Sales of raw milk in the UK are on the rise, with many dairy farmers turning to direct-to-consumer sales to overcome rough deals from supermarkets that have meant that the production and sale of milk is quickly becoming an unsustainable business.

While some health gurus and dietitians have been touting the supposed benefits of raw milk, the current information from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) still advises against drinking unpasteurised product, calling it is a risky practice, potentially leading to severe food poisoning.

Cutting out the middle-man

According to FSA figures, the proportion of the population consuming raw milk has risen from three to ten percent of the population over the last five years. Raw milk – or milk that hasn’t been pasteurised – can only be sold direct to consumer by milk production facilities that are registered with the FSA, and even then, only at the farm gate, in a farming catering operation, or at a farmers market outlet.

“Farmers should be paid a fair price for the food they produce, says a Soil Association spokesperson who wished to remain unnamed. Many farmers are turning to the sale of raw milk to subsidise the increasingly low profit margins earned from the sale of their milk through supermarkets. “Selling milk locally and directly to consumers can benefit farmers by removing the middle-man, thereby increasing profitability and alleviating price volatility. This is not a solution that will work for all farmers, and it is not a golden bullet, but we are seeing a number of dairy farmers investing in micro dairies and vending machines for farm gate sales,” continued the spokesperson.

According to the National Farmers Union, there are large fluctuations in the price farmers receive for milk, with the average price dropping from 33 pence per litre (ppl) in 2013, to just 19ppl in 2016, rising up to 28ppl in 2018.

Jonathan Crickmore co-founder of Fen Farm Dairy, and of Milk Vending Machines UK, believes the sale of raw milk can be a lifeline, saying: “It does entail extra work but if you can make it happen you’re likely to make around 50% profit margin.  The beauty of raw milk is that you cut out all the middlemen between you and the consumer.”

Milk vending machines are becoming an increasingly popular method of sale from the farm to the general public, meaning raw milk is now more readily available to consumers than ever before. Their ease makes them popular with farmers because despite the increased margins, manning a shop for the sale of raw milk is still too expensive considering the price of the product. “Milk is a cheap product.  A farmer could not justify manning a shop on its own.  A vending machine will create the least amount of work for a dairy farmer to sell their milk to a customer,” Crickmore explains.

Unpasteurised: worth the risk?

There are concerns though, that consumers are unaware of the risks inherent in the consumption of raw milk. According to an FSA statement: “The FSA considers that pasteurisation is the best way to address the food safety risk associated with raw drinking milk and cream. However, the Agency recognises that some consumers prefer to exercise choice in continuing to have access to raw drinking milk and cream.”

A risk assessment of raw milk is currently underway to determine whether risk factors have developed since their last review in 2015. The sale of raw milk is also banned completely from sale in Scotland.

Over the past few years, claims have been made as to the increased health benefits of consuming raw milk over pasteurised varieties, the Soil Associate spokesperson, for example, commented that “There are potential health benefits to drinking unpasteurised milk. Untreated milk may help in the development of natural immunity. It contains lactoperoxidase that can act to destroy harmful bacteria, as well as other substances, such as lactoferrin, lysozyme, immunoglobulins and antibodies, which can assist the immune system.”

The counter argument though is there is little published evidence to suggest consuming raw milk has any benefit over pasteurised varieties, or at least not enough to outweigh the potential the product has to contain harmful bacteria such as E.coli and campylobacter. For instance, in January 2017 raw milk from a farm in Cumbria was blamed for causing 65 people to fall ill from Campylobacter-related illness.

Some believe that consuming raw milk is a choice that’s down to the consumer. Crickmore, for example, comments that: “Raw milk will have a higher risk than pasteurised milk but I feel also that it’s unfair as many other raw foods are equal in risk and do not carry food/health warnings, oysters for example, and have to question where do we stop, why is raw milk picked on rather than other foods?”

Dairy UK, the trade association for the British dairy supply chain, takes the opposite stance: “The British dairy industry is proud of its high standards of food safety. In order to maintain these standards and reassure the public that consumption of milk is safe and healthy, pasteurisation of all drinking milk remains essential,” states a Dairy UK spokesperson who also wished to remain unnamed.

“It is worrying to note that one of the main drivers of raw milk consumption is the belief that it is nutritionally superior to pasteurised milk, as this is not supported by scientific evidence.”