Monday, December 29, 2014

Is Raw Milk Safe? Some Pasteurisation Facts. Why I Won't Sell Raw Milk & What To Look For In A Raw Milk Supplier

Tragically a child in Australia has died as a result of drinking contaminated raw milk. 

So the raw milk vs pasteurised milk debate begins again. The comments on this article from June this year show the diverse opinions.

I grew up drinking raw milk from the vat. We looked long and hard at selling raw milk. We looked at the issues and decided that raw milk was not for us. I'll explain why.

Is raw milk safe or not? 

The quick answer is, it can be safe, but it can turn bad very quickly.

First up, what is pasteurisation?

We boil contaminated water to kill bugs. Pasteurisation is simply heating the milk up to kill any bad bugs that may be present. 

It's not just milk that we pasteurise either, most freshly squeezed orange juice is pasteurised, just as egg products are too. We don't seem to have debates about those products.

The pasteurisation process is a combination of temperature and holding time. For example you can heat milk to 60 degrees and hold it there for 30 minutes (called batch or low temp long time) or you could heat it to 72 degrees and hold it there for 15 seconds (called high temp short time HTST).

I've chosen a batch system where we heat the milk to 65.1 degrees and hold it there for 10 minutes.

Does pasteurisation affect the milk?

Yes & no.
Pasteurisation does not change the nutritional value of the milk such as fat, protein content etc. 
But it does affect other aspects of the milk. The heat treatment process kills any "bad bugs" that are in the milk & it also kills any so called "good bugs" that are in the milk too.

To check that milk has been pasteurised. We conduct a test called the Alkaline Phosphatase test. This test is looking for the Alkaline Phosphatase enzyme. If milk is properly pasteurised, then alkaline phosphatase is inactivated. If it is detected then the milk has not been pasteurised.

This indicates that the heat treatment is affecting some aspects of the milk. 

Does it matter? 

There seems to be very little or no scientific evidence showing any benefit to drinking raw milk. But raw milk proponents will give examples of a friend or a family member who had an ailment that disappeared after swapping to raw milk. There's even books about how raw milk can cure autism. It hasn't made one bit of difference with my autistic son!

Either way both opinions will continue to exist.

I couldn't see any real evidence other than some anecdotal evidence that raw milk is better for you and that the pasteurisation process adversely affects the milk.

People are confused about what happens to milk

What I did discover in my customer & market research, was that the public don't understand what pasteurisation, homogenisation and standardisation is.

People try raw milk and they think "wow" that tastes so different to the supermarket milk. They conclude that it must be because it is raw milk. 

The fact is, you can take milk from the same batch, pasteurise half of it & conduct a taste test. The pasteurised milk will have exactly the same amount of cream on top and taste exactly the same as the raw milk. 

People can't tell the difference.

What people can tell the difference of, is if the milk has been homogenised & standardised. It's those two processes that alter the look, texture & taste of the milk.

There is a perception that you can only get full cream milk, straight from the cow, just like the old days. If it is raw milk. People think the pasteurisation process is what removes the cream or "waters it down". 

I couldn't see any rock solid reason to sell raw milk. But I could see potential risks to selling raw milk.

How to ensure raw milk is safe

The food scientists will say that you simply cannot ensure that raw milk is safe. I think thats being a bit over the top. 

After all I spent my whole childhood and teen years drinking milk from the cowshed vat. I also did a fair bit of milking and I remember accidentally dropping the teat cups into a fresh wet cow pat every once and a while and watching as the cups sucked it straight into the milk line. I survived.

Simply put, raw milk can be safe if it is produced to high standards and consumed in short order.

There are a number of people who produce and sell raw milk properly. They are registered with the ministry for primary industries and have testing regimes & procedures in place.

What makes raw milk unsafe? 

The same things that could make pasteurised milk unsafe. The obvious issues are big bad bugs like, Salmonella, E.coli, B. cereus, Listeria & Staph Aureus. Pasteurisation will kill or deplete these bugs if they are present.

If any of these organisms are found in raw or pasteurised milk, you would have to ask serious questions about the practices of the operator.

The other things to consider are Coliform levels (fecal bacteria) , Aerobic plate counts (bacteria) & somatic cell count (measure of mastitis or infection in the udder).

The people who sell raw milk properly have Coliform, APC & SCC levels well below that of the average dairy farmer. 

If raw milk is produced to high hygiene standards & has very low bacteria levels in it & it is kept at below 4 degrees C, then it will likely be safe. 

Problems arise when the temperature is elevated above 4 degrees. Bacteria reproduce when it gets warm. If a bottle is left on the bench at room temperature, the bacteria can rapidly reproduce. Its possible that a bad bug is present, but in such low levels that it is not a problem. But it could reproduce to levels that then become a problem.

This applies to pasteurised milk too, but the difference is pasteurised milk will have lower bacteria levels in it and the bad bugs are heat sensitive and will have been killed. So any bacteria that are multiplying will not be harmful. 

One of the reasons the New Zealand regulations only allow raw milk to be sold from the farm gate, is that transport from the farm and storage at a separate location, increase the risk that the milk is not kept chilled and it also extends the time in which the milk will be consumed.
Long supply chains and raw milk are not an ideal mix.

What to look for in a raw milk supplier

If you want to buy raw milk in New Zealand then there are a number of farmers doing it. You want to buy milk from someone who has impeccable hygiene in the cowshed & healthy cows.

The things to look for are:

  • First of all look for their approval certificate from MPI. If they don't have one it means their systems have not been approved by MPI. They are breaking the law. Don't buy.

  • How tidy and clean are the surroundings? Is there rubbish laying around? Is the cowshed clean, are the railings clean, has the yard been hosed clean, are the teat cups clean?

  • Ask to see the old milk filters. The milk filter catches any foreign matter. If its green, that shows that cow poos on the cows teats have mixed with the milk. In my experience most commercial dairies will have green milk filters at the end of milking.

  • Does the farmer have a large herd that supplies a milk company like Fonterra or is 100% of the milk going to be sold to the public as raw milk? This is important because if a farmer is milking 400 cows and simply diverts some of the milk to sell to the public. It is unlikely that they are following the required hygiene requirements for safe raw milk. They won't be washing & disinfecting the teats of all 400 cows.

  • Ask about their milk testing regime, what are the bacteria levels that they aim for? 

My Conclusion

People love real milk that has not been heavily processed. Milk that has been standardised & homogenised is very different from real milk.

Many people jump on the raw milk bandwagon simply because they like the taste of real milk. Most of these people will be quite happy to drink real milk that has been pasteurised.

I don't think there is any advantage in drinking raw milk over "real milk" that has only been pasteurised.

To me any advantage (if any) of raw milk is outweighed by the risks.

I'm happy for people to drink raw milk if they want to, as people should be free to do as they please. 
For this reason I support the current regulations that allow people to buy it from the farm gate. This allows people who really believe in raw milk to access it. But they have to be really keen to drive to the farm and collect it.

I'm happy for the public health system to treat you if you get sick too. After all the tax payer funds the treatment of people doing silly things on motocross bikes etc.

But I do have a problem with people feeding it to their young children. They are not able to fight off an infection as well as an adult.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

New Zealand's Food Safety Regulations Are Not Just About Food Safety, But Also International Trade & Politics

New Zealand's food safety regulations are not simply about food safety. It's also about international trade & politics.

Once I understood that, the regulations & procedures around dairy products begins to make sense to me.

I'm going to be quite charitable to the regulators in this post.

Biddys Story

Last night Seven Sharp did a follow up story on Biddy and her micro cheese making business. You can view the 7 minute video here.

Biddys story is, she milks 3 cows and makes the milk into cheese. She has won international awards etc etc. 5 years ago she was featured on Country Calendar. This alerted the authorities to her small operation and she was required to meet the dairy regulations.

Biddys story has popped up in the media on and off for the last five years. The current situation is she makes $33,000 per year from her cheese and she is required to have her risk management programme audited every year, which cost $4,500.

my last blog postI outlined the reason it costs $4,500 to get a verifier to audit her every year. Basically there are only 2 companies in New Zealand who conduct these auditing services and there is not enough auditors. So people like Biddy and my self have to pay for the airfares & rental cars to get an auditor to visit. We also have to pay them $90/hour while they are travelling & well over $130/hour while they are on site or writing their report.

So Biddys getting away quite lightly at only $4,500!

Regulations are set to protect our international trade

After hearing a story like Biddys, the general response goes something like this "This is ridiculous, a little old lady with three cows has to go through all the same paperwork and inspections that a big processor does. Why doesn't the local council food inspectors do the inspections?" 

This sounds logical, after all if you wanted to bake apple pies & sell them. You can set up in your garage and the council inspector can sign off your premises. 

But New Zealand doesn't make its money from apple pies, it makes it's money from milk.

Our overseas markets are quite happy to find a reason to stop our dairy exports. One example is Fonterra's DCD scandal. Sri Lanka were quick to blacklist Fonterra products & Chinese officials were all over MPI looking for a detailed risk assessment. 

We can find other food safety scares that have affected New Zealand dairy producers. There was Fonterra's clostridium botulinum scandal and before that they had the melamine infant formulas scandal too.  

All three of these scandals cost NZ producers greatly.

But hang on a minute, these "cock ups" were by Fonterra, New Zealands largest producer not the Biddy's of the world.

I can't actually find an example of a small scale producer causing the NZ dairy industry to suffer.

Either way, officials from the European Union, China & the US etc scrutinise our food safety systems and look for areas of weakness or potential weakness. Often its not food safety at the forefront of their mind, but rather international trade as their focus. 

It would appear that, they use our system as a type of tariff or at least a way to leverage more bargaining power.

So poor old MPI has to juggle the political & trade requirements while also trying to make the system simple for Biddy and I.

As a result, our trading partners demand a robust system with checks and balances. The problem is those checks and balances cost money.

In my last post, I proposed that we should get rid of the private verifiers and make verification the role of MPI. The problem with that scenario is MPI then set the standards, evaluates businesses risk management programmes and also conducts the auditing of those businesses.

It could be argued that this system would lack any independent checks.

Who knows what goes on in the Wellington office of MPI. We don't know what the Chinese or the europeans demand of them.

But what I do know, is that whenever I talk to anybody from Eurofins, AsureQuality or MPI the conversion very quickly turns away from the practical hygiene issues and onto the requirements of the a certain standard or regulation. 

It's these regulations that have been audited by our trading partners & found to be acceptable. 

MPI are worried that if, a small producer stuffs up & causes a food safety breach, the risk is that the standards & regulations that make up our food safety system may look to have failed. Therefore opening us up for more scrutiny from other countries who may be looking for any reason to halt our exports.

Much of the battle I am having with the Ministry for Primary Industries is not about actual food safety, but more about everybody covering their backs. 

More on that later