I was going to write about antibiotics and the liver tonight. Or get started on my enormous to do list. But when I read the news about the new raw milk legislation set to roll out in Victoria, I couldn’t do any of those things.
Let me back up a little. Recently in Victoria, Australia, five (or four, the media still isn’t clear on this) children who have at some point consumed raw milk became ill – sadly, one of those children passed away due to resulting complications. Despite there being no conclusive (or even strongly suggestive) evidence of a link between their raw milk consumption and the illnesses, the media jumped on it, and as these things tend to do, it snowballed. It snowballed into the media portraying raw milk as the only cause, the definitive cause, of these illnesses and death – despite an overwhelming lack of evidence, and despite the absence of a coroner’s report. Following that, I saw an enormous lack of compassion and an enormous rush to judgement from people on both sides of the raw milk debate. And, of course, this was followed by the inevitable calls for raw milk reform on both sides of the debate (some of which I wholeheartedly support… keep on reading for more on that).
I wrote about my thoughts on the events; hesitantly, because it is a heartbreaking and difficult situation. But several people asked for my thoughts, and I obliged. As respectfully as I could, with an open mind to the fact that raw milk could be neither vindicated nor incriminated as the cause of the illnesses. Not yet, anyway.
Following that post, I received an incredible message via facebook… from one of the mums whose child fell ill but (thankfully) recovered. I was astounded, gobsmacked, when I read her messages. She has given permission for me to share with you some of what she told me (but has asked me not to reveal her name, and naturally I will support her in that).
After giving me a bit of a backstory on her family’s raw milk consumption and the timing of events, she said this:
My son was diagnosed with a parasite (cryptosporidium) after having severe gastro for 10 days. I was told that raw milk was a possible cause. We had also visited a farm, picked up and cuddled chickens, cats and dogs from this farm and swam in a pool….all also possible risk factors for this parasite.
The presence of other risk factors was enough for this boy’s mother to feel hesitant that raw milk was the cause:
If I could get closure on this and know for sure that it was the milk, it would give me some peace….but I am not convinced.
And she has only mentioned some of the possible risk factors involved in these cases – there are more still, as almost anything we eat or drink has the capacity to result in a bacterial or parasitic infection (undercooked meat, sprouts, rockmelon, dodgy cheese, even the water that we drink can occasionally become contaminated)! Unless these 5 children lived in a bubble and consumed only raw milk in the lead up to falling ill, no conclusive link can be proven without evidence of a contaminated batch of milk (this evidence either does not exist, or has not been reported on). Yet at a very early stage, the media and the health department decided that raw milk was solely responsible for two separate types of illness (three cases caused by E coli bacteria, two caused by the Cryptosporidium parasite) and the death of one of these children. It is rather uncommon for outbreaks of food-borne illness to be so small, and for the same product to cause two separate types of illness with no overlap (as mentioned in my initial facebook post). There is no basis even still (let alone weeks ago) for proclaiming that raw milk was the definitive cause of these illnesses, nor for shaping legislation around illnesses that may not have been caused by raw milk. It must be highlighted that there is still no coroner’s report (or, at least, it hasn’t been made public yet). But I don’t hold out hope that a coroner’s report has the capacity to be definitive on the cause in any case, since there are so many variables at play and so little evidence.
After all, if I drink raw milk and consume undercooked chicken – either could be the cause of a resulting illness. But which one makes a better news story?
The effects of these events and the reporting on it were widely felt. Days of media reports about “killer milk”, voluntary recalls, parents feeling attacked on social media by armchair commentators, and so on. My local organic supermarket, which is in a separate state to where this is all unfolding and stocks a completely different brand of raw milk from a completely different part of Australia, has ceased stocking raw milk due to a desire to fly under the radar whilst raw milk reforms are being discussed and a hesitancy to risk their entire business on one product – and absolutely fair enough. I’d probably make that same decision if I were in the same position. But it’s sad that it had to come to that – for the loyal customers, and more so for the farmers who are having their product refused around the nation.
And then today. Today, Consumer Affairs Minister Jane Garrett announced new legislation surrounding raw milk and I almost fell off my chair. My optimistic self was hopeful that we might get the kind of reform I see as essential: safer, cleaner, well-regulated raw milk – and the abolition of the current raw milk black market (which is more dangerous than legalising and regulating raw milk). I believe these new regulations will have little effect on accidental purchases of raw milk, on the infection rates from raw milk consumption, on the desire for a portion of our population to source and consume raw milk. I believe these regulations have the capacity to reduce consumption of milk by children and the capacity to be detrimental to our nation’s health. I believe these regulations only encourage a raw milk black market as seen in some states of America, where raw milk is transported (often in less-than-ideal transportation conditions) across state lines into states where raw milk is illegal – which raises more health concerns through increased chances of resulting illnesses. Furthermore, these reforms put the livelihood of all current raw milk producers at serious risk and infringe upon our society’s food freedoms. If you want to read more about my reasoning behind all of these concerns, click here to read my in-depth post on facebook following today’s new legislations.
I am all for changing labelling, positioning in the store, and even changing the actual style and shape of the raw milk bottles themselves – all in the name of preventing accidental purchase & consumption of raw milk. But raw milk reform must go beyond this. I believe that the best kind of raw milk legislation would be to legalise and regulate the industry; monitor the safety and cleanliness of raw milk production and transport, monitor the health of cattle whose milk is intended for sale as unpasteurised raw milk. That is the only way to eradicate a raw milk black market and increase the safety of a product that people will go out of their way to source and consume. And certainly more sensible than adding “a gag-inducing chemical used in anti-freeze” to good milk.
Enormous thanks and support go out to the mum who kindly shared her story with me.