Clear risks in raw milk consumption - academic

GERALD PIDDOCK
Last updated 06:45 24/06/2014
Raw milk
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People who drink raw milk are risking their health, warns a Massey University food safety scientist.

This was because it was extremely difficult, if not impossible, to keep it free of any microbial contamination from fecal material, Nigel French told farmers and scientists at the New Zealand Milk Quality Conference in Hamilton.

French told farmers and scientists there was some evidence of perceived health benefits from raw milk consumption. "But at the moment it's still considered inconclusive and a lot of work needs to be done to see whether these are real effects and whether they are true in both adults and children."

French said he would still question its consumption even if its health benefits were proven.

"Even if there are health benefits, are there not safer ways to achieve those health benefits other than giving someone a high risk product."

Those risks were pathogens such as campylobacter, salmonella, cryptosporidium and E. coli that were known to exist on New Zealand farms.

They also turned up in raw milk, most likely from direct fecal contamination.

French is a professor of food safety and vet public health at Massey University.

He said there were 33 outbreaks of disease associated from raw milk consumption in New Zealand last year.

In the Manawatu, there was an outbreak of nine cases of campylobacter directly resulting from raw milk consumption and this year in Timaru two children were hospitalised after drinking raw milk from a dairy farm.

French said he was "very aware" this was a highly emotive subject.

Raw milk consumption was an increasing trend and he estimated there were about 100,000 consumers of raw milk in New Zealand and the number was growing. There were also a high number of farming families that drank raw milk.

Dairy farmers were also putting a considerable investment into raw milk vending machines.

In New Zealand it was illegal to sell raw milk at retail outlets, but under the Food Act, consumers can buy up to 5 litres of raw milk from the farmgate as long as it was for themselves or their families.

There has been growth in a number of raw milk producers and sales were taking place outside the regulatory framework, French said.

"In newspaper articles, sellers of raw milk were openly admitting selling up to 16 litres at a time."

Data collected on people who were ill from drinking raw milk showed that 26 out of 78 cases drank the milk for health reasons.

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He said there was a huge amount of anecdotal stories about raw milk's health benefits from helping everything from Parkinson's disease, eczema to asthma.

The Health Research Council were partway through a study on raw milk that looked in detail at its consumption in farming and non-farming families and compare the risks associated with allergic conditions in detail.

One overseas study showed there were some perceived health benefits, but it had been criticised for its poor study design.

More work was needed on studying the health benefits of raw milk consumption in adults.

Another study showed a reduction in asthma, hay fever and dermatitis from those that drank raw milk. But this study also had limitations, he said.

However, raw milk advocate Deb Gully said the product was an easy target when people got ill, but questioned the evidence proving that it was conclusively raw milk that caused the sickness.

Gully is the co-leader of the Wellington chapter of the Weston A Price Foundation, which promoted traditional food consumption, including raw milk.

Dairy farmers who sold raw milk had formed the Raw Milk Producers Association of New Zealand that would establish guidelines and set standards to ensure it produced in a manner that ensured it was safe for consumption, she said.

"Raw milk needed different standards to milk that's going to be pasteurised and people selling it had to do certain things to make sure the cows were healthy, the milk was good quality and they had procedures and testing.

"The guys that are doing it regularly, they're strict. They don't want to see cowboys coming along."

- Waikato Times

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