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Comment: A ban on untreated milk? No whey!

IF THE Government has its way, untreated milk will on Tuesday be banned on the grounds that it is a potential hazard to human health. This is yet another ludicrous and unnecessary interference in the matter of what we eat, and will cause further damage to a farming industry still reeling from the crisis over BSE.

Quite why this decision has been made is a mystery to consumers of raw milk. It is not as if it is that easy to get hold of. Earlier legislation means that unpasteurised, green-top milk is already unavailable in shops, and each bottle carries the scary message, "This milk has not been heat- treated and may therefore contain organisms harmful to health". Those who wish to drink raw milk have to go to some trouble to obtain it and cannot possibly be unaware of the risks. We know we have to take full responsibility for our actions if we contract food poisoning, and are quite ready to do so. What makes the ban all the more galling is that raw milk carries with it known benefits - but of course they don't tell you that on the bottles.

Raw milk contains 25 per cent more vitamin C than pasteurised milk, as well as an increased levels of other vitamins and minerals. And a report by a Leeds University academic points to strong medical evidence that drinking raw milk can boost the body's immune system.

According to Dr Barbara Pickard, people with common dairy allergies find that the structure of raw milk - the whey protein is broken down during heat treatment - makes it more digestible. But most devotees drink it simply because it tastes delicious. It is sweeter than treated milk which, from the moment of pasteurisation, takes on a slightly sour character. In addition, raw milk keeps better and longer than heat-treated milk. In the light of all those attributes, it is doubly misguided, not to say depressing, that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is choosing to consider only the risk factor involved, minimal though it is. Is Jeff Rooker, the Minister for Food Safety at MAFF, in the habit of drinking raw milk? I presume not.

One would like to be able to draw strength from the events of nine years ago when a government ban was thwarted by a barrage of popular protest. Government attitudes have hardened since then. The food hygiene police have pursued their dream, and with a new government with a large majority and a love of bans, it seems certain they will now have their wish fulfilled.

The latest ban, proposed in November, has not been debated in parliament despite the Liberal Democrats asking for government time. Another such request, from Sir Julian Rose, the chairman of the Campaign for Real Milk, appears to have been likewise ignored. The Government simply does not want to know what it does not suit it to know.

Figures from the Public Health Laboratory Service (Slogan: "Protecting the population from infection") show that between 1992 and 1996, 218 people fell ill through drinking unpasteurised milk. Not one died. Yet instances of intestinal illnesses caused by other foods - including water, meat and poultry - average between 60,000 and 70,000 a year.

Comparatively speaking, green-top milk is one of the safest foods we can eat - the ban on selling it in shops sees to that. The milk passes from the cow to a refrigerated tank where it is stored at just above freezing point until it is bottled and delivered, usually by the farmer himself. From there it passes directly into the hands of the consumer, making it the least tampered-with dairy product available.

It would have made more sense if a ban had been proposed 40 years ago when milk was stored unrefrigerated in churns awaiting collection by the milk lorry, and it was still possible to be infected by tuberculosis and brucellosis from milk. It makes no sense to ban it now.

Once more it is a scientific report into cases of food poisoning that has influenced the proposal and not a thorough surveillance of the thousands of consumers of raw milk, the vast majority of whom have been devoted to it for years without a single intestinal infection. And Dr Pickard is surely right in his concern over the reporting of food poisoning, which he believes to be influenced by fashion. So do I.

Jack Cunningham, the Minister of Agriculture, has said that this will not be a government that tells people what they can and cannot eat. Not true! How can it be when food is taken out of a shop and is therefore unavailable the consumer - as has been the case with beef on the bone.

The ban on raw milk, if successful, will surely lead to further bans on "living" foods. Both Sir Julian Rose and Arthur Cunyngham, chairman of the Specialist Cheese Makers' Association and managing director of the Paxton and Whitfield cheese shop in London, fear that a ban on cheeses made with untreated milk could follow. At least a third of the stock in Paxton's would be affected, denying cheese lovers excellent cheeses such as Bonchester, Montgomery and Keens Cheddar, Ducketts Caerphilly, Lincolnshire Poachers and Ashdown Forester's to name just a few. A ban will diminish production of raw milk, making if difficult and expensive to obtain. The pity is that British unpasteurised cheeses have enjoyed a renaissance in the past 20 years. Much hard work by the cheese-makers has gone into their perfection; many are far superior to their French counterparts.

Why the propensity to ban living food? Why not target foods which are processed using chemicals known to be detrimental to health? Why in particular ban a food that is not in any way hidden in people's diets. Do the image builders of New Labour really think they are going to look good by saving fewer than 10 people a year from a stay in hospital? MAFF must surely be aware of the indignant public reaction to the decision to abolish the sale of beef on the bone. By hearing only what the scientists have to say, Mr Rooker will deliver a further kick in the teeth to the already fragile small farm communities, and discontent in the countryside will only increase.

'The Food Programme' on Radio 4 at 7.20 pm tomorrow examines the plight of farmers whose livelihoods would be affected by the ban.