Dairy UK, which represents the UK's milk supply chain, has called on the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to support a ban on the retail sale of unpasteurised milk.
In a letter sent to FSA chief executive Tim Smith last month, Dairy UK voiced fears that any potential rise in the number of incidents of foodborne illnesses could cause a health scare that would hit milk sales generally.
Untreated milk can be sold in England, but strict food safety controls govern its production and labelling. While volumes are small and the number of registered producers has fallen from 570 in 1997 to 100 in 2010, there is a lack of data regarding direct sales of unpasteurised milk via outlets such as farmers' markets and the internet. The retail sale of unpasteurised cows' milk has not been allowed in Scotland since 1983.
With rising incidence of tuberculosis (TB) in the UK dairy herd and recent high-profile incidents surrounding Eschericia coli O157 (E.coli O157), there are concerns that it is only a matter of time before adverse headlines appear about people getting sick by consuming unpasteurised milk. Pasteurisation of milk at 72°C for 15 seconds kills the bacterium Mycobacterium bovis, associated with TB in cattle, as well as other pathogens, such as E.coli O157.
In writing to the FSA, Dairy UK was acting in advance of a report from the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Foods (ACMSF) on the risks associated with the consumption of unpasteurised milk and cream, which is due to be debated at the FSA's next Board meeting in July.
The ACMSF view has been that there are significant risks to human health from the consumption of unpasteurised drinking milk and it had stressed the importance of pasteurisation to ensure food safety.
"We became aware that the FSA is shortly going to be considering advice from the ACMSF. We used that as an opportunity to review our position on untreated milk," said a Dairy UK spokesman. "Our policy for some time has been that retail sale of untreated milk should be banned on two grounds: food safety risks and the safe image of dairy products."
He added: "As an industry we are constantly striving to achieve even higher standards of product quality and safety. And we just feel that the retail sale of unpasteurised milk potentially compromises that position."