In Europe, Restrictions on Dispensers Have Farmers Frothing; Models That Moo
By Sarah Kent
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Andrea Verlicchi, an Italian Web designer, used to leave his apartment in the mornings, stroll to a nearby vending machine and fill his recyclable glass bottle with fresh, raw milk.
“The milk is great,” said Mr. Verlicchi, like drinking it “directly from the cow.”
Vending machines that dispense fresh, unpasteurized milk have proliferated in Italy and throughout much of Europe in recent years. The stainless steel mechanical fridges can be found in supermarket parking lots, town squares and on roaming milk-mobiles. According to a “milk map” website designed by Mr. Verlicchi there are currently around 1,300 machines in Italy alone.
But even in Europe, where stinky cheeses, steak tartare and snails are all cheerfully scarfed down, the machines are under siege.
In Italy, regulators have cracked down on sales, suspending or shutting down machines that don’t meet exacting hygiene standards. Those that remain must carry big warning signs in red letters, advising buyers to boil their milk before drinking it.
Elsewhere, self-service milk machines have had it even tougher. In 2011, one popped up in the food hall of luxury London department store Selfridges, briefly sitting alongside designer cupcakes, Iberico hams and other goods favored by food fashionistas.
But the U.K.’s Food Standards Agency soured on the idea and intervened, ultimately launching a lawsuit against Selfridges and Stephen Hook, the dairy farmer behind the machine.
The FSA’s allegation that the farmer and department store breached food hygiene regulations was eventually dropped after both parties agreed to no longer sell via the vending machine. The FSA is currently considering whether to allow the wider use of the machines.
“We stopped selling following the decision by the FSA to undertake research and consultation into the product,” Selfridges said in an emailed statement.
The machines are technically allowed in England, but only if they are located on the farm where the milk is produced. England’s producers say that defeats the purpose of the vending machines, which should make the milk more accessible.
“Are we going to…just remain a raw-milk backwater?” said Mr. Hook, who manages Hook & Son, the U.K.’s biggest raw-milk vendor and starred in the 2013 Sundance Film Festival surprise hit, “The Moo Man,” a documentary about him and his favorite cow, Ida.
It is a question being asked in Germany too, where the rules on vending machines are similar to those in England. There, the local chapter of Slow Food—an international organization focused on promoting environmentally friendly and local food—has held raw-milk tastings and campaigned for less severe regulation of raw-milk sales.
Ever since 1864, when Louis Pasteur discovered the process of pasteurization, industrialized countries have flash-heated milk to remove dangerous bacteria like E. coli, salmonella and bovine tuberculosis. The developed world has since carefully controlled the sale of unpasteurized dairy products.
In the U.S., where raw-milk sales are heavily regulated and banned outright in several states, the Food and Drug Administration has on occasion conducted raids on farms in search of illicit dairy products.
Even within the European Union, countries are left to make their own laws on how and if raw milk may be sold. In Scotland, the sale of unpasteurized milk is banned outright because of a serious food poisoning outbreak in the 1980s. In Ireland, raw-milk sales are legal, but the vending machines aren’t.
Proponents say high-tech features make the milk machines safe. Special valves stop the milk from flowing if it gets too warm. More sophisticated machines can send texts to farmers if there is a malfunction or the milk supply is running low. Some models even moo as they dispense milk.
The backlash against mechanical milk dispensers has left some of Europe’s small dairy farmers frothing.
Dairy farmer Jonny Crickmore bemoans the health warning he is required to put on his milk bottles. “I think it’s over-dramatic,” he said, standing outside the shed painted in cow-style black-and-white that houses the raw-milk vending machine on his farm in Suffolk.
Enthusiasts say risks are minimal. Many swear by the microbacteria-rich liquid’s health benefits, claiming raw milk can help cure ailments like asthma and allergies. Some even drink it on doctor’s orders.
And then there is the taste.
“It is a delicious food that is quite unlike pasteurized milk. It is all we have in the house,” said Gerry Danby, a lawyer focused on supporting artisan and local food producers and former chair of Slow Food U.K.
“I would be very put out, to say the least, if that were to be prohibited,” he added.
But raw-milk fans say that restricting sales would just drive trade underground onto a black market. English farmers already maintain a brisk trade taking advantage of the fact it is legal for them to sell milk in England, which then gets trucked over the border to Scotland.
Raw-milk producer Ian O’Reilly said he sends anywhere between 10 and 40 gallons a week to customers in Scotland though he could send more if he could only find a cheaper courier to take the boxes packed with bottles up to the Highlands. For now, he can’t cater to customers in more remote locations.
Even with all the restrictions hampering sales, some farmers say they still can’t keep up with demand for the organic, unpasteurized milk.
“We have people approaching us all the time saying they want to buy raw milk and the biggest stumbling block is access,” said Mr. Hook.
At Fen Farm Dairy in Suffolk, Mr. Crickmore’s machine attracts a loyal following. He said he sells around 30 gallons a day, despite his farm’s remote location in the English countryside.
“It is mad, 40 or 50 people a day come to our farm…we have one crazy fool who comes” from a town nearly two-hours’ drive away, said Mr. Crickmore, as he refilled the tank in his vending machine for the second time in one afternoon.
“He’ll come and clear out the vending machine. He’ll take 30 liters [8 gallons] at a time and fill up the back of his car.”