Ban raw milk now, say campaigners

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THE GOVERNMENT was yesterday asked to ban raw milk immediately in the wake of health fears about the pasteurised variety.

Consumer organisations also urged the Government to act quickly to establish a food standards agency, to prevent the milk safety scare being followed by other food crises.

Concerns over milk were raised after preliminary tests showed that a bacterium linked to Crohn's disease, a chronic inflammation of the intestine, could be present in one-fifth of all pasteurised supplies. As a result, the Government has ordered a nationwide survey.

The samples will be assessed for the presence of mycobacterium paratuberculosis - the cause of Johne's disease, a cattle disorder. It is one of several factors that have been suggested as a possible cause of Crohn's disease. Eric Martlew, MP for Carlisle, said the Government was "failing to safeguard the health of the public" by not imposing a ban on unpasteurised milk.

But Dr Norman Simmons, a Government food safety adviser, played down the risk of drinking milk. "At best, there is no risk at all." he said. "At worst, if those people who think it's capable of causing human disease are correct, I have calculated that the risk is about one in five million for a glass of milk."

But in the light of the discovery, Mr Martlew said that action on raw milk should be taken as soon as possible. Raw or unpasteurised milk is still legally available in England and Wales, though it has been banned in Scotland. But it is already sold with a health warning and must be consumed near to the point of production.

"The Government know very well that unpasteurised milk will carry this bacterium. I think they are failing to safeguard the health of the public."

The Ministry of Agriculture's expert advisory committee advised a ban on raw milk in November last year. The Government proposed a ban and invited comments, but no decision has been taken, a spokesman for the Ministry said yesterday.

Meanwhile, dairies and supermarkets took precautionary safety measures to maintain consumer confidence.

Tesco said it had instructed all its milk suppliers to increase the length of the pasteurisation treatment. A spokesman said normal production methods meant heating milk products to 72C for 15 seconds. But the length of the pasteurisation process had now been increased to 25 seconds.

Dairy Crest, one of Britain's biggest milk producers, said it and other large dairies were "taking measures to review procedures". A spokeswoman said the Government had not asked the dairy industry to undergo such a review, but firms were committed to ensuring they were doing everything possible to eliminate risk.

The Consumers' Association said that a food standards agency was necessary for situations like this so that the public could be fully informed. "They have released this information into the public arena. But now what? Should we all go and panic about it?" said a CA spokeswoman. "Consumers need someone to set out guidelines and present solutions. Otherwise the consumer becomes the victim of half-hearted efforts to pacify them."

James Erlichman,

Review, page 5