E.coli O157 & Haemolytic Uraemic Syndrome

Are some Raw or Unpasteurised milk producers breaking the law?

26th January 2013

OK, so you go to the supermarket and pick up a carton of milk and put it in your trolley right?

Ever thought about it past that? Probably not.  Most of us drink pasteurised milk granted. However, have you thought about the devastating effects that could impact on our lives if we were to consume milk that was raw/unpasteurised?  The harm it could permanently inflict on us? No? Thought not!

However, you may or may not be aware that there is a law that we believe prevents the sale of raw cows milk other than from farm gate sales. So you would be surprised that raw cows milk is being offered for sale by two raw milk producers via internet sales.  In fact, one of these producers sold raw milk via a vending machine in Selfridges, London Flagship store before being stopped. Shocked?  Yes, we were too!.

The Food Standards Agency [FSA] are to hold a public consultation later this year in relation to the sale of raw or unpasteurised milk from cows and other species such as sheep, goats and buffalo.

At the present time, the only restrictions in relation to raw/unpasteurised milk are in the sales of raw cows milk.  The Food Hygiene [England] Regulations 2006 Part 4, Schedule 32 states under what circumstances raw milk can be sold in England.

The Food Standards Agency set up a Review of the Controls on Raw Drinking Milk and Cream and their first meeting was on 8th October 2012 at the FSA Headquarters in London.

Whilst producers of raw milk and other organisations attended this first meeting, the charity was not invited. This was most surprising as we are the only charity who represents sufferers of E.coli O157 and their families, and who have constantly voiced their views to the FSA since it was set up in 2000, about the dangers of raw milk and the products made from it , such as raw milk cheeses. These dangers include health problems such as kidney damage, brain damage, long term illnesses and even death.

The charity was eventually invited to join this review nearly two months later on 6th December 2012 but declined due to us believing that the continuing internet sales of raw milk should have been stopped prior to any review starting, as it was illegal.

Also, the charity believes that the sale of raw milk between December 2011 and April 2012 at the food hall at Selfridges Department Store in Central London was illegal.

We believe that the current legislation in England in the Food Hygiene [England] Regulations 2006 Part 4, Schedule 32 and stated from the FSA to the Heads of Environmental Health Services [England]Chief Port Health Officers [England] on 10/04/2006 that "Any sales of raw cows' drinking milk from a retail shop, other than a farm shop at the production holding of origin, would not be lawful. Raw cows' drinking milk may be sold by a distributor [i.e. roundsman] from a vehicle [i.e. lorry or milk float] used as a shop premises!.

Currently, two producers of raw milk are offering to sell raw milk in certain post code areas in Scotland via their websites.  As the sale of raw/unpasteurised milk has been banned in Scotland since 1st August 1983, we believe this is unlawful. How can this be lawful?  We note that the Food Hygiene [England] Regulations 2006 Part 4, Schedule 32 does not allow for any internet sales of raw cows milk.

In the Food Standards Agency board paper for the board meeting of 20/03/2012 [Paper number 12/03/05] Page 5 states "This is permitted under current domestic controls but is not within the spirit of the legislation as these controls were developed to only allow restricted sales and only to a local market".

When the charity asked the FSA why they appeared to be allowing the sales of raw cows milk via the internet, in our letter to them of 16/07/2012, the response in their letter of 13/08/2012 was "Scottish solicitors have advised that there is little chance of a prosecution where milk is placed on the market in England". We are withholding this legal professional privilege".

Earlier in 2012 on 14th January, the charity wrote to the FSA about the sale of raw milk at the food hall in Selfridges Department Store in Central London, through a vending machine supplied by a raw cows' milk producer, after reports of this pratice in the London Evening Standard and media in December 2011. In this letter we stated "It seems to HUSH and its legal advises that this represents a clear breach of Regulation 32/Schedule 6 of the Food Hygiene [England] Regulations as well as FSA guidance [for example FSA letters to Heads of Environmental Health Services [England]/ Chief Port Officers [England] entitled 'Raw Drinking Milk' dated 10th April 2006".

Selfridges did stop selling raw milk temporarily as reported in the London Evening Standard on 4th April 2012 after the FSA launched an investigation into whether the practice was legal.

The charity continued to write to the FSA until July 2012 to try and ascertain what enforcement action had been taken in relation to this, and the final letter we received from them was on 13th August 2012 where they stated "The investigation into the sale of raw cows' milk at Selfridges from a vending machine is still on-going and as such I cannot offer you any further indication of how long the investigation will take to complete at this time"

On 23rd January 2013 the FSA said on its website that it is to prosecute Selfridges, London and Stephen Hook of Hook and Sons for breach of the Food Hygiene Regulations.

The Charity's position on the sale of Raw Cows' Milk

The charity would prefer to see the sale of raw/unpasteurised milk banned.  However, this charity has no wish to stop people consuming it who are aware of its dangers, as this would restrict their personal choice and freedom to choose.  However, there have been cases of E.coli O157 in this country and elsewhere in the world, where people have been given this to drink without being aware of its dangers. This charity has members who have, and some of them have had long term health problems.;

The idea that raw milk is real or natural can be dispelled by the clear scientific evidence from around the world of its dangers and that is why milk is pasteurised to prevent harmful bacterium making people ill.  Whilst raw milk may or may not be tastier, who would wish to suffer severe illness or death just to enjoy a taste?

The arguments from the producers of raw milk is that it is healthy and good for children as it aids Asthma or digestive problems. What a pity that they do not explain in their sales literature etc. that the young , the elderly, pregnant women, and those with a compromised immune system are more prone to bacterium found in raw milk such as Salmonella, E. Coli O157 and Listeria.

The government's own Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food have had concerns over it since at least 1995 when in their VTEC Report they stated that its sale should be reviewed. Also the Scottish Task Force Report of 2001 into the largest outbreak of E.coli O157 in Central Scotland  [Wishaw] stated the same in their view in relation to the sale of raw milk in England and Wales.

The facts that no credible scientific evidence exists to support its safety should be a concern to us all.

Whilst some would argue that there has not been an outbreak of E.coli O157 from raw milk in the UK in the last ten years, this cannot be scientifically proven as in most cases and outbreaks of this bacterium, the cause is never found.

Whilst the government may be able to tell us the number of reported cases caused by bacterium each year, they cannot tell us with any scientific evidence how many came from food or what came from environmental sources.

A good example of this would be the Outbreak that occurred across the UK between December 2010 and July 2011 when there were 250 reported cases of E.coli O157 PT8. The report into this outbreak by the Health Protection Agency identified a statistically significant association between cases and the handling of raw leeks sold loose and potatoes in sacks.  In other words, they found no clear scientific evidence what caused this outbreak, although they may have come close.

It is also well known that illnesses caused by bacterium are under reported and the government estimate this is by approximately 8 times.  Some scientists suggest that 8 times under reporting is a very conservative estimate.

The charity believes that government should be doing more to inform the consumer as to the dangers of such products so that the consumer can make a truly informed choice.

It is evident to this charity, given that we have carried out three raw milk cheese surveys of supermarkets in the last ten years, which have been given to the FSA, that the knowledge of supermarket staff was low in relation to their knowledge of the dangers of these products and who the most vulnerable groups are in relation to these. Therefore, this raises the question for us as to if the people selling such products are not aware of the dangers of them, how is the consumer meant to be aware?

The United States Food and Drugs Administration issued a leaflet in August 2012 about the dangers of raw milk. This can be accessed at:

Food Facts: The Dangers of Raw Milk

As you will note from this, they clearly dispelled the myths that some raw milk producers and supporters of it claim, in relation to both raw/unpasteurised and pasteurised milk.

Whilst the charity believe that milk producers in the UK are given a poor price for milk that is to be sent for pasteurisation, and we would support them in any action to get a fairer price, we cannot support those who sell raw milk, particularly those who we believe whilst doing so are breaking the current law on its sales which we believe does not allow for internet sales or via vending machines.  The charity would support any attempt by raw milk producers to diversify out of this into other areas of dairy farming etc, and would support them in obtaining government grants etc. to support this.

The dairy milk industry generally believes that milk should be pasteurised to protect the safety of the consumer and that is why the vast majority of milk in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and all the milk in Scotland is. [Apart from producers who choose to keep some for their own personal consumption].

Lucy and Steve Nash

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