Farmers treated like “meth dealers” in raw milk crackdown

A Wellsford dairy farmer threatened with a $120,000 fine for selling raw milk has curtailed operations in the wake of a government crackdown.

Last month, Guy Bakewell, of Bakewell Creamery, received a notice from the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) that his business would be fined $100,000 and himself personally $20,000 if he did not register as a raw milk supplier and comply with government regulations.

Following the notice, Mr Bakewell immediately applied for and secured registration, but he insists complying with government regulations will not only hurt his business, it will also compromise the safety of his raw milk supply.

When Mr Bakewell began selling raw milk about two years ago, he registered as a raw milk supplier, but he, along with other milk suppliers, ultimately decided against registration because of the restrictions it imposed.

In particular, Mr Bakewell objected to the ban on selling raw milk from a refrigerated truck at farmer’s markets and the inability to deliver milk to central, refrigerated pick-up points.

Registered raw milk suppliers are permitted to deliver raw milk door-to-door, but Mr Bakewell insists this is far less safe.

If the homeowner is absent when the milk is delivered, then the supplier faces the dilemma of leaving the milk on the front porch, where there may be no opportunity to keep the milk chilled.

Moreover, the ban on centralised pick up points limits the ability of raw milk suppliers to grow their business and reach many more customers with their product.  

To get around the legal requirements, raw milk sellers have been forming “limited partnerships” whereby consumers own a share in a milk supply business, meaning that they are technically no longer purchasing milk – they are drinking their own milk from their own animals.

The Raw Drinking Milk Producers of New Zealand has received legal advice that the limited partnerships are legitimate, but this has never been tested in court.

Last month, MPI compliance staff executed search warrants on raw milk suppliers in Auckland, Hawkes Bay, Manawatu, Horowhenua, Nelson and Southland following a year-long operation in a bid to gather evidence of regulatory breaches.

Among the farms raided was one run by the secretary of the Raw Drinking Milk Producers of New Zealand, Pip Martin.

Ms Martin says six or seven MPI officers armed with a search warrant went through her cow shed and bottling room, then came into the farm’s office, confiscating computers and cell phones and removing limited partnership records and financial information in large plastic bags. The officers even searched through the trash for incriminating documents.

Mr Bakewell says farmers feel like they are being treated like meth dealers.

But MPI’s manager of food compliance, Melinda Sando, says farmers operating outside the regulatory framework are putting consumer health at risk.

“Raw unpasteurised milk is a risky product as it hasn’t been heat treated to remove illness causing bacteria including E. coli, listeria and campylobacter,” she says.

But Mr Bakewell says this view overlooks the fact that some exposure to bacteria is a good thing – helping build a person’s resistance to it.

“Consumer choice has got to come into it at some point. People have got to be able to say ‘I want this product because I know it is a good product, and I want to be exposed to some bacteria because I know it is going to build my immunity’,” he says.

In a Mahurangi Matters story in 2018, Mr Bakewell highlighted the advantages of raw milk including its better flavour, higher nutritional value and reported benefits to those suffering allergies and eczema.