Expensive raw milk sales put law into question

CUSTOMERS have been queueing to buy unpasteurised milk at £3.50 a litre from a dispensing machine which opened a week before Christmas at Selfridges in London in a move which raises questions over the viability of English law governing sales.

The farmer who runs the machine is selling thousands of pints a week all over the country, at a lower rate, using a courier service.

He claims both enterprises are within the law which effectively shut down the raw milk business years ago and the Food Standards Agency is unsure if it can stop him.

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Raw milk supporters say it is tastier and healthier than the standard product. And they are willing to pay a premium for it, which would interest many dairy farmers struggling to live on standard prices.

The Selfridges machine comes from Italy, which has hundreds like it. The idea has also taken off in France. And according to the Sussex farmer who supplies the milk, Steve Hook, a Kent farmer ran one unchallenged for 18 months, in a local farmers’ market, before giving up on the dairy business.

EU law allows some national discretion on the matter and England, Wales and Northern Ireland, effectively allow farmers with a special licence to sell raw milk direct to the public. Previously, this has meant through local milk rounds, at the farm gate, or through a market stall run by the farm, but not through shops or restaurants. Scotland does not allow it at all.

The laws were framed before internet selling and refrigerated postal services became common, says Mr Hook, and before the invention of the dispensing machines which allow him and Selfridges to claim that his Oxford Street operation is his own direct-to-the-public franchise within the store and is not run by the retailer.

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Mr Hook and his father, Phil, run an organic herd of Holstein Friesians, with about 70 milking at a time, at Hailsham, Sussex, and deliver to Selfridges in a stainless steel tank which slots into the machine. Customers can buy a bottle to fill at a cost of £3.50 a litre or £2 for half a litre.

The minimum mail-order delivery is six pints for £13.40.

Mr Hook said: “We started selling raw milk in 2007. We now sell about 1,800 pints to local doorsteps and about 3,000 all around England, Wales and most of Scotland, plus about 1,000 pints, and cream and butter, at four farmers’ markets at the weekend, and we are waiting to see how the Selfridges operation goes. Meanwhile, we still have some spare to sell to the usual outlets.”

The farm website, www.hookandson.co.uk, says: “Our milk will last a week in a fridge.”

Another website, www.campaignforrealmilk.co.uk, lists farms still offering local deliveries of raw milk but when the Yorkshire Post contacted one yesterday, Crossley Farm at Mirfield, owner Linda Barber, who farms with son Michael, said they had recently closed their dairy, after bottling raw milk there since 1945. But the problem was the economics of dairying in general and demand for “green top” had stayed good to the end. She said: “We discovered that a lot of young bodybuilders want it.”

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David Shaw of Elvington, near York, a dairy farmers’ spokesman in the NFU, said: “It’s up to the Food Standards Agency to decide if it’s a problem. I’ve got a cousin who calls unpasteurised ‘proper milk’ and I’m in favour of giving customers what they want.”

The Food Standards Agency commented: “The current controls are intended to ensure an appropriate balance between public health protection and consumer choice.

“The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency have asked Selfridges for further information on their sale of raw milk, and discussions are continuing.

“Pasteurisation kills dangerous bugs such as E.coli, TB and salmonella, that may be present in raw milk. This is why there are strict rules.”

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A Selfridges spokesman said: “We have been through all this with the Food Standards Agency already and we are confident we have good answers to all their questions.”

Mr Hook said: “I think the law is about right. Our milk has to meet certain standards before we can sell it raw. And people are entitled to a choice.”