Food safety of raw milk

Upcoming new policy for the sale of raw milk

After an extensive review and public consultation, the Government has agreed to a new policy around the sale of raw milk to consumers. From 1 March 2016, raw milk can be bought directly from farmers either from the farm or via home deliveries.

In recognition of the strong demand for raw milk from both rural and urban consumers, the new policy will continue to allow consumers to buy raw milk but all farmers who want to continue to sell raw milk to consumers must meet strict requirements to manage the food safety risks associated with consuming raw milk.

Read the Minister’s press release here:
Government decision made on raw milk

A summary and analysis of the submissions MPI received during the consultation period and a report on a 2014 survey of buying, selling and consuming raw milk can be found at the link below:-

Proposed options for the sale of raw milk to consumers

Below is more information on how the new requirements under the new policy will affect consumers of raw milk.  

How much raw milk can I buy?

There will be no limits on the amount of raw milk farmers can sell to a consumer or on the amount they can sell overall, but raw milk can only be bought directly from farmers for personal and household consumption. Raw milk cannot be on-sold to anyone else.

Labelling of raw milk and being aware of health risks

No matter how carefully the animals are milked there is always a possibility of harmful bacteria, such as Shiga Toxin–Producing Escherichia coli, Campylobacter and Salmonella, being present in raw milk.

To ensure that all consumers are aware of this risk before buying raw milk, all point-of-sale areas, both physical and electronic, and all raw milk containers will be labelled with the following:

  • Information about the risks around drinking raw milk
  • Ways to best reduce these risks, including storage, use-by dates, and who should avoid drinking raw milk (for example, the young, pregnant, elderly and immune compromised)

Contact details and sale records

Under the new requirements, farmers who sell raw milk to consumers must collect and hold all records of sale including contact details, date of sale, and volumes sold for traceability and compliance reasons.

This means that consumers will be asked to provide contact details such as their full name, address, and phone number when buying raw milk, which will allow for consumers to be easily contacted if a batch of milk is found to have failed hygiene and pathogen testing.

Home deliveries and collection points

Under the new policy, as of 1 March 2016 collection points will not be allowed. However, consumers can get their raw milk delivered to them at home. To manage the food safety risks around home deliveries of perishable foods like raw milk, we recommend consumers arrange for their raw milk to be delivered at times when someone is home to ensure the milk can be refrigerated.

Raw milk needs to be stored at 4°C or less and people should discard raw milk if it has been left out of the fridge and has reached room temperature.

Requirements for farmers

Farmers will need to meet strict requirements. More information on these requirements can be found on MPI’s food safety website

Raw milk and managing food safety risks

Raw or unpasteurised milk

Raw milk is untreated milk that typically comes from cows, goats, or sheep. This means it has not been heat treated to kill the harmful bacteria (pathogens) and nothing has been added or removed. Pasteurisation is the process that eliminates almost all harmful bacteria through a specific heat treatment. Pasteurisation is achieved by heating milk to 72°C for 15 seconds. Consumers at home can achieve the same result by heating milk to 70°C for one minute.

Is unpasteurised milk safe to drink?

No matter how carefully the animals are milked there is always a risk of harmful bacterial being present. Consuming raw milk can cause severe illness due to the possible presence of harmful bacteria such as Shiga Toxin–Producing Escherichia coli, Campylobacter and Salmonella. Pregnant women, young children (particularly babies), the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems are at greatest risk of getting sick and the consequences for them can be more severe.

How does milk get contaminated?

Harmful bacteria can pass directly into milk from various sources, but faecal contamination is the main cause of pathogens in raw milk. Faecal contamination can come from:

  • poor hygienic practice during milking, such as teats that haven’t been cleaned and sanitised or milk harvesters with dirty hands
  • milking equipment that is poorly designed or not properly cleaned and sanitised
  • the farm dairy environment during milking.

Udder infections can also result in pathogens in raw milk. Animals can look healthy even when infected, so farmers in this situation may not realise there is a risk.

In addition, poor cooling, storage, and handling will allow the pathogens present to grow. Even if care is taken in producing raw milk, there is still the risk that it contains harmful bacteria (pathogens). This is because there is no process used to destroy the harmful bacteria.

How can I tell if raw milk is contaminated?

There is no way of telling by taste, sight, or smell that raw milk contains harmful bacteria. However, any milk that appears to have gone off or looks abnormal should be avoided as this indicates that it has not been cooled, stored or handled correctly and the pathogens present in the milk, whether good or bad, have had an opportunity to grow.

Have serious outbreaks of foodborne disease been caused by raw milk consumption?

An outbreak is recorded when two or more people have become sick and the illness is linked to a common source.

Globally, outbreaks of illness caused by raw milk consumption occur regularly. Recorded outbreaks include cases of severe illnesses, which can be life-threatening. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, raw milk is responsible for nearly three times more hospitalisations than any other foodborne source.

The numbers of outbreaks of foodborne illness in NZ where raw milk consumption is a recorded risk factor have been consistently higher since 2009. In 2013, raw milk was recorded as a risk factor in eight outbreaks affecting 33 people.

All outbreaks that recorded people’s age included children younger than five years old. In addition, raw milk was a risk factor for two children younger than five years old who were hospitalised with serious renal problems.

Have bacteria associated with severe foodborne disease been found in raw milk in New Zealand?

An on-going MPI survey has sporadically identified the presence of harmful bacteria such as Shiga Toxin–Producing Escherichia coli, Campylobacter and Salmonella in New Zealand raw milk.

Can we eliminate harmful bacteria in raw milk?

No matter how carefully the animals are milked there is always a possibility of harmful bacteria being present in raw milk. This is because pathogens regularly occur in animal guts and are ever-present on farms. Pasteurisation is one of the few proven methods to kill harmful bacteria in milk.

Does pasteurisation affect the alleged health benefits associated with drinking raw milk?

There is little evidence that “good” bacteria or other components in raw milk kill the “bad” bacteria to prevent illness.

The current scientific evidence shows that the nutritional value of raw milk is not substantially different to that of pasteurised milk.

There is no reason to believe that raw milk would benefit lactose intolerant people. All milk contains lactose. Heat treatment can convert lactose into a more soluble and easily absorbed form, but this happens at temperatures much higher than those required for pasteurisation.

There is no conclusive evidence to show that raw milk helps protect against serious disease. There are a few studies that suggest that drinking raw milk at an early age, along with other factors, may help reduce the risk of developing asthma, hay fever, or eczema but the science is not conclusive because of a lack of data and the absence of any biological reason for why raw milk could help protect against these conditions.

What is known is that raw milk may contain harmful bacteria that can lead to serious consequences, such as renal failure and paralysis. This is why we recommend that young children and other people with lower immunity should not drink it.

To view MPI’s literature review please click on the link:

An Assessment of the Effects of Pasteurisation on Claimed Nutrition and Health Benefits of Raw Milk (PDF 348KB)

What can I do to minimise the risk of getting ill from raw milk?

No matter how carefully the animals are milked there is always a possibility of harmful bacteria being present in raw milk. Keeping raw milk under refrigeration (4°C or less) reduces the risk of any harmful bacteria in the milk growing to levels which make people sick when they drink it. Raw milk needs to be stored at 4°C or less and people should discard raw milk if it has been left out of the fridge and has reached room temperature.

Scientific evidence shows that the best way to minimise the risk of getting ill from drinking raw milk is to heat it, for example to 70°C for one minute. This will kill off the bad bugs but still leave behind healthy milk.

Who should not drink raw milk?

MPI does not recommend drinking raw milk. In particular, the young, frail elderly, pregnant and immuno-compromised (i.e. those whose immune system is weakened) should avoid consuming raw milk that has not been heat treated because they are at greatest risk from infection.