Milk that leaves the farm at £1.20/litre is very appealing in the current climate. But what does selling unpasteurised milk really involve?
Plenty of farming families are fans of milk fresh from the tank, but very few actually sell it. Yet there is a group of farmers who strongly believe consumers should have the chance to drink unpasteurised milk and have developed a useful income stream from this unusual form of diversification.
But how many producers are there, what does it involve and what are the potential risks and rewards?
Farmers Weekly asked Northumberland farmer Hugh Richardson and the Food Standards Agency to share their perspectives on selling raw milk.
The farmer’s view
Hugh Richardson, Wheelbirks Farm, Northumberland
How long have you been selling raw milk?
We’re a fifth-generation farm and we’ve actually been selling unpasteurised milk since 1923. Until the 1980s we were able to sell it to local roundsmen, but then the government decided we had to sell it direct to the customer.
Overnight we lost something like 50 gallons of milk/day going out to local roundsmen in Newcastle and Hexham for doorstep deliveries. It is only recently that sales have started to pick up again because people’s perception of unpasteurised milk and whole and natural foods has taken a leap forward.
How many cows do you run and how much unpasturised milk do you sell?
We’re running about 125 Jersey cows. We sell about 24,000 litres of raw milk each year. We have direct sales quota for 70,000-12,000 litres that is used for ice-cream (which has to be pasteurised) and then we sell unpasteurised milk and cream. The rest goes to Arla on a manufacturing contract.
How do you sell it?
We were selling from a fridge at the door, with an honesty box so people could take what they wanted. When we built our ice cream parlour in 2010 we decided that was the perfect time to move it inside. Since then sales have increased 20-30% every year.
What are the risks?
The main health risks associated with drinking raw milk are considered to be campylobacter, salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes and escherichia coli.
How much does it sell for?
We sell it for £1.20/litre. There is a good margin, but I think it is a fair price.
There is probably scope to increase it as we are the only producer of unpasteurised milk in the north of England and Scotland, but we are not greedy. We want people to have it.
Who buys unpasteurised milk?
I can’t give you a typical buyer – we have customers who are young and old and lower, middle and upper class. We get some families who come to us to pick up 100 litres, which they then distribute around the rest of their family.
The Asian community love our milk because it is unpasturised, as they can use it to make other products that can’t be made from shop-bought milk. They are big buyers of our milk.
What precautions do you have to take?
We are a closed herd so we can keep disease to an absolute minimum. We test rigorously for BVD and Johne’s – we are now in our fourth year of testing clear with the Scottish Agricultural Colleges.
Our hygiene is second to none. We are always in the top band for cleanliness. We also have to TB-test the cattle. We are in a four-year testing parish, but we have to test every year because we are selling unpasteurised milk.
We have dairy inspectors come around twice a year and the milk is sampled every three or four months. Environmental Health officers come in twice a year to test. But that is the sum total of the extra work we have to do by law.
How often is milk tested for potential problems?
Officially, it is tested every quarter. But we also test privately to check we are producing a fit and healthy product. We are looking for coliforms mainly – we know the bactoscans and cell counts are right as they are tested very other day – so really we are taking a snapshot every couple of months to check have we got any bacteria in there we shouldn’t and things are fit and healthy.
So in total, the milk is checked about every six weeks by either us or the authorities.
Why do you believe consumers should be able to buy raw milk?
Our lifestyle is so sanitised – as soon as we get anything we go down like a tonne of bricks. Generally people who drink our milk notice the difference in a couple of weeks and they feel better for drinking it. It gives them the good bacteria that they need, that maybe their lifestyle has got rid of.
I don’t understand why the government treats raw milk as a dirty product. We have to carry a little label which say this product may contain bacteria that can be harmful to human health. Chicken has a lot more bacteria on it, but there is no notice on that.
What’s your advice to any farmers considering selling unpasteurised milk?
It’s generally straightforward, although if we were in a TB area then we obviously wouldn’t be able to do it. It is like any diversification, you have to be passionate about it. If it is about making a quick buck, then I wouldn’t.
You also need a relationship with the customer and to be within access of a large conurbation. We do sell some milk mail order but it is expensive – you can’t really get it out to customers for less than £3/litre.
The FSA view
How many raw milk sellers are there?
There are currently about 80 producers of raw cows’ drinking milk in England, Wales and Northern Ireland or about 100 producers if you include other species such as sheep and goats. Sales of raw milk are banned in Scotland.
What are the restrictions on farmers selling raw milk?
Raw cows’ drinking milk can only be sold directly by the farmer to consumers. This includes sales direct from the farm premises (including by the farmer at a farmer’s market), in a farmhouse catering operation or by a distributor from a vehicle used as a shop premises (milk roundsmen).
Direct internet sales, not involving a third party, are permitted under current legislation. Sales from vending machines on farm premises are also permitted where they are manned by the farmer or their representative, but sales from vending machines located in retail outlets away from the farm are not permitted. Milk from sheep, goats and buffalo are not subject to these restrictions.
How often do farmers get inspected?
Raw milk producers are subject to twice-yearly inspections that verify they are complying with the requirements of the hygiene legislation for the production and handling of the milk.
The inspector will be checking for hygienic operations and compliance with the hygiene regulations at all stages of the process including, but not limited to, equipment, staff hygiene, good hygiene practices, records of cleaning, veterinary medicines, results of the farm’s own samples, labelling and point of sale. Official control samples of raw cows’ milk are taken and tested quarterly to verify compliance with microbiological criteria.
Any other tests required?
Herds supplying raw milk have to be tested for TB annually. Under the EU Hygiene Regulations all milk must come from animals and herds that are officially TB free (OTF).
The FSA removes the registration to be able to sell raw milk once a producer has been placed under restriction – but the farm remains registered to sell milk for pasteurisation.
How does milk have to be labelled?
In addition to the EU legislative requirement to label all unpasteurised milk as ‘raw milk’, since 1996 legislation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland requires the additional statementto appear on the label: ‘This milk has not been heat-treated and may therefore contain organisms harmful to health’ .
If the milk is sold at a catering establishment there must be a clear sign saying: ‘Milk supplied in this establishment has not been heat-treated and may therefore contain organisms harmful to health.’
In England and Northern Ireland these labelling requirements apply to raw milk from all species, except buffalo which is not required to carry the additional labelling.
In Wales, since 2006, the following has been required for all species: ‘This milk has not been heat-treated and may therefore contain organisms harmful to health.’ The Food Standards Agency strongly advises that it should not be consumed by children, pregnant women, older people or those who are unwell or have chronic illnesses.’
How many reported cases of illness caused by drinking raw milk have there been recently?
An outbreak of E coli O157 associated with raw milk involving no more than 10 human cases was reported to FSA during the autumn of 2014. Prior to this, no outbreaks of human illness associated with raw drinking milk or raw cream had been reported in England and Wales since 2002.