The Food Standards Agency abandons raw milk prosecution – did the penny finally drop?

In January earlier this year the Food Standards Agency (FSA) announced that it was to prosecute Steve Hook, the pioneering Dairy Farmer of the Year 2012 finalist, of Hook and Son and Selfridges for selling raw milk by means of a vending machine. The news came as no great surprise since Hook and Son’s regular newsletter on 15 January foreshadowed the FSA’s announcement in a brief Stop Press statement:

“… the Food Standards Agency served a summons on Steve to appear in court at Westminster in February to face charges of illegal selling of raw milk via a vending machine at Selfridges store in London.”

The irony was that the FSA’s action came while Steve Hook was celebrating the premiere of a new documentary film all about his pioneering work. ‘The Moo Man’ premiered at Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival in the USA a couple of days before the FSA’s announcement. Steve Hook attracted much admiration for his work in the States where he has been dubbed the ‘Cow Whisperer’ and stands alongside ‘Horse Whisperer’ Buck Brannaman and ‘Dog Whisperer’ Jan Fennell.

Hook 01

Steve Hook with some of his Friesian Holstein herd

The sale of raw milk is one of the few areas of food law not regulated by the EU. The custom and practice of EU countries being so diverse that it is left to each country to determine what arrangements to make. In England sales are regulated under Schedule 6 to the Food Hygiene (England) Regulations 2006. Similar legislation exists in Wales and Northern Ireland, but Scotland banned the sale of raw drinking milk in 1983.The Regulations permit a farmer to sell raw milk “at or from the farm premises where the animals from which the milk has been obtained are maintained … to the final consumer for consumption other than at those farm premises”. Selling raw milk in contravention of these regulations is an offence.

The FSA have long accepted that the sale of raw milk at a farmers’ market is a sale “from the farm” and is where raw milk may commonly be purchased. When the issue was first raised by the FSA in early 2012 Selfridge’s then food director, Ewan Venters, was reported as saying:

“We have always supported unique products like raw milk. We see ourselves, like many farmers markets, as a platform to launch a variety of choice for our customers to enjoy.”

Selfridges, whilst perhaps not your average farmers market, clearly did not believe they were doing anything wrong. The relevant facts of the case are quite straightforward, there was little to investigate, yet it took the FSA over a year to decide on bringing a prosecution:

“The decision [to prosecute] follows a detailed investigation, after vending machines [sic] dispensing raw cow milk were installed at Selfridges, in 2011. The FSA will consider taking action where it has evidence that regulations have been breached.”

Raw milk vending machines have been available throughout Europe since 2005 and Italy, for example, has some 14,000 located throughout the country. There are also vending machines being used for pasteurised milk elsewhere in the UK.

While the Director of Food Safety’s report to the March 2012 meeting of the Board of the FSA stated that:

“Sales from vending machines on farm premises or at a farmers market would be permitted under current domestic controls in England, Wales and Northern Ireland but vending machines cannot be placed in retail outlets.” (paragraph 4.13)

The Director provided no legal basis for this assertion. The point would have been central to the FSA’s case. What is a farmers’ market if it is not a retail outlet? Is not that the whole point of the market? Is it simply the fact that Selfridge’s market has a roof over its head? Well, so do many farmers’ markets where, according to the FSA, Steve Hook could have set up his vending machine just like he did at Selfridges. The distinction is wholly arbitrary and raises no substantive hygiene issues.

Steve Hook commented at the time:

“It is regrettable that the FSA has decided to bring this test case against a small family farm, which we believe has in every respect complied with the strict regulations of the 2006 Act governing sales of unpasteurised milk in England.

The vending machine in Selfridges’ London Food Hall had been approved by local environmental health officers and while we acceded to the FSA’s request to remove it in March last year, we have always maintained that the sale of raw milk through vending machines that are the property of the dairy producer and are maintained and stocked by him, is entirely within the spirit of the law.

We are therefore determined to fight this prosecution.”

The prosecution against Selfridges was dropped in early April. Selfridges gave an undertaking that, pending the outcome of the FSA’s review, raw cows’ drinking milk would no longer be placed on sale in its premises. The prosecution against Steve Hook, however, remained ongoing.

Hook and Son have provided a full account of the 24 March hearing at Westminster Magistrates Court in their 2 April newsletter. It was reported that a similar offer to drop the prosecution had been made to Steve Hook but since it had only been made late on the previous day a request for more time to consider it was granted. The following week, the 9 April newsletter reported the offer was still under consideration. It also pointed out that this was the undertaking that had already been provided when Hook and Son agreed to remove the vending machine from Selfridges in early 2012. This raises the question why did the FSA bring the prosecution when the undertaking it sought had been provided before the decision to prosecute was taken?

The case was scheduled to return to Westminster Magistrates Court on 24 April, as irony would have it the day before The Moo Man premiered at the Sundance London Film and Music Festival. Finally, last week on 8 May, it was reported that the FSA had dropped proceedings against Steve Hook who had, it seems, given the same undertaking again.

The FSA, as a public body vested with the authority to bring criminal proceedings, also has a responsibility to exercise discretion. There was no risk to public health, indeed many would argue quite the contrary, and the undertaking it sought had been given long before the decision to prosecute when Steve Hook and Selfridges promptly withdrew the vending machine a year before in response to the FSA’s concerns.

There is a long line of judicial authority over the decades where the courts, even where they felt obliged to uphold a conviction on appeal, have clearly expressed the view that a prosecution ought never to have been brought. The FSA would have been wise to have taken on board at the outset one commentator’s view expressed in a leading legal textbook* on criminal law:

“Little purpose is served by adding to the large numbers of truly guilty defendants the small number of persons who are morally innocent.”

Who knows, perhaps the penny dropped and this point finally registered with the FSA, albeit late in the day. It seems strange to offer to drop a case on an undertaking, knowing that undertaking had been given long before the prosecution ever began. It rather looks like a decision the FSA regretted and wanted a way out. Sense prevailed in the end, but not until a hard working small dairy farmer was put through a great deal of anguish, and to add to this a not insignificant amount of public money has been wasted at a time when the FSA has so many other, far bigger, priorities on its hands.

*Baker D J, Glanville Williams Textbook of Criminal Law, 3rd edition, 2012, para 36-009

Food from farm to fork – the journey continues

Yesterday at Trealy Farm was a voyage of discovery and understanding , today our journey continues as we discover how to make good use of the whole animal. It was James’ turn to lead.

First, a hearty breakfast of the famous Trealy Farm boudin noir (black pudding), bacon and freshly laid eggs with plenty of good bread and all the accompaniments you might expect set us up for the day.

We gathered around a traditional wooden long butcher’s table, which I learn are now back in favour for preparing meat. The sheep with whom we had become acquainted the previous day was now laid out before us. James sought to dispel any mystery that might surround how to butcher a lamb and professed his own skills in the matter were modest. A good sharp, slightly flexible knife and a bone saw is all you need, he explained. First, James removed the legs, then it was a collaborative effort with each of us taking a turn at cutting and sawing to prepare the shoulders, loin, neck, breast and soon we had a fully jointed lamb carcase displayed much as could be seen in any butcher’s shop window. The difference was this lamb had a story to tell.

Lamb

The lamb whose humane slaughter we had witnessed yesterday

When it came to butchering a pig I was in no doubt that it too had a story to tell, that it had been cared for throughout its life and which we should now respect by making good use of the whole animal. A pig, James explained, has four fats. The flare fat is the only fat inside the cavity of the pig and this can be rendered for lard. It never goes in salami or sausage since it is too soft. Once rendered for lard what remains are the authentic pork scratchings. The other fats are the belly, shoulder and back fat, and it is the hard back fat which is used in salami and sausages.

Butchering the pig took a little longer but proceeded along roughly the same lines as the lamb, with the added task of removing the head and sawing it in half. Again, it was a collaborative effort, undertaken with much thought and concentration. Perhaps just to ensure that we all went away knowing how to make good use of the whole animal, Nicky came along to show us how easy it was to make a really tasty head brawn. We discovered one had been prepared earlier and awaited us at lunch.

Head brawn

Nicky demonstrates how to make a delicious head brawn

In the afternoon we were introduced to the basics of charcuterie, starting with pancetta. We each took about a kilo of belly pork and rubbed it with curing salt. It then needs a week or more in the refrigerator when the salt is washed off and it is hung in a cool dry place for a while longer. James explained that a mould may develop on the surface of the pancetta and provided us with a helpful rule of thumb in determining whether this was a good or a bad thing.

Clearly, the pancetta will need to be finished off at home and we moved on to chorizo.

There are, it seems, as many variations of chorizo as places in which it is made. The only thing they have in common is minced pork and paprika. The rest is local custom whether fresh, cured or dried. We started with 10 kg of pork using leg meat and the back fat. Note here that the leg in a commercial pig is 70 % water but far less in a traditional breed. The pork is soon minced and mixed to ensure the fat is evenly distributed. We add curing salt and the paprika, plus some spices, whatever takes your fancy really but no more than three or four.

The sausage casings are soaked in warm water to remove the salt and make them more pliable. The casings are then filled using a small sausage stuffer. When I was a kid I had a Saturday job in the local butchers and one of the highlights was being allowed to make the sausages. I wondered whether I could still remember how to make traditional sausage links and discovered I could but I also quickly learned that was precisely not what to do with a semi-dried sausage like chorizo, so sadly my linking had to be undone. It’s obvious really if I had thought about it. The chorizo were another one to finish off at home but would be ready a few days later.

Sausage stuffer

Ruth preparing the sausage stuffer

If you want fresh sausage use ordinary salt and breadcrumb (you can get de-yeasted bread crumbs for a better flavour) for the traditional British banger. If you want to experiment try polenta in place of the breadcrumbs.

Finally, James demonstrated how to make an emulsion sausage such as the traditional German frankfurter. Using lean pork meat and back fat blended in a domestic food processor with spices and curing salt. The mixture should emulsify much as it does when making a traditional mayonnaise when it can be made into sausages.

In addition to the frankfurter, the emulsion is the basis of French garlic sausage and Italian mortadella in which separately cured meat cubes are mixed in to the emulsion prior to filling the casing.

When the session came to a close we had both witnessed and been participants in literally every stage of the journey food takes to our plate, well almost as that was about to come!

We sat down for supper that evening having hardly had a moment to ourselves, so much had occupied our time. It was, once again, time for the ‘fork’ part of the story. Once more Nicky came up trumps with a spiced Moroccan style stew made with lambs hearts, possibly my favourite dish of the weekend, and over dinner we shared our thoughts and recollections of the weekend. We finally departed Trealy Farm, saying our farewells to Ruth, James and Nicky, laden not only with what we had made but also what felt like half a pig – and a fresh caught rabbit for good measure. Much more importantly, we took away a host of memories of the weekend which would provide true food for thought in the days to come.

It took me a while to take in everything I had observed, felt and learned from my weekend on The Meat Course at Trealy Farm. I still am taking it in, making all the connections and seeing how so much of farming and food is so intimately inter-connected. If you want to be connected with your food, and we all should be, I can think of no better way of going about it than spending a weekend at Trealy Farm. One thing above all is clear to me. The survival of sustainable welfare-friendly British agriculture will in no small measure be down to the efforts of Ruth and James and others like them who share a deep understanding of farming and the cycle of life.

The Meat Course costs £270 per person or £255 per person for two people booking together. Inclusive in the price is two nights’ accommodation and meals from Saturday breakfast to Sunday evening meal.

Trealy Farm is one of the UK’s leading artisan charcuterie producers, blending traditional practices and innovative technology to make great tasting products.

If you are looking for equipment to make charcuterie yourself take a look at Weschenfelder who can supply all you might need – apart from the meat.

Food from farm to fork – the whole story

I knew this was going to be a special experience from the outset, food from farm to fork and every stage in between. We, my son Nat and I, arrived at Trealy Farm for The Meat Course in good time on a Friday evening in early March to a warm welcome from Ruth and James, the brains and inspiration behind all that goes on at Trealy Farm. Nicky, our amazing cook for the weekend, was already busy at work wrestling with a pig’s head, roasting beetroot and preparing celeriac soup for the following day. We were the first to arrive and privileged to have such a relaxed introduction to the weekend.

On Saturday morning over coffee the programme began with a literally down-to-earth discussion. The topic was the soil, the provider of life and source of everything that happens on a farm, the farmer’s most precious resource. It’s obvious really but so easily overlooked and with this thought in mind we set off up the hill from the farmhouse to survey the land and all around.

The view from the hill above Trealy Farm

The view from the hill above Trealy Farm

Looking down across the valley and over to the other side are a variety of farms with fields in a range of states and colours, ploughed, cropped, open pasture in greens, browns and yellows. Green grass in early March, explained Ruth, can be a sign of artificial fertiliser, it’s not natural and with the price of fertiliser rising steeply it is simply not sustainable. Farmers are being challenged to think much more carefully about their use of certain inputs which is a good thing. The grass generally is over-grazed due to all the rain this last year. The hay harvest was poor and came late in September, not July as would normally be the case.

In the middle distance a tractor is half-way through ploughing a field. Dairy farmers, explains Ruth, often re-seed with clover each spring. The problem is clover is not deep-rooted and so doesn’t take nitrogen deep down into the soil. The clover is mob grazed by cattle who feed on it intensively a strip at a time before moving on to the next strip. Some goodness is put back into the soil by the cattle but not enough and so the soil becomes progressively denatured. It seems it is not just consumers who have become disconnected from their food, but many farmers too have become disconnected from the land and place a heavy reliance on unsustainable external inputs.

We need a balance between ploughing and permanent pasture which sequesters carbon deep in the soil, says Ruth, and permanent pasture means grazing livestock and the production of meat. A reason for meat production I had not until then really registered. Ruth is a fan of mixed farming which uses rotations and is truly efficient rather than monocultural farming heavily reliant on inputs from outside the farm.

In the bottom of the valley stretches what some saw as a scar on the landscape – the A40 dual carriageway. In fact it turns out to be something of a blessing in that it makes the economics of farming more viable by providing a ready route to market.

We make the descent back to the farm in warm sunshine which had only a little earlier appeared where we were to become acquainted with some of the livestock specially gathered in a barn to meet us. Trealy Farm livestock is wide-ranging: Dexter beef cattle, a Jersey cow rescued after a bout of mastitis, sheep of numerous breeds – Welsh Mountain, Manx Loaghtan, Hebridean and Zwartbles, the latter are Dutch milking sheep not very good for meat. The Mangalitza pigs are extraordinary animals and a good scratch behind the ears seems to send them into a seventh heaven! Finally, the four goats were easily the most playful and acrobatic, helped by the fact that they pretty much had free rein of the place.

We are encouraged to move quietly and calmly and get close to the animals. It’s not long before you gain a sense of the group dynamic of each small herd and the differences in personality between individuals within the herd. These simple steps do much to engender respect for the life of each animal. I stood silently in the middle of a flock of sheep as they pressed up against me. Animals make us human, says Ruth, and I think I understood then what she meant.

Ruth talked us through some of the practicalities of rearing livestock for meat. The reason male lambs are castrated at birth is because testosterone would give the meat an unattractive strong flavour. The Dexter cattle are long reared, up to 30 months unlike more commercial approaches where fast grown cattle are slaughtered at 18 months and have up to 20% more water. While 100% grass fed meat can be tougher, it is better for you since it contains more Omega 3 and less Omega 6, the flavour is much better and the meat has a higher quality fat.

There is no routine use of antibiotics and, somewhat to Ruth’s surprise, some successful homeopathic treatments have been in use more recently. We were introduced to the baseline animal health routine, the 3 ‘ts’ – teeth, tits and toes. Healthy teeth to eat with, tits to suckle the young and feet because that is where many problems can start. Following a brief demonstration of how to lift a sheep and lay it slightly on its back for a ‘3ts’ inspection, we were each invited to follow suit. In no time at all our small group was seated around the sheep fold each with a reclining sheep looking, for the most part, quite chilled out. It was then that Ruth enquired of us which was to be for the slaughter? ‘Not mine!’ was the universal refrain.

Nat with a particularly chilled out sheep

Nat with a particularly chilled out sheep

We had reached the moment which sets The Meat Course apart from any other comparable course. We were to witness the humane slaughter of a sheep, but first we retired for refreshment, including a delicious chocolate and almond cake produced by Nicky, but, much more importantly, a group discussion on the issues and ethics involved in the slaughter of an animal.

The key stages of transport, reception and the slaughter process itself are all critical to humane slaughter. The need for order, clear focus, concentration and engagement by those involved is essential, but above all maintaining calm throughout is critical. There is a financial imperative that underpins these requirements which undoubtedly helps, quite simply meat from an animal stressed by the process of slaughter is poor quality meat and fetches a lower price.

I was introduced to Temple Grandin, the influential American researcher and author who has made a lifetime study of animal behaviour, whose work has greatly improved the treatment of animals. The rules on slaughter are set by European Union regulations which came into force at the start of 2013, but where domestic regulations are stricter they continue to apply. The issues surrounding religious, including Halal, slaughter were discussed and I discovered that, contrary to popular belief, around 90% of animals killed in this way are stunned prior to slaughter.

Ruth explained that an animal must be rendered insensible by stunning prior to slaughter which must take place within 2 minutes. The Humane Slaughter Association recommend 30 seconds. The slaughter itself involves the insertion of a knife in the neck of the animal to sever the arteries following which blood rapidly drains from the animal. There must then follow 2 minutes before skinning takes place.

The stunning can be achieved in a number of ways. We were to witness the use of a specially designed captive-bolt gun whose weight, when I held it, surprised me but Ruth was clearly expert in handling it.

A special area is reserved for the slaughter. We quietly and calmly gathered around to witness what for all of us was an event of huge significance. James gently but firmly restrained the sheep, Ruth placed the gun softly against the sheep’s temple and it was swiftly all over. Ruth took no more than 5 seconds to sever the arteries in the sheep’s neck and James placed a bowl to collect the blood which quickly drained before the sheep’s head was removed. James stirred the blood with his hand to prevent coagulation otherwise it would be no good for use in making traditional black pudding. I took a turn too, the blood was still warm. The process had observed all the essential principles we had earlier discussed.

The sheep was now a carcase, which was laid on its back on a wooden ‘V’ trestle for the process of skinning and removal of the feet to be undertaken. We were all encouraged to participate in the process, carefully separating the fleece from the body, and we all willing did so. It was an event where touching, feeling and smelling were as important as observing. Once skinned, the carcase was hung up and the internal organs removed when it now resembled the more familiar carcase of lamb seen so often at my local butcher.

There is no doubt in my mind that the sheep we witnessed being humanely slaughtered had led a good life and when the end came it was swift and painless. I have always been a meat eater, I think I always will be, but I will take even greater care in the future to ensure the meat I eat led the life of the animal whose death I had just witnessed.  It was the moment where everything we had done that day had been leading up to, a fact I had then only just fully taken in.

Over dinner that evening there was much discussion of the day’s events, surprisingly one member of our group had not actually expected to witness a humane slaughter of a sheep. He seemed, however, quite at one with what he had observed. A reflection of the care and compassion with which the task had been undertaken.

Sunday was to be a day of butchery and charcuterie … but that’s another post for later.

The Meat Course costs £270 per person or £255 per person for two people booking together. Inclusive in the price is two nights’ accommodation and meals from Saturday breakfast to Sunday evening meal.

Trealy Farm is one of the UK’s leading artisan charcuterie producers, blending traditional practices and innovative technology to make great tasting products.

The Humane Slaughter Association is the only registered charity working exclusively towards the highest worldwide standards of welfare for food animals during transport, marketing, slaughter and killing for disease control and welfare reasons.

RSPCA is the UK’s largest animal welfare charity. It provides information about humane slaughter and religious (including Halal) slaughter.

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