis infection can be serious among vulnerable groups like pregnant women and unborn babies, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. Campylobacter can cause vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, fever and headaches.

The regulations were introduced in 2016 following 46 disease outbreaks traced back to raw milk suppliers between 2009 and 2016. Campylobacter was the predominant disease and many of those affected included children.

The new regulations include strict hygiene protocols when preparing cows for milking, strict testing standards and only allowing sales direct from the source farm.

Bishop acknowledged that, given it is a high-risk product, raw milk regulations can prove a very challenging area for regulators. 

She said from a purely public health perspective the level of risk means an outright ban on sale would be the safest pathway.

“But when we consulted in 2014 on new regulations we got feedback that consumers felt strongly about their right to buy it. 

“It is never going to be risk free, but the regulations reduce it as much as we can to allow those who wish to consume it to consume it as safely as possible.”

Massey University Professor of Food Safety and Microbiology Steve Flint said consuming unpasteurised milk is a dangerous practice, and there is good reason milk has been pasteurised for many years.

“It is hard for a government to legislate against its consumption. But a lot of people do not understand just how bad it can be.”

He said even with the farm dairy having the best hygiene practices in the world, there will always be a risk of infection.

France, with its many unpasteurised cheeses, has regular outbreaks of campylobacter from raw milk.

Mark Houston, CEO of Village Milk, importers of raw milk farm dispensers, said he believes overall the regulations are proving effective and the timing of the two outbreaks is simply a coincidence.

He said there is significantly more red tape to negotiate for producers wanting to sell raw milk but accepted that is inevitable.

“I think often the problems come from people not always knowing what they are doing. We were supplying raw milk for 10 years and never had a single case of an outbreak.”

He is concerned that the regulations do not require a lengthy period with zero hygiene alerts to prove the operator is consistent, prior to retailing the raw product.

His farm ceased supplying the product after covid, not on quality grounds but because the economics were proving increasingly challenging.

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