By Elisabeth Ryan
Update, Spring 2015
The sale of raw drinking milk remains tenuously legal in Ireland due to the work of raw milk supporters who highlighted this issue and forced the department of agriculture to change its mind about an outright ban. Now we face new and as yet unknown difficulties as our government has started drafting regulations for the sale of raw milk with, as yet, no involvement from the food community.
Anyone who has traversed the Emerald Isle can attest to the common sight of green pastures and grazing animals—the high quality of our milk, butter and cheese is a testament to this. But a significant amount of this highest quality milk is exported a sinister powdered substances; in fact Ireland is the largest single supplier to the infant formula market worldwide. This is the main reason our government wanted to ban the sale of raw milk: their fear was, and still is, that an illness relating to consumption would singlehandedly destroy one of the shining lights of our difficult economic situation.
The sale of raw milk in Ireland is a recent phenomenon. When new European regulations were introduced in 2007 this caused a previous ban dating to 1996 to be invalidated. The campaign for Raw Milk Ireland was formed in 2010, when the food community realized the implications of the new regulations. Sadly, just as soon as we became aware that sales were permitted, the Department of Agriculture, “acting on the advice of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland,” clearly indicated to us their intent to introduce a new ban.
The campaign had the support of many different food and farming organizations as well as some high-profile chefs and a number of back bench politicians, and we managed to garner much media attention. We took a very measured approach and consistently asked for the introduction of regulations in order to help minimize potential risk. We organized a very well-attended public debate in 2011, and representatives from the food safety authority also took part, though the department of agriculture declined. The utter determination of the authorities to stick to the idea of a ban over any other options was evident at this point. As well as much use of the term “Russian Roulette,” one unfortunate panelist who grew up on a farm referred to himself as “a raw milk survivor.” It was evident that a foregone conclusion had been drawn and that their approach was then to go backwards to garner scientific evidence to support their conclusion that raw milk is a hugely dangerous substance. Science, as we all know, should not start with a conclusion, but rather should reach a conclusion based on the evidence.
David Tiernan, Aidan and Mary Harney, Mary and Gerry Kelly, and Darina Allen were the first producers to bottle and sell their raw milk—they truly were heroic in the face of all they had to do just to sell their milk to the people who wanted it. In one early communication from the Department of Agriculture to brief all members of the Dáil (the Irish Parliament) about the proposed ban, a reference was made to “a farmer in the northeast taking advantage of the absence of the statutory instrument and selling milk at markets and or local shops despite the department’s requests that he not do so.” This farmer was David Tiernan, who has since tragically passed away, and the language used to describe him in such a way was deeply insulting to him; David operated his farm to impeccable standards and was exceedingly proud of his milk. In fact his inspector told him that the department of agriculture would not encourage him to sell raw milk, but he had never received a direct request to cease. The same communication from the Department of Agriculture also included a host of other deliberately misleading “facts” about raw milk.
Those producers who are brave enough to bring their raw milk to market still face many hurdles and much uncertainty; however we now have at least fifteen farmers selling from the farm gate, and a few of these are now also selling in local markets and even shops. The authorities themselves seem unsure of how to handle any of the farmers selling to local retailers, and even when operators make efforts to register with local health or agriculture authorities there is no clear path laid out for them.
Five years down the road in this campaign, the government position has changed significantly. In 2012, the Department of Health declared their resistance to a ban in favor of regulating raw milk, so the Department of Agriculture was forced to follow suit, though they have had three years to do this now with no progress. We can only surmise that they are happy to allow the state of limbo which exists for farmers wishing to invest in their enterprise or enter the market.
Our government’s disregard of the wider issues at play throughout has been frustrating. There are so many detailed examples of the constant and persistent use of phraseology and half-truths designed to misinform that it is difficult to be entirely hopeful that we will get a good outcome from the latest position. However we remain steadfast in our plea to use this process of defining regulations for the production of raw milk as a template for how we can all work together. Our desire is to ensure fair and straightforward regulations for careful small farmers, which have been designed scientifically to minimize actual risk.
Farmers producing raw milk can command a far greater price than they would from the local cooperatives. They can also sustain a much smaller scale of farming. The sense of satisfaction they achieve from the fruits of their hard labor is not to be underestimated—they can interact with families visiting their farm who are greatly appreciative of their work, or they can wave off a large bulk metal tanker on its way to an industrial co-op.
The raw milk issue is symptomatic of a much wider issue in Irish food, a persistent
move towards industrialization and sterility in food versus a real unwillingness to recognize the significant role of small farmers and food producers in the country.
As well as the social consequences of small scale direct farming, with a link between producers and consumers and a wonderful sense of connection and community, a significant body of commentators realize that the drive to the bottom is not viable for us as a food-producing nation, and that we must compete on quality rather than commodity produce. Small-scale local suppliers provide a viable economic model for this obviously not limited to raw milk. Sadly whilst the European average for direct sale of food to consumers is at 22 percent in Ireland it sits at a meager 0.5 percent.
At the first Irish Weston A. Price conference, held in February 2015, it was heartening to see the level of interest in raw milk for good nutrition and the support for the continued sale of raw milk in Ireland from the participants.
Raw milk is the ultimate expression of our wonderful land and our dairying traditions; its continued availability has the potential to provide a sustainable economic model for small dairy farmers. It would be a travesty if the government does not use the opportunity it has to finally learn to work with small farmers and to ask, “What can we do to help these farmers get their milk to market safely?”
Original Article, Fall, 2011
The Irish Government intends to ban the sale of raw milk by the end of 2011. Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, acting on the advice of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, has stated that he is fully satisfied that the ban should go ahead.
Raw milk as a product available for sale is not a familiar phenomenon to most Irish people. Many were reared on it and if they weren’t, their parents were, but current consumption of raw milk remains largely a practice only within farming families who drink their own milk from the bulk tank—estimates put this figure at around one hundred thousand or around 2.25 percent of the population. Over the last few years interest has certainly been on the up, however after a ban in 1996 on the sale of raw milk in Ireland, it was thought to be illegal to sell it and thus it has been unavailable to the vast majority of people.
Raw milk is probably most familiar to Irish consumers through its use in cheese. It has been a long battle to get to where we are today in relation to our thriving raw milk cheese production and a tacit peace has now been achieved between the authorities and the producers. Threats to undermine this still crop up from time to time, mainly through the insidious policies of supermarket chains that outwardly appear to represent the interests of the artisan producer but show the opposite through their internal practises. They employ, for example, badly worded warning labels which by best practice should not be exclusively limited to the raw milk cheeses, and they issue ill-researched rules about in-store separation of even pre-packaged products. Notwithstanding this, all is well, in fact all is wonderful with raw milk cheese, and it has found a rightful pride of place in our food culture. For the most part, these days our cheese makers find their inspectors to be helpful and co-operative and most encouragingly see a new-found understanding of their product coming from government departments. Raw milk cheeses such as Durrus, Cooleeney and St. Tola, to name but a few, are well known to the Irish consumer and cheese fans actively seek out raw milk cheeses.
Raw fluid milk is an entirely different matter. A 2007 EU directive removed the legal basis for the 1996 ban that had prohibited the sale of raw cow’s milk for direct human consumption. Regretfully, this went unnoticed in Ireland until late 2010. At this point three producers, Aidan Harney, David Tiernan and Darina Allen, began to sell raw milk from their farms and in Tiernan’s case through a number of specialist retailers also. Having only been available for such a short time and in such limited quantities, raw milk has not gotten the foothold in the current culture that it certainly would given half a chance. Farmers who would be keen to explore the possibility of selling their raw milk direct are put off by the impending ban. The awkward reality is that as soon as we knew it was legal, we were also told it would be banned.
The three reasons given for the ban are the protection of public health, the cost of regulations, and the possible reputational damage to the Irish dairy industry. The same answer has been wheeled out on several occasions in response to a multitude of questions posed both by politicians and the public: “While public health is the overriding consideration, it is also worth noting that legislation required to allow the sale of raw milk on a restricted basis would be much more complicated and would impose very significant extra cost on my Department in relation to oversight and enforcement. Failure to adequately oversee such high-risk business operations could result in serious national and international reputational risk.” So wrote Minister Simon Coveney in response to parliamentary questions posed July 2011.
When looking at the issue of international reputation it is worth pointing out that many other countries allow the sale of raw milk including our close neighbours in England, Wales, Italy, France, Holland, Belgium and Germany as well as New Zealand whose dairy industry we often seek to learn from and who are similarly reliant on exports—there has been no resulting damage to their reputations internationally.
The ban of raw milk is set to be introduced as a Statutory Instrument (an amendment to existing legislation) which can be enacted by the relevant minister. This requires no discussion in the Dáil (parliament) and has been subject to no public consultation.
The Campaign for Raw Milk in Ireland was established in May 2011 and consists of a number of businesses, food organizations and members of the food and farming community who have joined together to offer to the government an alternative option of a system of regulations. We have been encouraging the public to raise the issue with their local politicians which has resulted in a number of questions being put to the Minister for Agriculture in the Dáil. Two of the three national broadsheets just published a detailed letter to the editor signed by members as well as some high profile chefs and food celebrities. We are active on social media and have been featured on the radio several times. We have been promised a meeting with the Minister for Agriculture and debates have been taking place at food events around the country. We organised a large public debate held on 6th September in Dublin which had on its panel representatives from the scientific research institute Teagasc as well as members of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland who are recommending this ban.
Further details on www.rawmilkireland.com.
Elisabeth Ryan works for Sheridans Cheesemongers. They have been selling cheese and farmhouse foods in Ireland since 1995. Elisabeth, who came to work with food via a background in wine, has been with Sheridans for nine years looking after the wholesale side of the business and is passionate about working with and promoting local artisan produce. Along with Kevin Sheridan, Elisabeth has been active in getting raw milk to market in Ireland.