Seven agents quickly alighted, three of the burliest secured the immediate perimeter while four inspectors, on presenting a search warrant authourised by the Upper Hutt District Court, began rifling through the home office and bedrooms.
In their pursuit of ‘evidence of a sale’ they seized files and paperwork, dismantled a desktop computer and removed the hard drive and confiscated a laptop and another hard drive from two neighbouring properties.
The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) agents then headed to the back of the organic poultry and dairy operation to the milking shed, chiller and bottling area where they seized about 60 bottles of the substance they were most interested in … milk … raw milk.
Paul Ashton, who was away delivering at the time, wasn’t too worried about the office search, however rummaging through his wife Christine’s underwear draw and failure to look in two other bedrooms and a hallway cupboard raised an eyebrow.
He was also concerned the search warrant had a wrong address and land description and was also used to search adjacent properties owned by his son Mike and his wife, and daughter Ange Brooks and her husband.
He questions why the homes of family members who worked on the business were raided at all and why copies of the warrant and their rights weren’t left with them, normal practice if Police had been involved.
The actions against the Ashton family and their Lindsay Farm Dairy partnership continued through the day. MPI sent two officers from Napier to Gisborne to intercept a courier taking 80 bottles of raw milk to ‘partners’ in that city.
Others confiscated bottles of Lindsay Farm milk from fridges at drop off points in commercial premises in Hastings and Napier citing Section 131 of the Search and Surveillance Act 2012; typically used by the Police looking for violent offenders, illegal firearms or drugs.
The raid had been planned for a year and was part of what MPI called “co-ordinated site visits” that included seven other raw milk producers in Southland, Auckland, Manawatu, Horowhenua and Nelson, which all had files, phones, computers and milk product seized.
In subsequent MPI statements the focus was on the health risk with claims of people getting sick from milk supplied by the companies raided, although few details were provided.
Paul Ashton said it was a distressing time for his family. His wife Christine was severely shaken and his son and daughter-in-law were so stressed at “being treated like criminals” they sought medical help.
The family is determined to see justice done, has lawyers on the case and turned to crowd funding to help cover any legal costs incurred in defending their position. “If they think they’ve scared us off or we’ve given up they need to think again.”
Daughter Ange Brooks, says Lindsay Farm wants to work with MPI and come up with some resolution, preferably having the rules changed to make raw milk more accessible to its partners. “Lindsay Farm has never had a customer come to us with any concerns or complaints.”
Since the raid, only the computer hard drives have been returned to the Ashtons but none of the documentation. By early February they’d not heard of any test results or pending legal action.
BayBuzz tried to determine whether the raids were prompted by a complaint; whether MPI tested the seized milk, if there would be further raids or if the matter would go to court? In response to seven written questions the agency said: “MPI does not comment on active investigations”.
Direct from the cow
For those of us who grew up in rural New Zealand or visited friends or relatives on dairy farms, raw milk is pretty much standard fare, including the occasional well-aimed spurt of warm white liquid from teat to mouth before the cups are applied in the milking shed.
Skimming off the thick cream once it’s settled is an extra treat on hot porridge or dessert. Churning that cream into homemade butter or taking it the next stage into cheese is part of a longstanding kiwi tradition.
Mostly people buy raw milk because they like the fullness and flavour; cheese and yoghurt makers appreciate its nuanced qualities, although there are strict conditions and increasingly costly compliance hurdles around selling it.
Raw milk is something of an outlier with Fonterra (97% market share) and its rival dairy companies preferring an industry standard approach. Fonterra insists it is not involved in any way in raw milk raids.
Milk is collected by tankers from farms every couple of days then merged in huge vats and pasteurised or heated to around 74 degrees Celsius to kill bacteria such as campylobacter, listeria and strains of e.coli.
After further processing it’s exported in various forms or bottled and sent off to the dairies and supermarkets for our consumption.
Risk of food poisoning
MPI Food Compliance manager Melinda Sando claims unregistered suppliers of raw drinking milk are putting consumer health at risk and that unpasteurised milk carries a risk of food poisoning “and has been linked to more serious complications”.
She cited multiple instances of people getting sick after drinking raw milk “from some of these suppliers” … the “site visits” were to gather evidence of offending and support further investigation of non-compliant sales.
She spoke of evasive tactics including offering raw milk as “bath or pet milk” to get around regulations, and to avoid food safety testing, registration and audit costs.
Suppliers must be registered with MPI to ensure they are managing the risks.
By the end of January 2020, the New Zealand Food Safety website showed 26 producers registered to sell raw milk at the gate or deliver it direct to customers, two were added in the week before the raids, one on the day and another the day after.
Cheese expert and raw milk supporter Juliet Harbutt, who returned to New Zealand in 2016 after 35 years in the UK, is astonished at the way Kiwi raw milk producers have been treated, describing it as “heavy handed and bullying”.
She organised and owned the British Cheese Awards for 21 years, has judged major world competitions, helped set up raw milk coalitions in the US and the UK and is now sharing her expertise with local cheesemakers to improve their output.
Harbutt, based in Havelock North, says raw milk providers are very stringent in the way they look after their herds and milk. “There’s been no outbreak. Where’s the provocation?”
She wants to know if MPI tested the milk they confiscated, as the onus should be on them to prove there’s a problem.
Skimping on the cream
Havelock North-based Origin Earth believes people should be able to buy milk “direct from the cow … behind the farm gate” but providers should stick to the rules because of the element of risk.
Director Joanie Williams believes the problem is much wider than just raw milk. “People are looking for milk that hasn’t been stuffed around with and both Lindsay Farm and Origin Earth tick those boxes.”
In some cases this has meant people are able to drink cow’s milk again.
She says consumers are confused by the range of cow milks available; low fat, homogenised, calci trim … and want to know where it comes from and what has been done to it before they drink it.
Origin Earth provides fresh milk direct from a local farmer that is pasteurised but not homogenised, compared to the big companies that standardise their milk all year round by either adding or taking fat out.
“They homogenise most of their milk breaking down fat particles so you don’t get cream settling on the top. Some studies suggest homogenised fat particles are now so small they go through your system without being digested properly,” says Williams.
The Ashtons had been supplying raw milk to their partners for 12 years without incident.
They have 100 cows, mostly Jerseys with 50-60 in milk production at any time. Everything is done on the farm in ‘a closed system’. They don’t apply antibiotics, hormones, pesticides or herbicides, or use genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) or palm kernel as feed.
A peer-reviewed legal partnership agreement cost Lindsay Farm $20,000, and states ‘partners’ technically own the cows and the milk they produce, with the Ashtons essentially employed to look after the herd and provide “farm services”.
The Ashtons delivered their milk in a refrigerated vehicle to fridges at commercial pick up points in Hastings and Napier and Gisborne for their 1,700 ‘partner’ families.
Raw milk sales became more heavily regulated when the law changed from March 2016 and in 2017 MPI wrote to Lindsay Farm querying the nature of their partnership for supplying milk.
On 15 November 2019 they were served a notice to stop supplying milk immediately, stating all milk must remain on the farm, then on the morning of 3 December MPI agents were deployed in a tactical strike to shut down non-complying providers.
The Ashtons say they’ve gone out of their way to comply with health and hygiene rules around bottling and storing under the Raw Milk for Sale to Consumers Regulations Act 2015 but baulk at the conditions imposed by MPI registration.
Registering, costing around $1000 a year or more, depending on how long monitoring and verification takes, would mean they could only sell raw milk from the farm or through home deliveries.
That says Paul Ashton is a raw deal … a logistical impossibility that would destroy the business. And he muses, milk potentially unrefrigerated in customer cars, on doorsteps or in mailboxes for long periods would be nowhere near as hygienic and safe as his own proven approach.
Registering with MPI, he says, is “designed for me to fail … it’s not a viable business model … If they put me out of business in Hawke’s Bay the nearest supplier will be Feilding or Matamata.”
Paul Ashton is in this for the long haul and continues to look at creative ways to continue supplying his ‘partners’ without falling foul of the law.
Concerned Lindsay Farm ‘partners’ Dr. James Anderson and Lynden Jillings expressed “outrage” at the “spurious and heavy-handed action by MPI agents” calling the raids a ‘frivolity” and “a waste of taxpayer’s money”.
Claims the farm was putting public health at risk didn’t stack up, partners signed an agreement for what they receive, and the farm adhered to “world’s best dairying practice”, claimed Anderson.
He says there was no evidence of a single case of illness despite many partners drinking their milk for years. The seizures, he said, amounted to a kind of theft and there should be compensation.
He wrote to the prime minister and Hawke’s Bay MPs Stuart Nash and Lawrence Yule who have both expressed their concern to BayBuzz.
Nash says he’ll work across party lines with Yule on ways to change the regulations. “I’m a fan of Lindsay Farms and I know they take all precautions in supplying their product and would not want to do anything that would damage our export reputation.”
He believes MPI’s raid on their property was “over the top” and that they should have taken the time to work with the supplier. “It was heavy-handed and they could have dealt with this better.”
So what’s the real sticking point here? The Ashton’s love the organic lifestyle, they prefer things the way nature intended and so do their customers, who trust their ability to safely produce and provide raw milk.
Under challenge is Lindsay Farm’s ability to distribute through its city-based collection points and MPI’s unilateral decision their ‘partnership’ contract isn’t legal.
Paul Ashton has asked MPI to go through the High Court to get a ‘declaratory judgment’ to clear the legal air around ‘partnerships’ so shareholders can drink their own milk, but hasn’t heard back.
What if milk was wine?
While pasteurisation is essential when collecting milk from different places in a tanker, Juliet Harbutt suggests sourcing your raw milk from a single trusted source is a different matter.
“Imagine if biodynamic wineries had their wine confiscated based on allegations they might not be sticking to the rules? That wouldn’t happen.”
She says organic farmers and those who produce cured meat, raw milk or raw milk cheese know the risks and can’t afford to be careless or unethical.
“You do it despite all the testing and having MPI on your back all the time, because you believe in it, not necessarily because you think you are going to make more money.”
Harbutt, who is currently working with Te Aute artisan cheesemaker Nieuwenhuis to perfect their cheeses, says Europe has been producing cheeses using raw milk for hundreds of years. “Why do we have such a problem with it?”
Making cheese with raw milk means you have a more complex cheese with the natural bacteria contributing to the taste and texture. “Pasteurisation knocks out the good and bad bacteria so you have to put the good ones back in again.”
She says all the best-known classic cheeses in Europe must by law be made with raw milk. “Grana Padano, Roquefort, Brie de Meaux, Camembert, Comte, Beaufort and Parmigiana Reggiano with 800 producers creating millions of tons exported all round the world.”
Harbutt helped form the Specialist Cheesemakers Association in the UK in the 1990s to protect the industry after the Scottish equivalent of MPI confiscated and nearly bankrupted a cheesemaker based on what proved to be faulty tests.
In the US she helped set up the Coalition of Choice which protected raw milk cheesemakers. “You’re now allowed to sell raw milk cheese that has been aged for 60 days or more and tens of thousands are sold.”
Biddy’s stick in the eye
The right of New Zealand cheesemakers to use raw milk in their production was defended by Eketahuna’s world renowned artisan cheesemaker Biddy Fraser-Davies who died in mid-2018, aged 76.
After she was featured in a Country Calendar programme in 2009, MPI jumped on her case sending out an inspector to check her operation and pushing her compliance costs from $100 a year for the three cow boutique operation (Sally, Emily and Molly) to $5,500 annually.
In 2014 Biddy won the super gold award at the British Guild of Fine Foods World Cheese Awards in London with her traditional farmhouse cheese, while still battling for a law change that eventually made it easier for artisan cheesemakers.
It was only Biddy’s continual “poking the giant in the eye with a stick”, says Juliet Harbutt, that challenged MPI’s plans to introduce even more unrealistic rules about raw milk.
“There was never a problem with her product … they were seriously ruthless in the way they dealt with her.”
Harbutt says the strict conditions mean many choose not to make raw milk cheese “because it’s not worth the hassle and they fear MPI will do exactly what they’ve done to these raw milk providers”.
Several companies produce sheep and goat raw milk in Hawke’s Bay, but there’s a reluctance to talk. One, having been approached to provide sales to the public, told BayBuzz “the hoops to jump through are just too tough”.
Often small farms make a significant effort to ensure their animals are well fed and cared for in an ecologically sustainable environment, as they look to add value and lead the way in diversification.
Traditional and evolving artisan efforts to deliver quality raw milk, and cheeses and yoghurt made from it, is one way of adding value to our local and export markets.
While no-one should oppose efforts to improve health and safety in food production, the question is when does regulation crush innovation?
Perhaps when it becomes so onerous that boutique operations looking to differentiate are driven out of business or forced to sell to larger competitors.
A review of regulations or costly legal challenges for change could save the day, but while that possibility is still fermenting, the future of raw milk sales beyond the farm gate and consumer choice hangs in the balance.
Do rewards outweigh risks?
Unpasteurised lactation doesn’t exactly have an unblemished record over the past decade and while the term ‘outbreak’ might be highly emotive, the reality is MPI’s robust attempts to keep raw milk sales behind the farm gate are simply enforcing the law.
Pasteurisation invented in the mid-1880s during a time of bad hygiene and high levels of bacterial infection in milk has saved millions of lives, and despite modern milking and processing methods reports continue to surface.
An MPI spokesperson says it follows up notifications of “all outbreaks that mentioned consumption of raw milk”.
MPI’s New Zealand Food Safety and ESR analysed and verified data from 25 reported cases involving 112 cases of human illness associated with consumption of raw milk between January 2014 to November 2018.
It says raw milk was confirmed to be “the vehicle or source in 17 outbreaks” involving 81 cases.
Of these 11 were campylobacteriosis, two Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) infection and one of cryptosporidiosis. Three cases involved more than one pathogen.
Consumer NZ concedes raw milk wasn’t the only risk factor in cases it looked at in 2014-2015; contact with farm animals and untreated water may also have been factors.
It was awaiting reports completed or underway on the risks and/or benefits of raw milk and listed several local scientists and research agencies cautioning about its use.
National’s Tukituki MP Lawrence Yule promised to go into battle to amend current regulations saying they “make no sense”.
A fortnight after the raids he slammed HB Today for its headline, Four sick after drinking raw milk as “fake news” and scaremongering.
The paper misreported Hawke’s Bay District Health Board statistics, which stated the poisoning could have equally been from contaminated food, untreated water, farm animals or raw milk, and that there was no link to Lindsay Farms.
A small apology appeared the next day.