But Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) ceo Alan Reilly told DairyReporter.com that the authority had recommended to the Irish government that a ban be introduced on raw milk for "direct consumption", on scientific grounds in the interests of consumer protection.
In 2009 Reilly warned that a “small number of people in Ireland continue to drink raw milk against the advice of food safety and public health professionals”, and he said today that he stood by those comments.
Supporters claimed nutritional qualities, taste and health benefits, Reilly said, but heating milk to 72°C for 20 seconds did not make a major difference to its nutritional qualities, while E.coli 0157 was a "very serious bug that doesn't need a large infectious dose".
There was a risk, albeit low, of acquiring tuberculosis from pathogens in raw milk, the FSAI said, but also the threat of a potentially fatal E.coli 0157:H7 or campylobacter infection.
“By consuming unpasteurised milk, you are placing yourself at an unnecessary risk of serious illness,” said the agency, citing dairy farm families and their visitors as notable ‘risk’ groups.
Raw milk campaign
Irish agriculture minister Simon Coveney said that a ban on raw milk – from sheep, goats and cows – sales for human consumption would be introduced before the end of 2011; the Irish Department of Health and Children is expected to publish a bill effecting this imminently.
Coveney added that scientific advice from the FSAI meant there was no reason to oppose a ban, due to the risk to human health of raw milk, which is also used to make yogurt, ice cream and other dairy products.
The ban will not extend to raw milk used as an ingredient in other dairy products, but stakeholders as varied as cheese-makers, dairy producers and the Irish Cattle & Sheep Farmers Association (ICSA) are opposing the ban via a united ‘Campaign for Raw Milk Ireland’.
Asked for the association’s response to the planned ban, an ICSA spokesman said this morning that the FSAI’s advice was “narrow minded”.
Raw milk sales in Ireland are currently subject to no guidelines or regulations, and the FSAI could have proposed regulating, rather than banning, such products, he added.
Such legislation would damage farmer’s, he said, while consumers should be allowed to decide themselves whether they wished to consume raw milk.
“The decision should be that of the consumer, whereas Ireland is adopting an American-style approach to food regulation,” he added.
The spokesman admitted that raw milk production required monitoring and evaluation, but that the current lack of formal guidelines “should not justify an outright ban”.
He added: “A food of this type will come with a certain amount of risk, as with other high-risk food categories.
“But as long as procedures and checks are in place to reduce the potential hazard, ICSA believes the tradition of raw milk production should continue.”
Means of managing risk
However, the Irish Dairy Industry Association (IDIA) director, Michael Barry, told DairyReporter.com that pasteurisation and heat treatment were the only scientifically safe means of "managing [milk] risk", and until times changed a ban was necessary.
"There's been quite a lot of discussion about this in Ireland, and a lot of lobbying," he added. "But lobbying should never be on the basis of populism and a whim. To be honesty we're wondering why it's taking so long for the bill [banning raw milk] to be published."
"That said we don't want to stop, say, farmers or their families from drinking raw milk, as that's been going on for generations."
But a spokeswoman for the Campaign for Raw Milk Ireland said that FSAI hadn't conducted a proper risk assessment into raw milk, and raw milk regulation was fairer than a ban.
In light of Barry's comments, she cited measures such as careful herd management, strict dairy parlour hygeine, stringent herd disease control and bottling on site as alternative means of managing raw milk risk.
She added that campaigners believed raw milk was being unfairly discriminated against by an Irish government scared of any perceived reputational risk, from any raw milk illnesses, to Irish dairy industry exports.
However, the spokeswoman said she thought there had only been 2 cases of associated illness in the last decade, and that raw milk was being benchmarked against pasteurised milk, when it was a very different product.
Other foods, such as raw oysters, were potentially more dangerous to eat, she added, but such industries were quite properly regulated rather than shut down in Ireland.
Raw cows’ milk was formerly banned in Ireland from 1997 to 2006 but the ban was rescinded in 2006 due to a change in EU hygiene legislation. Thereafter, the Irish government consulted on reintroducing and extending the ban.