Government should reconsider decision to allow raw milk sales

A dispenser that allows the sale of raw milk.
Fairfax NZ

A dispenser that allows the sale of raw milk.

OPINION: The health risks of consuming raw milk have been well documented and are backed up by scientific evidence.

The recent decision by the Government to allow the continued sale of raw milk speaks directly to what happens when we live in a democracy where the right to choose may sometimes transcend the scientific evidence.

Consumers and producers in this instance have successfully lobbied for this decision despite overwhelming support for a ban by the scientific community.

The veterinary profession's view is that some members of the public will put their, and others', health at risk without fully contemplating the consequences.

Through the New Zealand Veterinary Association, the profession expressed its strong opposition to raw milk sales (whether at the farm gate or through home deliveries) and called for a total ban on sales, in its submission on this regulatory review.

 This is in direct alignment with the World Health Organisation position.

The NZVA submission to the Ministry for Primary Industries  outlined the significant food-safety risks and food-borne illnesses associated with consuming raw milk.

 Food safety is concerned with risk management relating to food products.

Since the 19th century, pasteurisation of milk has been recognised as essential to ensure milk and dairy products are safe.

 There is overwhelming evidence that pasteurisation reduces the incidence of milk-associated infections in humans and that raw milk is linked to outbreaks of illness.

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The microbes that cause these outbreaks can be aggressive and are not always easy to treat: salmonella, campylobacter, listeria and E coli.

 In some people these pathogens can and do kill.

It is not possible to rapidly screen for the presence of these infectious agents in raw milk.

There is also a lack of knowledge about managing risk before  and during the milk harvesting process.

While it is reassuring to have the Government stress that raw milk is considered to be a high-risk food, especially for children, the elderly, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems, the veterinary profession is less assured that the consumers and producers who drove this decision are sufficiently educated on the facts to be aware of the consequences.

 In balancing this decision to allow consumers the right to choose with a role in supporting safety (where possible), the Government is placing the onus on the producers to remove risk.

From  next year, they will  have to meet a number of requirements, including registering with MPI, hygiene standards, testing milk for pathogens, keeping sales records, and appropriate labelling.

 Some suppliers think these tighter rules will ensure a quality product that can be trusted; the veterinary community

disagrees.

The effectiveness of the measures MPI is proposing to reduce risk remains untested and it is important for consumers to understand that the risk-assessment process by MPI around "evaluation of availability, feasibility and costs of mitigations" has yet to be completed (being outside the scope of the assessment to date).

 At the same time we continue to see unsubstantiated claims about the health benefits of raw milk.

We believe these have not been sufficiently challenged by regulatory authorities.  This leaves the consumer misinformed.

While good husbandry practices, such as on-farm hygiene and equipment cleaning, may mitigate some risk, they do not significantly reduce the risk of illnesses from drinking milk that has not been protected by pasteurisation, particularly in New Zealand farming systems which differ from overseas (where these suggestions were drawn from).fudc3

There have been early discussions between the profession and MPI about the profession's role in assuring the safety of raw milk, as another method of mitigating risk.

Veterinarians are integrally involved in food assurance of primary produce from pasture to plate but believe it is impossible to assure the safety of raw milk.

The NZVA's dairy veterinarians do not believe routine veterinary inspections of farms can guarantee product safety.

Nor will MPI's proposals for biannual veterinary visits, as they would not be able to confirm whether milk is safe to drink without daily culturing of milk samples from each cow.

The Veterinary Professional Insurance Society (providing indemnity insurance to more than 80 per cent of the profession) has further emphasised this by advising that this activity is uninsurable – simply because the risks are too high.

At the heart of this debate is an issue that will become more common – values-based decisions by consumers regardless of scientific fact.

 In this instance we think New Zealand consumers of raw milk have got it wrong.

The profession will continue to be actively engaged in discussions with MPI as it works on the next phase of this change – the evaluation of availability, feasibility and costs of mitigations.

Clearly we hold the view that if risk mitigation cannot be assured then the Government should reconsider the decision.

In the meantime the public must arm themselves with the facts to ensure an informed choice is made, and all consequences accepted, before they make their next purchase – be it for themselves or on behalf of vulnerable family members.

 Jenny Weston is president of the dairy cattle branch  of the New Zealand Veterinary Association.

 - The Dominion Post

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