Irish Raw Milk: Proposed Ban Is a Raw Deal for Consumers

by Kristin on August 18, 2011

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.

If you’d like to read more about raw milk in Ireland, check out these informative pieces from Ella McSweeney and Darina Allen.

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.

Photo © iStockphoto

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill August 18, 2011 at 1:41 pm

The research behind the supposed health benefits is a bit iffy, but it all comes down to choice. If someone wants to purchase and consume raw milk they should be able to. Regulate it and do regular inspections and be done with it. If they really wanted to improve the health of the population they would ban cigarettes altogether.

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Kristin August 21, 2011 at 8:59 pm

I hear what you’re saying about the double standards!

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Leah August 18, 2011 at 7:09 pm

I am so excited to read this post! I also started buying raw milk this summer for the first time ever. To be honest, it was by accident. There is a small farm near our home that has a tiny shop set up by the road and they sell cheese, milk, eggs and other farm goods. I was out of milk one morning and had to go right by the shop when taking the girls to camp so I stopped in and bought some milk and cheese.

I didn’t even realize it was raw milk until later as I was pouring a glass of milk for lunch and I noticed a big sticker on the side that said “Not For Human Consumption, Unpasteurized.” I was taken aback at first and then shrugged it off realizing that people drank milk for years before pasteurization became mandated. Perhaps it was a mental thing, but I really enjoyed that glass of milk. It tasted fuller, more delicious to me and I felt good about supporting the local farmer. I knew where my milk came from and I appreciated having the choice. David is on to something in his quote about people not being resistant to anything anymore. Working in the clinical lab it’s hard not to notice the amount of allergies and sensitivities that are exhibited by the general population these days.

Hopefully Ireland can come to some compromise and continue to allow raw milk to be sold, even if there is a big warning sticker on the side. As mentioned, it’s having the choice that is important.

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Kristin August 21, 2011 at 8:58 pm

You have to laugh at those “not for human consumption” stickers being put on the bottles – what else are you going to do with 1 litre of milk? Take a bath in it?

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brett rigney August 18, 2011 at 10:20 pm

you can buy a packet of fags and gallons of alcohol…both of which are extremely harmful. why not raw milk? its extremely healthy. risks can come with any perishable food item. i drink about 10 liters per week of raw milk and i’ve never felt better in all my life. i don’t handle pasteurized milk well at all. so this will directly affect me in a negative way. plain and simple, this is not fair. you take away this liberty and where does it end? we need to stand up for this…even if you don’t drink raw milk. if it gets banned, i will be buying my own jersey cow. even the queen of england drinks raw milk! shouldn’t that tell you something!

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Kristin August 21, 2011 at 8:57 pm

Couldn’t agree with you more, Brett!

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farmer_liz August 19, 2011 at 6:02 am

Its a real shame that Ireland is moving to increase regulation. In Australia it is currently illegal to sell raw milk, which makes it very difficult for people to access it. We have our own dairy cow so that we can have raw milk and I’d love to share it with our neighbours, but that’s illegal (unless we give it away). What a stupid regulation! We should be able to choose what we want to eat and drink. I have conspiracy theory involving the dairy industry wanting to keep mandatory pasteurisation in order to stifle competition from farmers selling milk independently…….

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Kristin August 21, 2011 at 8:56 pm

Liz, there’s a feeling here that this proposed ban has a lot to do with the industry wanting to protect its international reputation. It’s a shame in many ways, one of which being that selling raw milk was providing the few farmers who do supply it with additional income.

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Móna Wise August 19, 2011 at 9:55 pm

Excellent post Kristen.
We buy direct from a farmer and will continue to do so even if the law changes.
Sheridans (here in Galway) never seem to have any which tells me they are always sold out there is such a demand for it.
I think, taking away a persons choice to purchase, will not stop here, if the law is passed.
Next thing you know we will not be allowed to buy or make butter. Because, you know, cholesterol can kill you.
Very informative. Thanks Kristen. I will share the link ;0)
Móna

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Kristin August 21, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Thanks Móna! I think it’s not the issue of raw milk in and of itself that has people so annoyed, but like you said, the nanny state dictating what we can and cannot eat.

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Wiosanna August 21, 2011 at 8:57 pm

Great post. I don’t have opportunity to buy raw milk, but I would like to have a choice. Raw eggs, raw meat is dangerous too, but if you want to use it, it should be your choice. I don’t know why all regulation starts to treat consumers as idiots.

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Kristin August 22, 2011 at 9:23 pm

When you consider that even things like spinach, strawberries and bean sprouts have had E. coli on them that has made people sick, sometimes fatally so, it does seem ridiculous to clamp down on raw milk this way.

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Michael Flynn September 6, 2011 at 8:48 pm

Will this proposal have implications for those selling goats milk and cheese producers which also use raw milk daily and home baking? E-coil mentioned by people above is present almost every where, my vet informed me. So trying to get rid of that risk would indeed mean that big processing plants could also be closed down. Sounds like a daft idea to me to ban raw milk because it can hit many others also?

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Kristin September 6, 2011 at 9:57 pm

The proposed ban is for the direct consumption of raw milk, so producers making raw milk cheese and even raw milk butter will still be OK (thank goodness!).

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Colette September 6, 2011 at 9:20 pm

Love your post, Krstin. My thoughts are that there is simply no way the Government can make any money out of Raw Milk, like they do with alcohol and tobacco (a huge tax take for the exchequer). So, bottom line is – no money, lets ban it. Also, I feel that if the ban was to be enforced, it definitely would not stop at milk, next stop would be cheese, and so on.

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Kristin September 6, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Thanks, Colette! You do have to wonder if it will stop here, or if, as David said, this is just the thin edge of the wedge.

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jmudaliar October 10, 2011 at 3:57 am

Just wonder if how much there is going to left for us in the way of food that hasn’t been interfered with (usually by the big money-makers and eventually enforced by government) a few decades from now. Are we eventually going to find that even selling raw vegetables and fruit (yes, and meat, for those who eat meat … fish, too) is illegal. It only take just one ‘big’ corporation to set its sights on massive processing operations of everything edible and drinkable, to which they can attach ‘health benefits’ in terms of the elimination of all potential organic – and possibly other- health threats, to form the (thick) thin end of the wedge. (don’t know of the submit worked, but saw ‘edge’ instead of ‘wedge’!).

Thanks for your site and people’s posts. Much appreciated. j.m.

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Kristin October 10, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Sometimes it seems like the future will be a scary place in terms of food security, patents, etc.

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