In the raw: cows' milk

The proposal to ban unpasteurised cow’s milk is due to a lack of understanding of its myriad benefits

The proposal to ban unpasteurised cow’s milk is due to a lack of understanding of its myriad benefits

IN IRELAND, we produce the best milk in the world, along with the best farmhouse cheeses and, of course, the best beef.

And our bureaucratic scientists want to stop us enjoying that good milk, the mother’s milk of the land.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) has proposed that the sale of unpasteurised milk should be banned completely. It does not favour regulation, it favours a total ban.


Now, why would it do that? After all, finding raw milk in Ireland is difficult, with only a few producers bottling their lovely product. I bought and enjoyed a glass-bottled litre from Aidan Harney’s Ballymore Farm recently. It was utterly delicious and I’m still standing, so why does the FSAI want to protect me from myself?

The FSAI argues that raw milk can contain a low level of pathogens “that can be harmful to humans”, says the authority’s director, Dr Alan Reilly. Hence the decision to recommend to the Minister for Agriculture that he ban the sale of raw milk completely.

This doesn’t go far enough, at all.

If we are serious about protecting those at risk in our society from the dangers of raw milk, it is essential that we act at once to ban the act of breastfeeding.

This cruel and unusual ritual sees newborn babies exposed to the dangers of raw milk. And not just on a daily basis, but often several times a day. And even at night!

What sort of society are we that such a barbaric act is not just tolerated, but is even encouraged by those whose job it is to advise us on the best course to maintain infant health?

To think that, in the very bosom of the family, such pernicious deeds are being perpetuated, and even encouraged, is enough to make one doubt one’s own sanity. Or at least to doubt the wisdom of those whose job it is to advise the Government on health policy.

Minister for Health James Reilly must act immediately and punishments for breastfeeding should be severe, with extra opprobrium heaped upon those who dare to breastfeed in flagrante. If crying infants have to be plucked from the nipple and removed from their shameless mothers to a place of safety, so be it.

I’m joking, of course. But the FSAI isn’t, and that’s the problem. Scientific analysis frequently lacks even the remotest touch of common sense, and it certainly lacks any sense of culture.

Several years ago, Peter Ward, the celebrated grocer from Nenagh, told an audience at the Kinsale Food Forum that, in Ireland, “We have milk in our blood”.

Not if the FSAI can do anything about it.

So how have we gotten to an endgame where the regulatory branch of the Government is advising against regulation of a tiny micro-industry, and instead is calling for an absolute ban that overrides our rights as consumers to decide what we want to eat and drink?

The answer, I suggest, lies in the dichotomy between science and culture, that 20th-century battleground where science has always won out over traditional cultural and historical practices.

Raw milk, unpasteurised milk, is anathema to scientific thinking. Nothing, but nothing, brings out the prescriptive prohibitionist in the scientific mind better than a glass of unpasteurised milk, or a cheese made with raw milk.

As Pierre Boisard put it in his book, Camembert, A National Myth: “For scientists, nothing was more baffling and unscientific than the skill of the cheese makers, who managed to produce savoury Camemberts without knowing anything at all about microbiology”.

And scientists hate to be baffled by seemingly ignorant farmers and cheesemakers who, damn them all, have scarcely a BSc to their name.

But the attitude of the FSAI is wrong for another reason: raw milk is a health drink and should be available on health grounds. The problem is not that there is too much raw milk; the problem is that there is too little.

The raw milk issue in Ireland isn’t an issue for Simon Coveney, Minister for Agriculture. It is actually an issue for Dr Reilly, Minister for Health.

Consider what happens when you pasteurise milk. According to the Weston Price Foundation of the US “pasteurisation destroys enzymes, diminishes vitamin content, denatures fragile milk proteins, destroys vitamins C, B12 and B6, kills beneficial bacteria, promotes pathogens and is associated with allergies, increased tooth decay, colic in infants, growth problems in children, osteoporosis, arthritis, heart disease and cancer”.

So, how has pasteurisation, if it does all these bad things to good milk, won the battle for so many years?

I think the elephant in the room on this question is, of course, tuberculosis and the shadow it continues to cast over the memories of generations of Irish people who suffered through TB.

It is the parents of Ireland’s baby boomer generation who have shaped the thinking on this issue of raw milk, even though the landscape has chang- ed utterly from when that generation were young, and were drinking raw milk to keep them healthy. This generation were brought up to see raw milk as dangerous, even as they drank it.

Today, many of us recognise that raw milk is, in Pierre Boisard’s term, “a magic liquid”. It isn’t unhealthy: it is health itself.

So we need to look at what is actually the situation today, rather than in the Ireland of the 1930s. If doctors understand the health benefits of raw milk, they can recommend it where necessary. And it is, of course, both plentiful and cheap.

And there is the problem: no one would make any money from recommending raw milk, save for a hard core of dedicated, meticulous Irish farmers who want to work with the magic liquid and are happy to be regulated by the FSAI. As with all the other cures around us – sea vegetables, herbs, wild foods – there is nothing in raw milk for the shareholders in big pharma.

“What comes by nature costs no money” is one of those old expressions my mother, whose family in Carlow suffered through TB, is still likely to throw my way every so often. There is no better example of such a nugget of folk wisdom as raw Irish cow’s milk.

John McKenna is author of the Bridgestone Guides,