Unpasteurised and Proud of it
It is easy to overlook the fact that some foods are as close to extinction as the now protected 'rare' breeds of cows and hens that once ranged our rural pastures. They carry with them unique characteristics left behind in the rush into our supermarket led industrialised agriculture with its standardised denatured produce. By Sir Julian Rose
One such food is unpasteurised milk, often referred to as green top because the bottle carry a green foil top to designate its status. There are still around 150 unpasteurised milk producers left in the UK, mostly in the north of England where long standing traditions die hard. However, some can be found in the south, and I count as one of these.
The farm which I inherited some 20 years ago has had a license to produce 'green top' milk since 1939 – and I can see no earthly reason for giving up this valuable status as long as we continue to milk cows. So why is it so special? Firstly, raw unpasteurised milk comes close to being a complete food. It contains varying amounts of anti-microbial proteins and other anti-infective agents important in imparting protection to the young and in restricting bacterial growth in the bottled/cartoned product we buy. It contains highly nutritious whey proteins and vital enzymes whose contribution to good health is as yet barely understood. Above all it is living food and like live yogurt acts as a stimulant to the immune system and to the vitality of our flora. Unpasteurised milk and cream also has a delicate, subtle flavour and is much favoured by cheese makers, top chefs and their discerning customers.
So what does pasteurisation do to milk - and why is unpasteuised milk so hard to obtain? To quote Dr William Campbell Douglas, an acclaimed US physician and recognized authority on dairy produce, 'our greatest agricultural loss today is due to senseless destruction of fresh milk through pasteurisation, ultra pasteurisation and now ultra high temperature pasteurisation (UHT in UK) which turns great milk into white milk flavoured drink about as nutritious as milk of magnesia'.
Heat treating (pasteurisation) adversely affects the nutritional value of milk. It destroys as least 10% of vitamin B1, B6, B12 and 25% of the vitamin C contained in raw milk. It also adversely affects the ability of the body to absorb folate - especially important to the nervous and blood systems and for normal embryonic development. Evidence also indicates that pasteurisation can inactivate other protein carriers such as those for zinc, vitamin B12 and iron.
Whey proteins – the most nutritious – are denatured by heat treatment, causing a loss in value and possibly triggering allergic reactions. The anti-infective agents present in raw milk are also denatured by pasteurisation. In their normal state these agents can destroy bacteria and even inhibit proliferation.
It may come as no surprise to you that the reason you cannot get hold of real milk has more to do with the politics of food than potential dangers to public health. In brief, back in the 1920s as the mass market for dairy produce was first being developed by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Milk Marketing Board, it was realized that a large scale and costly educational exercise was required to bring dairy hygiene standards up to a level adequate for pooling large volumes of milk for mass distribution. Concern about brucellosis and tuberculosis was also widespread at the time and a national vaccine and certification programme was instigated to eradicate them from British herds. It proved very effective.
However, although general standards in many dairies were probably adequate for the production of raw, untreated milk, the simplest and cheapest option was to use the blanket milk pasteurisation methods, developed earlier in the U.S.A as a means of killing off any potential bacteriological pathogens that might be present. In spite of strong protest from many doctors and nutritionists about the detrimental effect this mass pasteurisation might have on the nation's health, the momentum of this quick fix swiftly gathered pace. A number of attempts have since been made to ban raw milk completely, always on unproven and spurious healthy grounds.
The fact is that once the industry had adopted mass pasteurisation, it saw those still producing unpasteurised milk as 'competitors' and tried to push them out. The last occasion was in 1989 when the hapless agriculture minister, John McGregor, bungled the handling of a 'listeria crisis' associated with importing pasteurised soft cheeses and turned on unpasteurised milk in an attempt to create a scapegoat. It took a vigorous campaign by their Association of Unpasteurised Milk Producers and Consumers to beat them off. However unpasteurised milk is now greatly restricted and although it produced to exacting standards, can only be bought direct from the retail milk rounds or the farm shops or producers. Anyone lucky enough to live near such outlet should not miss the chance of obtaining this splendid food. Those unable to get it should write to the current Minster of Agriculture complaining about the absurd restrictions that prevent its sale through ordinary retail outlets.
First published in 1999