NSW company Made by Cow makes “raw cold-pressed milk”. To break it down – it’s milk that’s undergone pressure treatment to eliminate potentially dangerous pathogens, rather than being heated (pasteurised), which is the way Australian milk from every other brand is processed. When it launched last month it was like a new Harry Potter book had been released. Every bottle was sold within 24 hours and numerous articles appeared across media outlets about the first Australian raw milk for consumption.
For the business owners, engineers and farmers who make the milk, it was a surprise. “When you work on something in the dark for several years you can have high hopes for it, but you really don’t have an expectation of how it's going to be received,” says Made by Cow founder Saxon Joye.
So what happened? Why was it so popular? “I think it’s the interest in products that are natural, unprocessed; that are raw,” says Joye. “It doesn't stop at Bondi, it seems people are interested across the country in less-messed-with foods and liquids. That's the vein of interest that we've piqued.”
Joye is most likely right. The interest in cold-pressed milk follows a wider movement of people rejecting foods seen to be processed, artificial or unnatural. Selling raw milk (if it’s advertised for human consumption) is actually illegal in Australia (milk is a highly perishable product, and harmful micororganisms may be present, which is why it’s pasteurised). But whether the product by Milk by Cow is, by definition, raw or not still seems to be undecided. Both the NSW Food Authority and the Australian Raw Milk Movement claim (despite the milk’s own labelling) the product isn’t or shouldn’t be considered raw. “The high-pressure processing pasteurises the milk, but without using heat – it is not raw milk,” says an NSW Food Authority spokesperson.
The crucial point for Joye is that his product is very different from regular pasteurised milks. Functionally, it’s just like raw milk (having not been heat-treated) and Milk by Cow needs a way of explaining that. “We're very different from a pasteurised milk, so maybe there needs to be a different classification for us,” he says.
Joye claims his product, like raw milk, has a higher nutritional value than pasteurised and homogenised (a process that breaks the fat in milk into smaller droplets so they don’t separate and float to the top) products. Raw-milk advocates claim it has beneficial bacteria: enzymes such as actase, lipase and phosphatase and naturally occurring Vitamin C, which are all destroyed by the pasteurisation process. “With heat you'll narrow the band of nutrition, it's more of a sterilisation process. The [pressurisation] process has no effect on nutrition, enzymatic activity, colour or flavour,” Joye says. Sergio Garcia, professor of dairy science and director of the Dairy Research Association, says it’s not so clear-cut. “I haven't seen evidence that, nutritionally, raw milk is better than pasteurised milk,” he says. “There is some evidence that mice grew fatter on raw milk, but nothing strong.”
The only other reason to drink Milk by Cow, if not for the extra nutrition, is the taste. It’s an excellent product, although not particularly distinct from other high-end milks on the specialty supermarket shelves (it usually sells for around $5 a litre). Like Country Valley or Barambrah, a bottle of Made by Cow will be topped with a layer of cream. It’s thick and unctuous, the cream clings to your finger like a thin cake batter. The taste is slightly more powerful than that of other expensive milks, but different in that it doesn’t carry any floral notes or hints of other flavours. It’s simply the taste of milk but amplified, like “milk plus”.
That’s a good reason on its own to fork out the dollars for the new product. At the same time, what was missing in the initial Made by Cow whirlwind was a discussion about whether we should actually be drinking “real” raw milk instead. Garcia says the risks of raw milk are low but incredibly hard to mitigate. "It's all a matter of risk and probability," he says. "The reality is there is a risk and that risk is definitely higher, this is well proven, for children and elderly people." In 2014, a toddler died and four children became sick after drinking raw milk that was labelled as bath milk.
Although there are no large-scale Australian studies, Garcia mentions a comprehensive body of US evidence that found between 1 and 10 per cent of raw-milk samples from US farms contain potentially harmful bacteria. Whether those bacteria would make people ill is entirely different set of probabilities, says Garcia.
Overall the chance of actually contracting an illness from raw milk is probably low, particularly if the farm is run with good hygiene practices. Joye says the farmers providing the milk for the cold-pressed product regularly drink straight from their cow’s udders.
Perhaps we need to take the same approach with other products. Other raw products are sold with the knowledge they can carry harmful bacteria but it’s down to the consumer (and NSW Food Authority guidelines) how to use them. “Any raw chicken or raw eggs could potentially be contaminated with faeces, but in that case you reduce the risk the way you handle that food,” says Garcia.