Busybodies interfere with dairy choices

Drinking raw milk straight from the udder never harmed anyone.

Drinking raw milk straight from the udder never harmed anyone.

OPINION: When I was a kid, our family had a house cow. Actually, to be strictly accurate, we had a succession of house cows.

The one I remember best was named Lucy. She was a good-natured jersey that would always obligingly trudge across the paddock in response to my father's call.

Dad or mum would milk her in a ramshackle wooden cow bail attached to our chookhouse.

Secured only with a leg rope, Lucy would stand contentedly chewing her cud as she was hand-milked into a stainless steel bucket.

When Lucy ran out of milk, dad would arrange with a nearby farmer to organise a liaison with his bull so we could re-start the production cycle. While we waited for nature to take its course and the milk to flow again, we would be dependent on the town milk supply.

Otherwise, my five siblings and I were raised on what's known today as raw milk. To us it was just milk as nature intended, straight from the cow's udder – unpasteurised and unhomogenised.

These days, it's a fashionable niche product. No doubt this is a result of the current enthusiasm for food that's natural and "authentic". Many people find the idea of raw milk far more appealing than milk that's been processed to within an inch of its life and contains additives such as permeate, a waste product dairy industry critics say is used to make milk go further.

The irony is that we're apparently so scared of this natural product that producers have to jump through daunting regulatory hoops to sell the stuff. A risk-averse bureaucracy seems to treat raw milk as if it's potentially life-threatening.

A recent newspaper article outlined some of the obstacles a rural Whanganui couple had to overcome before the Ministry of Primary Industries would allow them to sell raw milk direct to the public. I marvel that they didn't give up in despair and sign a contract to supply the Galactic Empire of the dairy industry, Fonterra.

Edo and Anita Mooij sell 1000 litres of milk a week. After submitting plans for their milking shed and making a few alterations to get approval, they were told last year that the regulatory bar had been raised and they had to come up with an extra $15,000 worth of equipment – a substantial sum that they had to borrow.

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They are required to have their milk tested for indications of mastitis every 10 days, at a cost of $600 a month. If they are able to satisfy the MPI's standards for a year, that reduces to once a month and the bill is cut by two-thirds. How magnanimous.

In the meantime, they had to get rid of 12 cows, including Anita's favourite, because some animals are more prone to mastitis than others.

Oh, and they have to display health warnings on their self-service vending machine and in their advertising, advising that raw milk may contain harmful micro-organisms. Of course.

I wasn't surprised to read any of this, having written last year about a Wairarapa cheese maker, 74-year-old Biddy Fraser-Davies, who was billed $10,000 for the mandatory testing of hand-made cheeses from her four jersey cows. She says at least half her annual income of $40,000 gets swallowed up by government fees.

Fraser-Davies apparently attracted the attention of the clipboard-carrying busybodies at the MPI after featuring on Country Calendar. They checked their files and found she had never lodged a risk-management plan.

In the eyes of health and safety-obsessed bureaucrats, there could be no more heinous crime.

I'm surprised they didn't immediately throw a cordon around her tiny farm. Yet as far as we know, no-one got sick or died from eating Fraser-Davies' cheese. The Mooijs haven't heard of anyone getting sick from drinking their milk either.

Come to think of it, neither I nor any of my siblings ever suffered adverse effects from drinking Lucy's milk, despite it being squirted from her teats – and stored – in conditions that would cause an MPI inspector to have an apoplexy.

Of course, the Government has to impose reasonable hygiene standards to ensure public health isn't at risk. But the key word here is "reasonable".

The official obsession with health and safety, and the imposition of costly nitpicking requirements that emphasise theoretical rather than real risk, too often amounts to regulatory overkill.

As in other areas of the bureaucracy – building standards come to mind – officials sometimes seem to regard their primary function as being to obstruct people rather than find ways to help them.

The result? Initiative and investment is discouraged and frustration leads to people either giving up or, with potentially more harmful consequences, disregarding the law because they hold it in contempt.

Somewhere between the extremes of officious control freakery on the one hand and open, laissez-faire slather on the other, it must be possible for regulators to strike a reasonable balance. Can it really be so hard?

 - Stuff


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