Ethical milk – which brand to buy?

There’s a feeling “out there” in the Twitterverse that milk aint what it used to be. So, what to choose?

The first piece of good news is that there’s lots you don’t need to worry about. Growth hormones are illegal on Australian dairy farms for a start. Free range cows are also the norm (I haven’t seen a housed herd in Australia and wouldn’t even know where to find one).

Thanks to what raw-milk advocates often call Australia’s “ridiculously stringent” food safety laws, you can be confident your dairy foods are safe for even your most frail family members; the Chinese melamine disaster won’t happen here. Despite the marketing campaigns of a large multinational corporation, permeate (check my all about permeate post to find out more) is also safe and nutritious.

If want farmers to receive a fair price for milk, you can still shop at the big supermarkets with a clear conscience if you buy a brand-name milk. It’s even better if you can buy the Devondale brand of dairy products because they are made by the 100% farmer-owned co-op, Murray Goulburn. If you can access a farmstead brand of milk, that’s okay too. Don’t feel guilty if you can’t find or afford a farmstead brand though – very, very few dairy farmers can afford to set up a milk processing plant after all and we are grateful that you are supporting us by choosing not to buy the generic stuff.

Have you seen a cow with blood all over her udder?

When Zoe’s city cousins came to visit the other day, they were horrified to see one of our cows with a crimson udder. “Oh my God, she’s bleeding!” cried one of the boys.

Painted Picasso Cow

Painted but not quite like this Picasso Cow (thanks to Libby Lambert for the pic!)

“No, it’s okay, she’s just painted,” laughed Zoe.

They were almost as astonished by Zoe’s reply as they were horrified by the thought of all the bleeding.

Why do dairy farmers paint cows?
We buy paint for cows in bulk. We use orange to denote a freshly calved cow still producing colostrum, blue when we want to keep an eye on a cow for some reason, red when she’s undergoing treatment and green once the treatment is complete.

The red paint is a warning to everyone who milks the cow – first, she needs treatment and, second, her milk must not enter the vat. Instead, it is collected in a separate bucket and discarded. Thankfully, Australia’s food safety regulations are very stringent and no trace of antibiotics may be present in milk.

You might also see cow’s backbones right near their tails painted different colours. But that’s a story for mating season.

Look at my sick dairy cows

Cows in hospital paddock

Cows in hospital paddock

These cows look fine but they’re in the hospital paddock because they have mastitis. It’s an infection of the udder that can be caused by bugs out on the farm, stress or some form of “mechanical damage”, like a bump or malfunctioning milking machines.

Sadly, it’s been a big problem for dairy farmers in southern Victoria this season. Very wet conditions are the perfect breeding ground for the bugs, which include e. coli and staph. Our cows have not been immune and the co-op’s milk testing showed up increased levels of white blood cells – a sign that the cows are fighting infections.

Our first step was to look for cows with the classic symptoms: hot, firm quarters and clots in the milk. We do this routinely but we stepped it up a notch, closely examining every single cow and her milk in one night. We found a couple of cases but not enough to explain our herd’s elevated cell counts, so there was nothing for it but to carry out a spot herd test.

To do this, we divert a little milk from each cow into sealed tubes for analysis at the lab. They tell us which cows have high cell counts but can’t identify the bugs. So, yet another sample was taken from each of the high cell count cows, frozen and couriered to yet another lab. Four days later, we have the results and vet Amy has created a treatment program for each of the cows!

They’ll stay in the hospital paddock, though, until their course of treatment is complete and the milk tests free of antibiotic residue.

About raw milk products

Farmstead cheese

Photographer: Michael Robinson, pic courtesy of Cheese Slices

Did you know there is such a thing as “Real Milk Activism”? These activists believe the only real milk is unpasteurised milk.

Currently, it is illegal in Australia to sell unpasteurised “raw” milk but Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is conducting a review that could (although it is unlikely, I suspect) see it hit the shelves.

Milk has caused very little illness in Australia over the past decade. According to the FSANZ paper A Risk Profile of Dairy Products in Australia:

Microbiological survey data for pasteurised dairy products in Australia show a very low incidence of hazards of public health significance in these products. Overseas data demonstrates that pathogens are frequently isolated from raw milk and raw milk products. Pathogens were detected in raw milk in 85% of 126 surveys identified in the literature.

In surveys of raw milk cheese pathogens were rarely detected. Pathogens are found infrequently in pasteurised milk and pasteurised milk products.

In Australia, illness from dairy products is rare. Between 1995-2004, there were only eleven reported outbreaks directly attributed to dairy products, eight of which were associated with consumption of unpasteurised milk. In other Australian outbreaks, dairy products were an ingredient of the responsible food vehicle identified as the source of infection. However,
dairy products are a component of many foods and it is often difficult to attribute the cause of an outbreak to a particular food ingredient. Microbiological survey data for pasteurised dairy products in Australia show a very low incidence of hazards of public health significance in these products.

While commercial dairy products have rarely been identified as sources of food-borne illness in Australia, there have been a number of reports of outbreaks associated with consumption of dairy products internationally. Unpasteurised dairy products are the most common cause of these dairy-associated outbreaks of illness.

Among the risks that are neutralised by pasteurisation are salmonella, listeria and e coli.

Raw milk cheeses may be on their way

FSANZ recently recommended permission for non-pasteurised hard to very hard cooked curd cheeses on the provision that there are new processing requirements for cheese production that state storage time, and moisture content requirements for these cheeses to ensure product safety.

FSANZ says it will “continue to look at permissions for other raw milk cheeses through a new proposal that will use the technical work already undertaken under P1007”.

Prominent cheese officionado, Will Studd, says the changes will be insignificant.

Raw drinking milk to remain illegal in Australia
In the words of the FSANZ:

The assessment work for P1007 concluded that raw drinking milk presents too high a risk to consider any permission in the Code. In the new proposal, FSANZ will be reviewing the current exemption that allows raw goat milk.

For raw drinking milk, even extremely good hygiene procedures won’t ensure dangerous pathogens aren’t present. Complications from bacteria that can contaminate these products can be extremely severe, such as haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) which can result in renal failure and death in otherwise healthy people.

People with increased vulnerability to diseases caused by these bacteria include young children, elderly people, people with compromised immune systems and pregnant women and their foetuses.

What if a farmer sells you raw milk?

I wouldn’t ever sell it to you. I would lose my dairy farmer’s licence and face five-figure fines, as one man did for selling raw milk for “cosmetic purposes” earlier this year. Worse still,  I couldn’t live with myself if, despite our best efforts to deliver clean milk, one of your children fell ill. Sure, we drank it as kids with no ill-effects and the risks are low but they are there and it is illegal.

Even after pasteurisation, milk is one of nature’s superfoods. Drink it, enjoy it and let your children thrive on it.

By the way, for a good discussion of the raw milk cheese debate, check out the Food Sage blog.

When the lights go out on farm

Jumping off the milk vat

Zoe leaps off the vat ladder to her Papa

Our power has become so unreliable I’ve given up resetting the microwave clock but this is far from the most serious consequence for our dairy farm. Unfortunately, we use a lot of power. There are water pumps, milking machines and, most critically, refrigeration. Our milk is stored in a stainless-steel 17,500-litre vat before it is collected by the tanker.

The vat keeps the milk at a steady 4 degrees Celsius to keep it fresh. As part of the co-op’s quality assurance program, the tanker driver records the temperature upon collection. If the refrigeration fails, we need to organise immediate collection to prevent a quality failure.

The most common cause of problems with the vat are power outages or spikes that mean we have to manually reset the compressors. That’s what happened yesterday and the milk was not kept cool enough. The co-op’s lab will test the milk to make sure it remained fresh. Fingers crossed.

Power outages also affect milking of course. There’s nothing worse than being halfway through milking when the power goes off and looks like staying off for a while. The dilemma is whether to let the cows out and know they won’t be comfortable overnight or keep them waiting in the yard and hope it comes back on quickly.

A little while ago, the electricity infrastructure company rang to do a customer satisfaction survey. I don’t think they were expecting quite the ear-bashing they got!

About UHT milk

Here’s an interesting AAP newswire story about UHT:

Despite the supermarket heavyweight’s price war on fresh milk, sales of UHT milk are on the rise and now account for nearly 10 per cent of total milk sales. However, statistics from Dairy Australia show that most Australians still prefer fresh milk on their cereal.

UHT milk sales increased eight per cent from 195 million litres to 211 million litres in 2009/2010 over the year before, accounting for 9.3 per cent of total milk sales for the same period.

Associate Professor Frank Zumbo of the University of NSW, said the rise of UHT milk sales was currently not a threat to the big supermarkets as the long life product was low maintenance and did not require refrigeration costs.

“If the trend continued, it would be troubling, but at the moment it’s clear consumers have a strong preference for fresh milk,” he said.

The number was off a low base, where UHT had traditionally had a very low percentage of the market, he told reporters on Friday.

“But we are seeing the owners of UHT brands trying to lift their profile through increased advertising.”

A survey of 2,500 milk drinkers by consumer research centre Canstar Blue found that out of all Australians who had purchased milk in the past six months, those drinking Devondale UHT milk said they were happier than consumers of other brands, based on overall satisfaction, taste, health benefits and packaging.

Canstar Blue manager Rebecca Logan said the results were surprising, given the attractive prices offered by major supermarkets on fresh milk.

“There’s no doubt long life milk has come a long way over the years and consumers are responding to its convenience and long shelf life,” Logan said in a statement on Friday.

The average Australian drinks 102 litres of milk a year, according to Australian Dairy Farmers.

So, what is UHT milk?

UHT stands for Ultra-High Temperature and refers to the pasteurisation process – the heating of milk to ensure it is free from nasty bugs. Rather than being heated at 74 degrees Celsius for about 15 seconds, it is heated at about 140 degrees Celsius for just two seconds.

There is little nutritional difference between “fresh” and “long life” milk and according to Curtin University scientists, UHT milk is more environmentally-friendly than “fresh” milk.

Which milk do we drink at the farm?

I’m often asked whether we drink milk straight from the vat. Well, no, actually we drink Devondale UHT milk, which is where some of our milk ends up, anyhow. It’s safer than raw milk and easier to get out of the pantry than out of a 17,500 litre vat!

Untangling how much farmers are paid for milk

The most anticipated email of the year popped into my inbox just before midnight. It was our co-op’s announcement of its opening milk price: “a weighted average price of $4.90/kg milk solids”.

Ironically, farmers are not paid for milk – just the fat and protein it contains, which we call “milk solids”.  Here’s the tricky part: protein is 2.5 times more valuable than fat, different herds (and the individual cows within them) produce different ratios of both, the price per kg changes almost monthly and the amount each cow makes shifts throughout her lactation and as her diet changes.

We are also subject to charges based on how often our milk is collected, if milk quality drops, and even milk volume.

For all these reasons, the price a farmer receives for a litre of milk is as individual as the farm.  To further complicate the picture, the co-op introduced  a new payment system last year that allowed farmers to select from three pricing models reflecting different pattens of production over a season.

I opted for the Domestic Incentive and committed the farm to supply at least 40% of our milk between mid-February and mid-August. It was the right decision at the time but that record-breaking wet summer affected the normal pattern of supply. With just one tanker of milk to be collected, it’s touch and go. About the same amount as the cost of my tractor engine rebuild is riding on how well the girls milk tonight. Wish me luck!

PS: The pricing system I’ve described applies only to our co-op. Other farmers, particularly those interstate, may have radically different structures.

About A2 milk

Thank you to Fussy Eater’s Mum for asking about A2 milk, which has been expertly marketed in Australia as the solution to everything from autism through to digestive discomfort.

First, what is a2 milk? A trademark owned by A2 Dairy Products Australia, a2 milk is a brand of milk sourced from cows that only produce one particular type of protein. As the company explains on its website:

“Most dairy milk today contains 2 main types of beta-casein protein, A2 and A1, while originally all dairy cows produced milk containing only the A2 type of beta-casein protein. a2 Milk™ comes from cows specially selected to produce A2 beta-casein protein rather than A1. Because a2 Milk™ is rich in A2 beta-casein protein, it may assist with your digestive wellbeing.

Regular milk is about 60 per cent A2 beta-casein protein and 40 per cent A1 beta-casein protein.

Dairy Australia, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, and the European Food Safety Authority reject the claims that milk containing A1 beta-casein protein poses any cause for concern.

Unfortunately, there is also a perception that milk containing only A2 proteins can be tolerated by those with cows milk allergies. Not so, according to a study by AllergySA reported in the Medical Journal of Australia. To be fair, even A2 Dairy Products Australia warns on its site that: “If you have been diagnosed with lactose intolerance by your doctor, a2 Milk™ will not resolve any digestion problems.”

It seems milk containing only A2 beta-casein protein is no silver bullet for those missing out on a refreshing glass of milk due to allergy. If you do suspect an intolerance or allergic reaction to dairy products,  I really recommend taking a look at the very informative fact sheets on cows milk allergy by the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) and Dairy Australia.

Milk free from growth hormones

The internet is awash with scary stories about growth hormones in milk. They are said to cause cancer and even breast development in babies fed a milk-based formula. Cows injected with growth hormones are also said to have much shorter lifespans than the 12-plus years ours enjoy.

I’m happy to say I can’t offer you any insight into this bitterly debated issue. Although bovine growth hormone (BGH)  is commonly used in the US, it and BST or bovine somatotropin are outlawed here in Australia.

Every litre of Aussie milk is guaranteed to be free from growth hormones!

Why don’t we sell our milk direct to consumers?

I’d love to sell our milk direct at farmer’s markets and I’ve even done the sums.

I can’t see how it’s feasible for us right now. In Australia, milk must be pasteurised before it can be sold for others to drink. Just buy a pasteuriser then, you say? Well, it’s not even that simple. We’d need to build a clean room and invest in new tanks, pumps, packaging machinery, refrigeration equipment and transport. And then, we’d have to show we’d meet Australia’s very stringent food quality standards – lots of protocols and documentation that would take thousands of dollars to establish. It all adds up to a six-figure investment.

That’s the bad news but the good news is that Australian milk is incredibly safe.