White lies: The truth about raw milk

REPORTER: Dr John D’Arcy | PRODUCER: Paul Waterhouse

August 12, 2012

There is a booming new underground trade flourishing across Australia - not in drugs or guns, but in raw milk.

Ordinary people are paying up to five times the normal price to exploit a legal loophole and get their hands on milk the way Mother Nature created it – raw, unpasteurised and straight from the cow.

It’s sold as ‘bath milk’ and the label says ‘not for human consumption’. Considered unsafe for drinking, selling raw milk for consumption has been illegal since unpasteurised milk contributed to a typhoid outbreak in Australia in the 1940s.

But “people are increasingly worried about the processing of the food they eat. That, for some, has focused down on milk and pasteurisation,” Dr John D’Arcy explained.

He met with stakeholders on both sides of the milk debate, such as Melbourne mother Arabella Forge, whose partner’s family own a dairy farm in Gippsland. Arabella’s been drinking raw milk for 10 years, drunk it while she was pregnant and intends to feed it to her seven-month-old son.

Peter Melov ran a ‘raw milk black market’ at a farmers market in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.

“I wouldn’t really call it underground, it was more overground – everybody drank it and everybody knew they were drinking it. It was called bath milk, but everybody knew it wasn’t for bathing,” he said.

One day, Peter was covertly visited at his stall by an inspector from the New South Wales Food
Authority, posing as a shopper. A week later the Food Authority and NSW Police launched simultaneous raids on his stall and his home.
“There were people there with guns, when all we were doing was selling milk,” he told Dr John.
He was found guilty of 42 charges, with court costs and fines totaling $184,000.

The story is different in the US, where in about half of states, raw milk is legal to sell and drink. Farmers there go to great lengths to reduce the risk of contamination, applying disinfectant to each cow’s teat.

Liz Szabo, Chief Scientist for the NSW Food Authority, insists that to be 100% safe, milk must be pasteurised.

“Pasteurisation adds the safety into milk. Some of the micro-organisms in raw milk could have very serious consequences. People can die.”

But there’s another debate to be had about milk consumption. Provocative research from New Zealand

Pediatrician Bob Elliott suggests the type of milk most of us drink – a1 milk – could cause Type 1 Diabetes.

“It’s pretty disturbing if what we’re promoting as the healthiest food for young children might actually be causing some damage for susceptible individuals,” Elliott said. His theory has lead to a surge in demand for a2 milk, free of the potentially harmful protein found in a1.

“Australians could drink a1 milk in small quantities, but why not drink a2 if it’s available?”

Asked where he sat on the raw vs. pasteurised debate, Elliott revealed a very personal reason for his view.

“There are real risks drinking raw milk – tuberculosis. I had a sister who died before I was born from bovine tuberculosis from drinking unpastuerised milk, so I’m a very strong advocate of pasteurising.”