How to create a fair system that works for consumers and producers.
This article explores some of the current structures around raw drinking milk and raw milk cheese and how improvements can make different systems better. Many consumers and producers support and understand the benefits of a regulated raw milk industry for Australia: for a high quality raw product. However many despair over these systems (example). Experience show that bureaucrats and food regulators don't necessarily have a track record of acting in the best interest of consumers and producers. It is important for raw milk supporters to express their misgivings about unreasonable bureaucratic regulations. It is important to show support for building a viable economic framework and food policy based on the people's values. Create fair regulations that allow raw milk to be profitable, viable and available.
Regulatory inconsistencies in raw milk cheese production:
Late last year New Zealand raw milk cheesemakers stormed parliament in protest to high compliance costs and unfair regulations.
Cheesemaker Biddy Fraser-Davis is a case study of the burden of bad regulation. Artisan cheesemaking with raw milk and industrial cheesemaking are two completely different industries, yet the rules imposed are like a one-size-fits-all umbrella. The regulations have been designed for large companies, and are completely disproportionate for a business of Biddy's size. Regulations offer little to no flexibility for her small dairy setup. The problem is the sheer cost of fees and compliance, plus the frustration of what she calls absurd bureaucracy. The risks involved between an industrial setup and one like Biddy's are worlds apart.
According to this article the makers of Mount Eliza and Cwmglyn Farmhouse Cheese are currently trying to change regulations that are at risk of preventing them from continuing to make food consumers want. Biddy, who is 74, was recently billed $10,000 for testing 10 Cwmglyn cheeses. Compliance costs were on top of that.
"Microbe limits for New Zealand cheesemakers as set out in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code are currently 100 times more stringent than for imported raw milk cheese... (source)."
If imported raw milk cheese is good enough for Australians and New Zealanders to eat, then more relaxed EU rules on raw milk cheese production are good enough for us too. Australia doesn't allow more than 10 colony-forming units per gram (cfu/g) of non-pathogenic e.coli in raw milk cheese produced here. In New Zealand it is no more than 100 cfu/g. In the EU it is 1,000 cfu/g of cheese. In Switzerland and France it is 10,000 cfu/g of cheese. Before 2009 the FDA in America allowed up to 10,000 cfu/g, and then proposed to bring it down to 10 units. Criticism erupted and since 2016 the FDA have paused the testing of non-toxic e.coli all together.
People see the inconsistencies and the injustice here. (Please remember not all e.coli is harmful. Most e.coli is harmless according to the CDC's website.) Microbes like the harmless e.coli are responsible for the flavour and uniqueness that make raw milk cheeses superior to commercially produced ones. Why put difficult restrictions that have no public health benefits on harmless microbes, but harms small businesses? Read more here.
"Ministry for Primary Industries regulations make it impossible for us to earn a sensible living." - Biddy
Scale inappropriate, unfair regulations:
Raw milk supporters have seen how fair regulation can support small-scale farmers in other countries. ARMM have shared many stories of an individual farm's success and also about longstanding, thriving raw milk industries. Both for raw drinking milk and raw milk cheese. Consumers compare these dignified systems to the absurd behaviours seen here in Australia and New Zealand. Politicians and others pontificate about what the dairy industry should look like, while ignoring what people really want. This bureaucracy has an expectation that consumers should adhere to these arbitrary and unwanted rules imposed. It seems politicians, government and food regulators can be relied on to protect the interests of large corporations but not small, homegrown economies. This has to change.
Multinational corporations don't think about people, they think about increasing wealth. They see everything in terms of efficiency and making profit. They don't care about the social well-being of people. Companies that claim to be socially responsible often have other motives. The commodity market system tend to have a middleman who take most of the profit. Many consumers and producers don't share those values. They believe it is important to show support for building systems based on ethical and compassionate values. The organic and sustainable farming movement want to switch the focus from food as a commodity to food for people.
From Wikipedia: "Red tape is an idiom that refers to excessive regulation or rigid conformity to formal rules that is considered redundant or bureaucratic and hinders or prevents action or decision-making. It is usually applied to governments, corporations, and other large organisations."
Raw milk supporters have reached the conclusion that many regulations are designed to create barriers for smaller businesses who can't afford the cost and rigmarole. Regulations are often used in a negative, non-constructive way to stop cottage food industries from thriving. The AFSA Legal Defence Fund crowd fund page address some of those difficulties imposed on Australian farmers. Also listen to personal stories of Australian farmers being unfairly disadvantaged by food regulators in these videos.
Also read: Attack on Small-Scale Dairy in Australia. French scientists now show that traditional cheesemaking methods result in a much safer raw milk cheese. We should be embracing the age old wisdom of the French, not shutting Australian dairies down for their desire to move away from the industrial standard. Joe Gretschmann of the much loved ethical dairy, Elgaar Farm in Tasmania, speaks about being shut down by a food regulator for 2 years without a single food safety incident in this video.
Small-scale farmers want the responsibility of entrepreneurship
Government officials need to realise that they have been choking off entrepreneurship opportunities that can make our food system great. Business owners and would-be entrepreneurs are seeking to make a living for themselves by creating jobs and prosperity in their community. They want to produce the foods that consumers are begging for. Family-owned dairy farmers are struggling in the current Milk Crisis. Opening up avenues for entrepreneurship will be good for the Australian economy overall.
Raw milk supporters want to participate in weeding out anything that can potentially derail the creation of a fair system, with fair access. Consumers want the reduction of bureaucratic obstacles and peaceful resolutions. Consumers don't want to hear food safety excuses when they know consumer demand can be satisfied and respected.
Consumers don't want any more hair splitting about the risks of raw milk or foot dragging to implement production standards. Consumers want legislative change and for regulators to sit down with our raw milk producers and get started on fair, workable solutions. No more shenanigans.
New Zealand raw milk supporters are in a difficult position:
In March 2016 new raw drinking milk regulations came info effect and more on 1 November 2016. ARMM have been following and sharing stories about consumers who have enjoyed raw milk access and producers who enjoy producing it there, since since January 2015. ARMM raw milk supporters have seen the media articles about the introduction of the new rules and saw the concerns raised by raw milk producers and consumers. There is much unhappiness that goes unaddressed. One thing is clear: New Zealand consumers are not allowed to participate in the process and it appears producers have little vote in matters. Ray Ridings, chairman of the Raw Milk Producers Association of New Zealand said the association generally support the new regulations but he said it's disappointing that they weren't given the opportunity to work through some safety options. He said in this article that they agree with MPI that there were some unsafe collection points, but banning these collection points altogether means reduced access for consumers, especially in areas where it isn't viable for farmers to deliver. In this article Ray said that the association was consulted over quality standards but was not asked for its opinion about distribution. He said that the regulations banning collection points have gone too far. Before the new regulations the number of raw milk suppliers stood at about 200. Recently there were just over 15 registered producers.
There is now evidence to suggest that New Zealand's regulated raw milk industry is over-regulated. This may not have happened if the consumers and producers were given a proper opportunity to co-create fair solutions.
Have there been missed opportunities to be fair? Then Food Safety Minister Jo Goodhew was often quoted saying that food safety was the number one priority and that she stood firm on the rules (source). Raw milk availability in New Zealand is now greatly reduced due to prohibition of distribution points for groups and insistence on excessive amounts of testing. It is not fair to leave it at that...
FSA consulted the public to reach fair solutions
British raw milk producer Stephen Hook said that Food Safety Agency had a public consultation that resulted in the current raw milk regulations in the UK. According to this article a FSA spokesman said: "our main priority is consumer safety and we have to make sure all necessary measures are there. There's a balance between protecting public health and respecting consumer choice." These regulations are serving dairy farmers and raw milk consumers well. ARMM often post stories about the current ability to produce and distribute raw milk (in England in particular) on our Facebook page. The FSA considers raw milk a low risk food based on evidence (source).
At another recent event in Gloucestershire where Joel Salatin and raw dairy farmer Christine Page spoke, Nina Purcell of the FSA spoke on how they would like to hear from the public about what "pain-points" they have with the system. She spoke of perhaps setting up an expert advisory group to look at this sector to help get the regulatory change right. FSA recognises that there are problems where agencies here seem to be in denial.
The National Farmers Union in the UK believes existing hygiene controls mean raw milk is safe to the consumer. Spokeswoman Isobel Bretherton said: “It is important that controls on the sale of this product are proportionate and appropriate for the modern consumer and dairy farmer.” Source.
NZ consumers not consulted
In this audio recording, consumers complain about not being given a choice in the matter of new regulations. Many say these new rules are damaging dairy farmers' livelihoods and are putting raw milk out of reach for many (source). Feedback on social media range from "draconian" to "a degree over the top". The system in New Zealand does not appear to be serving dairy farmers and consumers well enough. Perhaps MPI should to go back to the drawing board and open the debate to include raw milk consumers and producers. Many consumers need their raw milk regularly to deal with allergies and other health problems (source).
Scale inappropriate regulations: why deliberate ignorance?
Scale inappropriate regulations are a common theme that thwart local food economies. In this article R K Rose say that MPI officials seem to be unable and unwilling to grasp the vital distinction between milk from a small herd, where milk is produced exclusively to be sold in the raw state, and "factory milk" which is only raw until it is further processed and pasteurised. Why do authorities continue to ignore that there is a difference and then apply large scale food production requirements on cottage food industries? This non-productive, disproportionate approach is setting artisan food industries up for failure.
USA raw milk producers regulate themselves as many state governments fail to step up:
In some American states and at some individual dairies farmers aim to regulate themselves. Many have realised after many years that authorities will continue to fail to do the right thing. Farmers and consumers have created their own systems to protect themselves and satisfy consumer demand.
The Raw Milk Institute is perhaps the best example. Mark McAfee say in this article that he founded the Raw Milk Institute after frustration with lack of national standards. To create both accountability and transparency, Mark worked with epidemiologists, biologists and other health professionals to create RAWMI’s standards. Instead of just focusing on the end results, like bacteria levels, they also worked up detailed protocols for the entire process.
Organisations like RMAC (Raw Milk Association of Colorado) have also created their own set of standards. They are an association of raw milk producers and consumers who advocate for the traditional availability of raw milk products and seek to ensure a safe supply. Goals entail educating consumers, providing outreach to new producers and organising the raw milk network.
Another dairy farmer founded the Oregon Raw Milk Producer's Association (ORMPA) to educate farmers and to raise the bar in milk quality. The state of Oregon allow dairy farmers to milk 3 cows or fewer and sell from the farm gate. The problem with this system is that farmers have no government support on how to produce safe raw milk. Before ORMPA, it was all up to each individual to research on their own and learn the hard way, making expensive or dangerous mistakes. This system set them up for failure in a unique way. There was a virulent e.coli outbreak in 2012 that sickened 20 people from a dairy whose milking procedures and handling were described as filthy. It landed kids in hospital. It was played out in the media for months. The media went into a frenzy because they had justification to show that raw milk can be dangerous. In the last decade it has become a frequent occurrence in the USA for a media circus to erupt every time someone gets ill and it can be linked with raw milk. Every time small grassroots raw milk industries take a hit.
With raw milk freedom comes responsibility.
ORMPA introduced common standards as a set of "best practises" for safe raw milk production. Founder Charlotte Smith say that she has committed herself to helping farmers commit to impeccable morals and high standards in producing safe raw milk, read more here. In many American states there are still no government structures, regulatory agencies or government resources for raw dairy farmers. The people involved created their own systems to preserve the degree of raw milk legality they worked so hard to create.
Another story coming out of Oregon about overcoming adversity is the censorship of raw milk advertising. In 2013 the issue of the state flatly banning the advertisement of raw milk, which was already legal for many years, came to a head. Farmers could not put flyers on a bulletin board or price information on their websites; harming their businesses and threatening them with fines and jail time. One dairy farmer took a stand and now farmers are free to promote their products. Read about it here and watch the video.
Recently the nonprofit organisation West Virginia Raw Dairy Association was formed after the raw milk bill on distribution of raw milk through herdshare agreements passed. President Maria Moles said: “WVRDA intends to provide a community service by sharing information and education on handling raw dairy products safely and responsibly through seminars, workshops and other activities.”
The British Colombia Herdshare Association offers free training in the Raw Milk Institute's RAMP (Risk Analysis and Management Planning) as a community service. The RAMP on-farm food safety system trains farmers in the production methods for clean, pathogen-free, low-risk fresh milk. Also see the California Herdshare Association.
There is a variety of regulation in the USA but many are left to their own devices. The market for raw dairy will decide these issues if left alone to do so. There is now an expectation of testing that wasn't there before. Many USA producers are now following world class standards despite government non-participation. There has been a dramatic decline in the outbreak of illness in the last few years according to Mark McAfee.
For more information about raw milk access in the different US states see the Raw Milk Nation Map.
Regulations for raw milk cheese in Australia:
In Australia a new software tool to interpret FSANZ (Food Safety Australia New Zealand) regulations for raw milk cheese is hoped will help the sector grow. It has been two years since FSANZ updated the regulatory code to allow the production of raw milk cheese from cows, buffalo, sheep and goats (source). Yet we have not seen much growth in the number of raw cheese producers in Australia, despite huge demand for the cheese. April last year the count was still at only four. Dairy farmers have told ARMM the regulations make it impossible for them to step into that market.
"Most of our dairy is industrial and we've got a very risk averse set of food regulations and food regulators." (source)
Why should boutique cheesemakers need new software to help them navigate the tricky food safety regulations governing raw milk cheese production? Why are cheesemakers saying that these rules are too difficult to comprehend and too costly? Compared with other raw milk industries who are thriving, these regulations are over the top and hinder local cottage food industries from taking off.
A quality Swiss imported raw milk cheese like Tete de Moine is for sale in Melbourne for around $60 a kilogram. Marcel Petite French Comte goes for around $65 a kilogram. The latest South Australian raw milk cheese called 'The Kid' by Woodside Cheese Wrights will cost $200 a kilogram.
Remember: Australia doesn't allow more than 10 cfu/g of non-pathogenic e.coli in raw milk cheese produced here. In the EU it is 1,000 cfu/g of cheese. In Switzerland and France it is 10,000 cfu/g of cheese. In America the FDA have paused these tests. Imported raw milk cheese is perfectly safe and acceptable for us to eat. Why do regulators think it is acceptable to burden our artisan producers with 'safety' targets that are very hard to attain? Read more here.
Make the rules practical, easy to understand and easy to apply.
Look to fair overseas examples and ease the burdens on Aussie artisan producers.
Although the desire for food sovereignty is fair and just, a successful raw milk industry cannot operate without at least some production standards.
Mark McAfee also said at an ARMM event in October 2015 that we don't necessarily need regulation, but we need a good model where people come together voluntarily and set up a system that works. When raw milk production is not guided it creates some unique obstacles. No system or rules means there is increased risk of people getting sick because farmers have no guidelines to help them. Many American consumers and dairy farmers come together and now have their own systems of best practise to ensure high quality raw milk. In the last few years the outbreak of illness trends in the USA are showing a dramatic decline. Mark McAfee says this is due to the role of world class standards and an expectation of testing. Many producers who are not listed by the Raw Milk Institute have been following RAWMI standards anyway.
In countries like New Zealand, the regulated raw milk industry show signs of being over-regulated. The current situation frustrates consumers and burdens producers. New Zealanders enjoyed raw milk access for many years until new 2016 regulations limited access, hurt dairy farmer's livelihoods and disappointed consumer confidence. There has been opportunity to review the rules and be fair, but it has not happened...
The Australian raw cheese industry is also showing many signs of unnecessary burdensome regulations, especially if you compare it to the amazing and thriving examples overseas. Many farmers want to diversify with raw milk cheese but just find the regulations impossible.
The United Kingdom's raw milk industry seems to be a winner. Consumers are obviously satisfied with farm gate access, raw milk vending machine access, home deliveries and farmers market sales, even in the heart of London. According to the many articles coming out of the UK, producers don't have negative feedback about the regulations, only praise for the ability to diversify and save their livelihoods.
Europeans love their Mlekomats (raw milk vending machines). These raw milk dispensers can be found on market squares, next to shopping centres, next to schools or post offices and next to the countryside road. These too appear to serve both dairy farmers and consumers well.
Australian consumers and dairy farmers want to be involved in creating fair, scale appropriate food systems and local food security. Rules should focus on creating fair quality control, not on regulating the raw product out of viability.
Experience show raw milk is profitable and viable where fair rules exist.
There can be a balance between protecting public health and respecting consumer choice.
The Big Cheese - interview with Nick Haddow about FSANZ regulations
More New Zealand raw milk articles: