Raw milk appetite grows
New Zealanders' taste for raw milk is on the rise and Nelson-Tasman farmers are leading the way. Naomi Arnold looks at its growth.
It's not at all surprising that there are a few glass bottles of raw milk in the back of the smoko room fridge at Village Milk's dairy farm near the base of the Takaka Hill.
What is surprising is how long one of the bottles has been sitting there without going sour.
Forgotten, it stayed in the fridge for weeks when Village Milk owners Mark and Phillippa Houston went on holiday recently.
When they got back, they opened it and sniffed cautiously, expecting to reel back at the stench of rotting milk.
Instead they smelt nothing but a pleasant yoghurty whiff.
"We decided to leave it in the fridge as a bit of an experiment," Mr Houston says.
Two and a half months later, the yoghurt has turned into a solid cottage-cheese type substance, floating on top of watery whey.
When Mr Houston offers the bottle up for a sniff this week, it's still not sour.
The Houstons - Mark, Phillippa, and son Richard - attribute that to the cleanliness of their raw milk, meaning there's no need for pasteurisation to kill the bugs.
And they say it's that attention to cleanliness, including a rigorous testing regime, that is behind the success of their efforts at turning raw milk into real milk in the minds of the public. They also believe it's what other raw-milk dairy farmers will have to do if they want to ensure the public can trust it.
The 1981 Food Act allows farmers to sell up to five litres of milk daily to buyers who use it themselves or for their families, and wholefood or cheesemaking enthusiasts have long organised guerilla raw-milk clubs on a roster of pick-up and delivery. Cheesemakers can already buy Wangapeka Downs raw milk at the Grape Escape, for example. But the novelty and ease of refrigerated vending machines has recently made selling from the farm gate much more accessible.
Open 24/7, the Village Milk vending machine sells about 250 litres a day in its Clifton location.
With slick marketing and a devoted following, Village Milk has developed a network of six farm-gate franchisees around New Zealand in just over a year, in the milk-soaked lands of Golden Bay, Lower Moutere, Hamilton, and Greymouth, with Oxford and Timaru opening soon.
"Once you've had real milk," is the general consensus of its Facebook fans, "you'll never go back."
The cause is helped along by that fact that nutritionist Lee-Anne Wann, known for her role on TV show Downsize Me, has put the Warriors on raw milk to improve their health.
But it's Nelson and Tasman dairy farmers who are leading the way, with the region home to most of the automatic dispensers in the country. About half a dozen offer milk at between $2 and $2.50 a litre at their dairy farm gates.
At the Raine family farm's Oaklands Farm outlets in Stoke, their twin vending machines currently sell lightly pasteurised milk, with a raw option to be added later this year.
At Riverside Community in Lower Moutere, people have been drinking raw milk from their dairy herd of 160 friesian holstein cows for decades, and the community has sold raw milk informally for years.
This winter, farm manager Colin Coles split out a small herd of 15 cows to supply the raw milk operation, with plans to increase.
Now they have a roadside stall with a Swiss vending machine and milk available for $2 a litre. Eyeing its prime position on the new Nelson Tasman cycle trails network, the milk stand is part of attracting more people to Riverside, including its cafe, gallery, and workshop.
Manager Florian Pauls says there is a worldwide trend for raw milk and New Zealand is simply following the trend for conscious consumption, or knowing where your food comes from.
The latest dairy farmer involved is Warwick King on his farm at the Glen. He has been selling a small amount of milk, about 20 litres a week, to customers who want to make cheese. Noticing a good business opportunity, Mr King is in the process of installing a vending machine of his own in the next few months.
"Most people who get onto it seem to think it's wonderful," he says. "We can see the benefits from it, not just economically but from a health point of view too. I think we're in a niche market out here, the only dairy farm this side of Nelson."
They get all sorts of customers at Village Milk, Philippa Houston says: mums, young people in souped-up cars, elderly couples, single men. "It's not a niche or an alternative thing at all."
Mark Houston attributes its popularity to a consumer base that is becoming increasingly suspicious of processed food, and a growing coterie of locavores intent on knowing who produces it and how they're doing it. Having the cow-to-bottle local milk supply also cuts waste in plastic and food miles.
The rising appetite for raw milk comes as the Ministry for Primary Industries reviews regulations for its sale, including whether it might be made available off-farm. A ministry spokeswoman says the review is still being drafted and does not expect its release until next year.
Its 2011 consultation received 1700 submissions mostly in support of
increased daily limits and off-farm sales, and showed consumption was more extensive than it realised.
"This is a complicated process due to all the different scientific views and public demand," the spokeswoman says.
The newly formed Raw Milk Producers' Association plans to create a code of practice to assure consumers its product is safe, and set a standard to help protect New Zealand's dairy reputation.
President Ray Ridings agrees with the Houston's assertion that raw milk producers have to be extremely strict about monitoring cleanliness, keeping bacteria levels low, and testing regularly to protect the industry.
He says raw milk production at the moment is "very much ad-hoc", and it will soon be surveying its members to get a handle on the size of the market, of which it's currently estimated to make up about 3 per cent.
"It's much bigger than the Government realised before it embarked on its review," Mr Ridings says. "I put it down to a real move by people to get back to less processed food, and that's mirrored with farmers' markets and people growing their own gardens. They want to get their food as close to the source as possible."
He sees it as part of a wider social change. "It's throughout the world. The internet has made more information available about what people are eating and drinking, and those that want to educate themselves find the information relatively easily."
Raw milk is not a threat to the dairy industry of New Zealand, he says. The vast majority of our milk goes overseas, so the local New Zealand market is tiny for farm-gate producers. It's also a different product. "Some people can't drink processed milk at all because they have reactions to it."
However, it's also a product that must carry warning labels in much of the world, including in Canada and England, and raw milk products are illegal in Australia.
Raw milk is an ideal breeding ground for bacteria including listeria, e.coli, and salmonella, and can carry diseases including tuberculosis, though a TBfree spokesman says, on average, a cow with TB in its udder is found about once every three years in New Zealand and the risk is low.
In the past two years 55 New Zealanders have been admitted to hospital for food poisoning linked to raw milk products, according to the Ministry of Health, though a Nelson Marlborough District Health Board spokeswoman said Public Health was not aware of any notifiable diseases arising from the consumption of raw milk that have led to hospital admission.
The ministry recently warned that consumers might not be fully aware of the risks associated with it, as it hasn't been pasteurised to destroy harmful bacteria. It recommended young children, the frail elderly, pregnant women and anyone with a weakened immune system avoid drinking it because they were more vulnerable to getting sick, and their illnesses would likely be more severe.
Cawthron microbiologist Ron Fyfe says that, personally, he wouldn't drink it either. The institute does raw milk testing in the region, though Mr Fyfe cannot talk about Cawthron's clients.
"Most companies now have very good hygiene conditions, [and] it's fine as long as all their hygiene procedures are in place, but milk is a very rich substance when it comes to being a food for bacteria," he says. "There's a limited market for people who want to drink it. Most others including myself would prefer pasteurised because it reduces the risk of bacteria.
"In most of these instances small companies are dealing with a small number of beasts so they're pretty much on top of what's going on in their herd. There's no reason why they can't have very good hygiene conditions with all the technology available to them, but it's still a risk.
"You never know about next week's batch. There are so many variables in dealing with products like that."
However, raw milk fans are not worried about infection. They've checked out the farmers' testing regimes and bacteria counts, and say the milk tastes better, is more digestible, has more vitamins and good bacteria, and cures allergies, asthma, eczema, and lactose intolerance.
Tony Robson-Burrell, the head chef at the Moutere Inn, first tasted Village Milk in Takaka and they've been buying it from the Moutere vending machine for the past few months. The family drinks about eight litres a week.
"It's far superior to homogenised, pasteurised milk," Mr Robson-Burrell says. "It's just so creamy, so rich; the flavour is great. I think it just adds to our healthy lifestyle. I firmly believe that what we eat as a family means we're really healthy. We've got lots of get up and go."
He'd like to use it in his job, such as making his own ice-cream, if legislation allowed it.
"It's something we would be interested in using if we could."
Verena Maeder has been drinking Wangapeka's raw milk for more than a year. She has coeliac disease and says she is able to digest raw milk, where it was often a problem before. "It is one of the best choices we have ever made in regards to food," she says.