Last week I did something that will be illegal soon in Ireland – I bought raw milk.
As an American who grew up amidst the huge factory farms of the Midwest, surrounded by miles of cornfields, David Tiernan’s farm seems like something you might read about in a prettily illustrated children’s book. Set in the lush countryside of County Louth, just a few miles inland from the Irish Sea, David lives in a 200-year-old house that was originally built for the local Protestant minister and which his grandfather’s uncle bought back in 1910. David is a fourth-generation dairy farmer and since the 1990s his milk comes from his closed herd of chestnut and cream-coloured Montbeliarde cows that are all individually named.
Like many dairy farmers, David was raised on raw (unpasteurised) milk, as were his own twin sons. I bought some of his raw milk directly from him, but by the autumn of this year, I’ll no longer be able to if the Department of Agriculture’s planned ban on it comes into effect.
For now, though, Sheridans Cheesemongers sells 400 litres of David’s milk each week through their stores in Dublin and Galway and their warehouse shop in County Meath. I asked Elisabeth Ryan from Sheridans why people go out of their way to buy raw milk from them.
“It boils down to choice,” she said. “People want wholesome, real food. A big part of the interest is also the direct link to the farmer. People like buying their milk from a farm where you can see the cows and know where it comes from.” Their customers for raw milk range from the older generation who prefer the taste and are simply buying milk the way they had it growing up, to bodybuilders, to parents who see an improvement in their children’s eczema or asthma from drinking raw milk.
Elisabeth reckons there are about 100,000 people drinking raw milk in Ireland, but the vast majority of those would be farming families drinking milk from their own farm. Given that there are relatively so few people drinking it, and that those who do buy it are informed consumers going out of their way to do so, why does the Irish government feel the need to protect raw milk drinkers from themselves?
Detractors are quick to point out its risks, chief amongst them the threat of pathogens like Campylobacter, salmonella and E. coli and diseases like brucellosis and tuberculosis. (“There are a lot of people still alive who were around when TB was a scourge in Ireland,” David noted.) Pasteurisation kills these harmful micro-organisms.
Yet raw milk advocates point out that pasteurisation also destroys beneficial things like essential nutrients, vitamins and good-for-your-gut bacteria. And while those risks, even if minute, are real, there are numerous benefits too. Studies have shown that raw milk enhances the immune system and protects against allergies, asthma and eczema. “The problem isn’t the milk,” David said, who has never failed a test in his 37 years of farming. “It’s the people. We have no resistance to anything anymore.”
I suppose we could be grateful that it’s only raw milk that the Department of Agriculture has in its sights and not our raw milk farmhouse cheeses or even raw milk butter, which will both still be allowed. But as David rightly wondered, “Where does it stop? Is this just the thin edge of the wedge?”
I’m not an investigative reporter. I’m not an expert on agricultural issues. I’m just a consumer who thinks we should have a choice. And I’m not talking about the kind of “choice” available in your average Western supermarket, with tens of thousands of products on the shelves, 90% of which contain corn or soy or high fructose corn syrup. I mean the choice between live, wholesome, natural food and sterile, overprocessed food. I mean the choice between shaking the hand of the farmer who feeds you versus buying food flown halfway around the world before it lands on the supermarket shelf.
For now, we do still have that choice, but it looks like those days are numbered. Sheridans Cheesemongers, Slow Food Ireland and Darina Allen are leading the way in a campaign to regulate the sale of raw milk, like they do in the UK, France, Italy, Germany and elsewhere, instead of a complete blanket ban. You might not want to drink raw milk yourself, but if you believe that consumers should be free to have the choice to do so, there are ways to make your voice heard:
- Sign the petition on the Slow Food Ireland website.
- Write to the Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, and to your TD (click here for sample text for a letter and click here to find contact info for your local TD).
- Check out the Raw Milk Ireland website and follow them on Facebook and Twitter too.
- Attend the debate on raw milk at the Sugar Club, Leeson Street, Dublin on Tuesday, 6 September at 7:00 p.m.
Raw milk is currently available to buy directly from David Tiernan’s farm and the Centra in Dunleer, County Louth, as well as in Traders and Georges, both in Drogheda. David’s milk is also available in Cavistons in Greystones and Glasthule, the Brooklodge Hotel in County Wicklow, the Sheridans Cheesemongers shops and the H2G Market in Glasnevin. You can also log on to Your Field, My Fork to find details of other farmers selling raw milk.
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