Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

It Can’t Hurt You: It’s Natural

By Peter Bowditch

The company that marketed a raw milk product that killed a child should not be allowed to use product-labelling loopholes to escape justice.

Imagine that you sold a product that caused the death of a child. What would your reaction be? Would it be to apologise, withdraw the product from the shops and promise to try to do better in future, or would your response be that the product is perfectly safe and had a label on it that said “Not for human consumption” so it was obviously never intended to be drunk? Would you package it so that it appeared to be identical to a safe product and encourage retailers to place it on shelves next to the safe product?

In December 2014 a child died in Victoria after drinking raw milk, and several other children were made sick by drinking the same product. The milk was packaged in 2 Litre containers, just like pasteurised milk is, but was labelled “bath milk” and promoted for cosmetic use. The dairy farm that produced it denied all responsibility and has continued to claim that it was obvious that the milk was intended for washing in, not for drinking. The health food shops that sold it have been silent. Supporters of pseudoscience have been carrying on about the healthy aspects of raw milk and how pasteurisation affects the nutritional quality of milk.

Have I mentioned that raw milk killed a child?

There are good reasons why raw milk cannot be sold to the public, but the scoundrels who produce, package, distribute and sell this stuff had managed to get good legal advice about how to get through loopholes in the law. One of these ways is the way the milk is labelled. They can then claim it is totally the responsibility of the end purchaser to keep the milk in its standard milk packaging away from children and only store it in the bathroom in the same secure cupboard as the bleach for cleaning the toilet. Oh, and keep it refrigerated.

Another loophole in the law allows dairy farmers to drink unpasteurised milk from farms that they own, so the charlatans have set up a facade of a cooperative where people buy shares in order to pretend that they are part-owners of the dairy. The fact is that this concession to dairy farmers is only supposed to apply to drinking milk within a very short period following milking, not several days later when the pathogens in the milk have had time to reproduce. Also, the dairy farm makes a lot of noise about how their cows are “grass-fed”, relying on the ignorance of consumers who may not be aware that all cattle on all dairy farms are fed on grass.

I have seen people who should know better try to put all the blame on the end consumers and the parents of the dead child, but the people who make, distribute and sell this product know exactly what they’re doing. They know the product is dangerous and they have obviously spent money with lawyers to find legal ways that they can continue to sell it. These parents might be ignorant of science or the truth, but I’m not sure that the same sympathy would be shown if they had harmed the child in some other way. They fed their child with something that every rational person knows is dangerous; they fed their child something that is labelled “Not for human consumption”; they didn’t for a moment think that the label “bath milk” meant that they should wash the children rather than feed them the milk.

It is almost obscene that someone can use a loophole in the law to sell a dangerous product to the public, particularly when it’s obvious that they know the thing is dangerous and they do not care. If the particular dairy were to decide to go into a different line of business and convert their milking shed into a laboratory for the manufacture of methamphetamine, the police would be all over them like a cheap suit. Labelling the plastic bags “bath salts” and “Not for human consumption” would be ridiculed if offered as a defence in court.

I have no real problem with people charging a little bit more for “organic” products because it is just a form of voluntary taxation (organic homogenised and pasteurised full cream milk sells for $4.15 per litre in my local health food shop, and is nutritionally and chemically identical to the milk sold for $1 per litre in the local supermarket), but when the naturalistic fallacy is used to promote dangerous products it is time for action.

The sale of raw milk, however it is labelled, should be totally banned, and people who produce, package, distribute or sell it should be treated in exactly the same way as people who do these things with illegal drugs.

Peter Bowditch is a former President of Australian Skeptics Inc. (www.skeptics.com.au).