Raw Milk Ireland co-founder Elisabeth Ryan shares her views on raw milk, dairying present and future, and how we shop and eat.
T: Firstly, can you tell me a little about yourself and your role at Raw Milk Ireland?E: I’ve worked in the speciality food industry for the last 15 years or so, first in wine. I came to be involved with raw milk as part of my work, which at the time was with Sheridan’s Cheesemongers, where we had begun to sell milk from David Tiernan’s farm in Co. Louth. I’m currently working independently on a variety of different projects in the food industry.
The campaign was formed in 2010 by myself and a number of members of the food community; David Tiernan, Darina Allen, Kevin Sheridan, Ruth Hegarty, Evan Doyle and many more. We quickly gained support from high profile chefs and members of the media. We came together because we realised that EU hygiene regulations allowed for the sale of raw milk in local markets, and quickly on the heels of this learned of a proposed ban on the sale of raw liquid milk.
Because of my frustration with some of the misinformation out there and a somewhat dogged determination to see it through, I ended up co-ordinating the campaign during and after. I think in the main, all of us involved saw the proposed ban on raw milk as a sort of symbol for the artisan and traditional food category overall.
What do you think of the controversy surrounding raw milk, the idea that it is a health risk to the consumer?
I believe nearly everything we do in life has risks associated, as does everything we consume.
On balance, raw milk does carry some extra risk, however, we as consumers need to make our own choices, and Raw Milk Ireland has always advocated the use of special advice labels to appear on bottles. There are also a number of processes at farm level and during milking, bottling, storage and distribution which can significantly reduce the risks of any pathogens.
Lots of other foodstuffs are considered high risk, like shellfish. Even the vast majority of supermarket chicken is positive for campylobacter for example. If there does happen to be any harmful bacteria in any foodstuff, those with a strong immune system could safely consume something that could make someone with a weaker immune system ill. Speak to anyone of a certain generation and they’ll tell you they were reared on raw milk and it did them no harm!
Most importantly, there have been no reported cases whatsoever in Ireland of sickness from the consumption of raw milk intended for sale.
What are some benefits of raw milk, how does it differ from a pasteurised product?
For me, the benefit is largely the flavour and mouthfeel and the idea of consuming a natural, unaltered, traditional foodstuff. Many also believe raw milk has protective qualities for a variety of disorders, from asthma to eczema. There is a host of anecdotal evidence to support this, as well as a handful of serious scientific studies.
Pasteurisation kills bacteria, which means that if (and I say - If) the milk contains pathogens, they will be destroyed, however it does not discriminate and also destroys what many believe to be beneficial bacteria, as well as altering the structure of other components in the milk.
What are some uses for raw milk in particular?
Most consumers simply drink it in the belief that it tastes better and is better for them.
The avid consumers of raw milk vary wildly; from bodybuilders who believe that the protein chains and beneficial unaltered fats in raw milk can aid them in their quest for the perfect muscle to the over 50’s that may remember drinking it growing up, to your average person interested in nutrition, to foodies who have a desire for genuine farm to fork food to those who simply relish the cream on top!
Many chefs also like to use raw milk as a basis for a variety of dishes and there is much interest in using raw milk for cultured products like Kefirs and yoghurts, in the belief that the good bacteria in this “living” milk produce a far superior product beneficial in aiding gut health.
Can you ever see raw milk being a mainstream product?
No, I think it will always remain relatively niche, and I see a place for a fairly small amount of careful, passionate farmers scattered around the country selling to and engaging with local markets and most importantly - able to make a living from it.
There's a real victory in the fact that raw milk sales are regulated. How difficult has it been to get to where you are now?
It has been a fairly long road, that’s for sure! We put a lot of work in over the years – combing through government documents and legislation, making representations to government officials, promoting awareness and gaining support. It has shown me that with persistence and also with a desire to always be balanced and maintain a good relationship with regulators, you can achieve a lot with no other resource than determination.
The best thing is that government officials have now committed to working with farmers to define a set of industry regulations and we move forward together rather than being at odds. This is the atmosphere we need to continue to strive for within the wider food community.
What are your thoughts on the climate for Irish dairy farming at the moment?
It is certainly a challenging time - the impact of the removal of the quota system is affecting small and medium farmers significantly. Lots of small farmers are seeking ways to add value to their milk, of course this is a very different business from supplying to the local co-ops, so needs careful consideration. Probably the biggest difficulties will be faced by medium sized farmers who need the most support to be able to compete.
Those producing the cleanest and highest quality milk do receive a premium. This will continue to up the stakes in terms of herd management and farm processes. We need to focus on our attributes, such as Ireland’s green image and grass-fed animals, and ensure that this does not become a faux marketing tool that gets lost in the aim for extra output.
What are your feelings towards big food retailers and the pressure they are putting on the producer?
I believe retailers have a responsibility to ensure their customers get a fair deal, but also that their suppliers can make a sustainable living, and not just in the short term. Shoppers have a large role to play in this, though. Every time we shop we make choices. We vote with our feet in terms of where we go and what we buy, and also what we ask for or complain about. I don’t believe consumers fully realise that farmers and producers foot the bill when items are on promotion, personally I’d like to see retailers moving away from bargains and focusing on stable sustainable and realistic pricing. We as consumers have to have the appetite for this and be prepared to sometimes pay more for quality locally produced foods.
Clever marketing strategy in multiple retail often beguiles the consumer in to thinking they are supporting local producers, but that’s not always the case. You only have to look at the origin of many of the vegetables on the shelves, stacked high beneath the pictures of Irish farmers.
Do you notice a polarity or divide among Irish consumer tastes? Or was that always there…
I think there has always been a divide between people who prioritise food and who simply seek out the cheapest deal. Some people with very little money will focus on buying amazing ingredients for their meals and go without an LED TV, while others have different priorities. On the plus side, the wider interest in food and buying locally has increased wildly in the last few years. Even with all this interest though, if you take the time to look at the contents of people’s trolleys in the supermarket it is disappointing to see them often laden with processed and imported foods. There is an appetite for what is seen as high end food, but this is often sated with alternatives provided by large companies who know how to package their foods to appear artisan.
How do you think milk production in Ireland will change and develop in the near future?
We are most certainly moving away from the traditional farming model, and it is my hope that this does not happen at the expense of small and medium sized farms who can then no longer compete. This is a wider social issue which has the potential to impact hugely at a local and community level.
I think the gap between small farmers and supersize will continue to widen. I believe that we need to encourage the idea of the middle farm and allow them the opportunity to compete.
Most certainly within the industry, the move towards dairy innovation and what is termed specialist nutrition will continue to be a focus, milk as we know it already only comprises a relatively small proportion of our overall production.
In terms of smaller farms, I believe there is an opportunity for single farm milk to reach a wider audience with the emphasis on the story and traceability associated, and I think we will see a move towards organic production.
Anything else you'd like to add?
To me, the most important aspect of farmers selling raw milk is the link to the community which it provides. Dairying is not an easy job, and the rewards for farmers interacting with their customers can be massive. Equally for the consumer to actually have visited the farm where their food comes from and have an idea of what’s involved in getting the milk in to the bottle can be a real eye opener. I think it translates in to all aspects of food then for the consumer. The benefits of opening up the link between the farming community and the end consumer are genuinely huge, and even aside from taste and quality, people buy in to a person and a story and it makes their enjoyment of consuming the milk as much a result of this link as the taste or any benefits of the milk itself.