Differences in Scots and English law regarding the sale of raw milk — hailed by some as a tastier alternative to pasteurised milk — are putting Scots consumers at risk, according to a top bacteriologist.
The sale of unpasteurised milk was banned in Scotland in 1983, after it was linked to a high number of salmonella, campylobacter and E. coli O157 food poisoning outbreaks, and potentially 12 associated deaths. Mandatory pasteurisation was extended in 2006 to include drinking milk and cream from all farmed animals after 21 people died in a food poisoning outbreak in Wishaw.
Food Standards Scotland (FSS), which was last year devolved from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in London and advises the Scottish government, said illnesses linked to the consumption of raw milk have virtually disappeared since these controls were put in place.
However, sales over the internet mean that producers from south of the border are getting round the law in Scotland. It is legal to sell raw milk in England and Wales — a ban has been proposed three times since 1984 but, following consumer protest and claims that it put farmers in an unfair trading position with Europe, it has never been enforced .
Last year, the FSA decided the risk level was acceptable provided hygiene controls were applied. In March this year, however, it upgraded its advice to consumers, warning that it “can contain harmful bacteria that cause food poisoning”.
Some Scots consumers, convinced raw is best, are using the internet to buy it direct from dairy farms in England. Supporters of raw milk argue that it is a better source of calcium and that it contains beneficial bacteria that promote gut health and the ability to fight infection. They claim resistance to tuberculosis is increased in children fed raw milk.
Among those supplying Scots are Fen Farm Dairy in Suffolk, which offers Scots 10 litres at £32.96, and Hook & Son at Longleys Farm in East Sussex.
John Barron of Beaconhill Farm in Herefordshire delivers raw milk to customers in Scotland. The grandson of an Ayrshire dairy farmer, he says his Scottish customers are happy to pay £1.60 a litre but would prefer to be able to buy locally.
He said: “Apparently the Scottish government thinks Scottish farmers are incapable of producing ‘clean’ milk so it has to be pasteurised. That’s nonsense and it’s the most outrageous miscarriage of justice for Scottish dairy farmers.
“Pasteurisation changes the flavour of the milk and kills off enzymes that can prevent allergies and intolerances such as eczema and hayfever.”
But professor Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, was scathing about the anomaly. He told The Sunday Times: “Buying raw milk is silly and arguments in favour of it are rubbish. Drinking raw milk is not a risk I’d recommend taking.”
Pennington, who chaired the public inquiries into E. coli outbreaks in Scotland in 1996 and in Wales in 2005, added: “There are risks of being infected with salmonella, E. coli O157, tuberculosis and campylobacter from drinking unpasteurised milk. Fifty years ago the big issue was the milk transmission of tuberculosis — preventable by pasteurisation. E. coli O157 first appeared in the 1980s and is very nasty, particularly in children.”
Food Standards Scotland has no plans to lift the ban, and stresses that placing raw milk and cream on the market remains illegal.
Peter Midgley, director of Policy and Evidence at FSS said: “The Food Hygiene (Scotland) regulations 2006 (as amended) make it an offence to place raw milk or cream on the market for direct consumption in Scotland. This includes distribution. Penalties are available for non-compliance.” But he added: “FSS recognises the difficulty in policing internet sales. This is an area we will be reviewing. Ultimately, only the courts can decide whether an offence has been committed.”
‘It’s nice on cornflakes’
Champions of raw milk sometimes describe it as sweeter than pasteurised, because the lactose is uncooked and fuller in flavour and texture, with a silkier feel.
Robert Jardine, a 53-year-old engineer from Edinburgh, buys 20 litres of raw milk a fortnight from Barron to freeze at home and has been drinking it for 10 years. He describes it as “rich, creamy and just really nice over your cornflakes” and points out that the one-litre bottles often have a layer of cream at the top that is one-third the total volume.
“Raw milk is the most nutritious food that nature has ever provided us with and is the closest you can get to mother’s milk,” he said. “I’d pay 10 times more — in fact, I’d pay anything — to be able to buy it here in Scotland.
“I hope the Scottish government changes its policy and allows people the choice of buying it as they can in the rest of the UK.”
* This exclusive story first appeared in the Sunday Times, June 19, 2016