The politics of Easter eggs

kids_spring06_egg_cow.jpg

Easter eggs are now a political football with Animals Australia is using them as an opportunity to spread the word – and the guilt – about eating food laced with dairy cruelty.

At the same time, the Australian Raw Milk Movement is preaching the gospel of Vicki Jones, the woman behind the recalled milk associated with the death of a toddler. Apparently cows being treated with antibiotics when they fall ill are “paying the price” for the milk we conventional farmers provide. Better to assume no animal on an organic farm ever falls ill (or can simply “disappear” if she doesn’t respond to a massage with magic cream).

It disheartens me tremendously that treating a sick animal with the best medicine available can be dressed up as some form of cruelty but I think I’d better get used to it fast. Why? Because there are two movements gathering pace in Australia: “food fear farming” and “orthorexia nervosa”.

Food fear farming for product differentiation
You can make money from frightening mums and dads in the supermarket.

Milk that contains added permeate (which is an ugly name for milk’s natural sugars and vitamins), is pasteurised, comes from cows fed some grain or is not organic can be made scary. And non-scary milk gets a lift!

This is a basic marketing principle called “product differentiation” and is used by marketers in every consumer goods category from toilet paper to life insurance to gain market share or justify a higher price.

“When we were conventional dairy farmers I felt so frustrated at being powerless in the industry but now we are price setters and have security. It actually feels like we are running a business.”
– Vicki Jones, raw milk farmer, The Weekly Times, 17 September 2014

The reality is that as the margins around milk become tighter and tighter, we can expect to see increasingly desperate attempts to differentiate milk brands from the mainstream.

Orthorexia nervosa
Nutrition lecturer at UNSW Australia, Rebecca Charlotte Reynolds, wrote in The Conversation recently, that:

Orthorexia nervosa, the “health food eating disorder”, gets its name from the Greek word ortho, meaning straight, proper or correct. This exaggerated focus on food can be seen today in some people who follow lifestyle movements such as “raw”, “clean” and “paleo”.

Of course, food-centric righteousness comes in many forms and I’m watching as animal activists and food activists come together.

That quest for purity teamed with the need to differentiate what is otherwise a commodity product is perfect for farmers and food marketers desperate to make a dollar. Sadly, it’s often at the expense of everyday farmers and shoppers like you and me. And, if they could have their way preventing the use of basic medicines like antibiotics, the wellbeing of innocent cows.

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.