The gov has said that people wouldn’t be able to understand quality test results performed on milk from the island’s three dairies so it won’t be publishing them. This is despite an easy to follow pass or fail of the EU limits of 10cfu/ml being possible.
Developing a rating scheme for food producers, based on the publication of results of tests and inspections was one of the recommendations of the Environment and Infrastructure Policy Review Committee’s report into the regulation of the safety and quality of cow’s milk. This marks the second big report by the committee which is heavily critical of DEFA that will be debated by Tynwald this week.
The committee, chaired by Douglas East MHK Clare Barber, recommended that DEFA ‘should develop and implement a rating scheme for food producers, based on the publication of the results of tests and inspections carried out for each food business and any other relevant information’, it wanted the dept to report on how it would be doing this by December.
However, in its response to the report, DEFA said it is in the final stages of developing its food hygiene rating regulations, which will introduce a new food rating scheme that will address this recommendation.
It added: ‘This scheme is based on the publication of results from inspections carried out for each food business, and will provide both industry and consumers with an open and transparent hygiene scoring system that will serve to inform the consumer and stimulate improvement in food businesses where necessary. However it will not include the publication of test results. Whilst CoMin notes this specific part of the recommendation it has considered the response from the dept and in turn proposes an amended recommendation.
‘The publication of individual test results can be confusing without a full understanding of the tests themselves and the raw data being provided. The information arising from such tests is very technical and may not be useful to the majority of the public. The dept has raised concerns that the scrutiny of such results, without suitable technical knowledge, could lead to results being misinterpreted and businesses unfairly criticised.’
What isn’t made clear by DEFA is why. The department says it favours a 0-5 rating, but people inside the industry have made their preference for a simple pass or fail test set against the EU regulations which have been incorporated into Manx food safety regulations.
The committee itself came to look at the milk production on the island because of Garff MHK Daphne Caine. Mrs Caine approached the EIPRC on behalf of the Milk Marketing Association and Isle of Man Creamery which raised concerns about the safety and quality of milk being produced by Aalin Dairy, one of the two small dairies that sell milk directly to customers on the island.
During the inquiry, the MMA said in a letter to the committee: ‘It is the belief of the MMA that the regularly failure eof milk produced and sold by Cronk Aalin Farm Ltd to achieve the standards set out in Regulations (EC) 2073/2005 (as amended) and 852/2004 over a 3 year period should have triggered more robust intervention by the Environmental Health section within the Department of Environment, Food and Agriculture (“DEFA”).
‘Our main concerns with the apparent lack of improvement in the quality of Aalin Dairy’s milk, demonstrated by its failure to comply with the above regulations in the majority of tests in the 3 year period (often exceeding the maximum enterobacteriaceae count of 10 cfu / ml by large multiples) are:
- Risk to human health from high levels of enterobacteriaceae which include, along with many harmless symbionts, many pathogens, such as Salmonella, Escherichia coli, Klebsiella and Shigella.
- Reputational damage to the overall Manx dairy industry and possibly even to the wider Manx produce sector if Aalin Dairy’s failures were to become public knowledge and subject to media coverage and social media comment.
However, the committee said due to its function, it is not able to look at concerns expressed about one specific producer as responsibility for that lies with DEFA. The report said: ‘We have relayed the concerns about the particular dairy to the Minister for Environment, Food and Agriculture, and we discussed the case with the Minister, Chief Executive, and other representatives of the Department during a private oral evidence session. They have assured us that they do not have serious concerns about Aalin Dairy’s products.’
It’s a bit of a mouthful and not one that you’d like to get, enterobacteriaceae (so-called because many of these organisms live in the intestines of humans and animals) is an indicator organism. The UK Food Standards Agency told the committee: ‘Enterobacteriaceae do not constitute a risk for the consumer. However a high Enterobacteriaceae result could indicate poor hygiene practices and could reveal an issue with the batch such as insufficient pasteurisation or cross-contamination of the pasteurised milk. Therefore there is a chance that pathogenic microorganisms are also present in the food.’
The committee added: ‘In other words, it is considered reasonable to expect pasteurised milk to contain no more than 10 cfu/ml of enterobacteriaceae if it has been processed and packaged in a sufficiently hygienic environment. When we asked DEFA whether they conduct further tests on milk samples that show elevated levels of enterobacteriaceae, they explained that they would not normally do this if the results of the phosphatase test (i.e. the pasteurisation test) had been successful, as this would also ensure that salmonella was not present in the sample.’
Members said, in their minds, this is a ‘high-risk approach, especially where a producer has repeatedly had issues with elevated levels of enterobacteriaceae’. This led to the committee to conclude that while the testing is done in adherence to international standards and guidance, they are concerned that this has created an overreliance on the tests for pasteurisation and ‘may mean that other issues with finished milk are not being detected or adequately dealt with’.
Conflicts of Interest
One other issue examined by the committee was one raised by Carl Huxham, who owns Aalin Dairy. Mr Huxham said: ‘We are a milk producer-Retailer and we retail our milk to Domestic customers under licence from the Milk Marketing Association(MMA). I have highlighted on various occasions the Corporate Governance issue between the MMA and its subsidiary company Isle of Man Creamery Limited.
‘The board of the MMA also forms the board of IOM Creamery Ltd, in short, we are licenced by our competitor! We do not sell any milk to IOM Creamery Ltd, our milk is sold un-homogenised and retailed in Glass bottles.
‘Under the Milk Marketing Act the MMA have the power to charge us a Levy (Retail Contribution) and they have us pay it to Isle of Man Creamery Limited. The Levy is thousands of pounds per year and is substantial to our small family business. They are using Historic Legislation designed to suppress farmers profits and incentivise the supply of milk to IOM Creamery. The Legislation does allow for exemptions but only if the board approve them, which they do not.’
Mr Huxham is absolutely correct in his statement about the makeup of the MMA as farmers from the Creamery board also sit on the MMA. However, none of the commercial or executive directors of the Creamery are part of the MMA.
The committee explored this issue and said that ‘MMA’s role as both licensing authority and marketing body could be considered to be a conflict of interest’. The members said that the potential for reputational damage for Manx milk could make the organisation reluctant to revoke licenses and that its close relationship with the Creamery ‘also puts it in a difficult position when it comes to dealing with smaller producer-retailers, as the Creamery could be considered to be competition in the domestic market for the smaller producer-retailers’.
However its greater concern was that DEFA dissuaded the MMA from dealing with contraventions of the Milk Marketing Scheme ‘because of the potential for accusations of conflict of interest and unfair competition’.
Creamery chief Findlay Macleod told the committee he was ‘encouraged [by DEFA] not to upset the apple cart’. Richard Lole, the ceo of DEFA, responded to this by telling the committee: ‘My advice to them was, I think you face a challenge around conflict of interest if you revoke the licence on a competitor around quality issues, not food safety issues.’
Regulator and Promoter
However, the above wasn’t the only conflict of interest identified by the committee as it looked at DEFA’s role as both regulator and promoter of Manx produce. The committee said that it was ‘concerned that DEFA’s dual role could be seen to lead to a reluctance to end the enforcement period and proceed to more serious action against food businesses’, this is particularly an issue if the dept had provided grants to a business.
The committee added: ‘We conclude that there are several potential conflicts of interest in the current regulatory framework for milk. We are concerned that both the MMA and DEFA’s dual roles as regulators and promoters could be seen to lead to a reluctance to deal robustly with individual producers in order to protect the reputation of the industry.’
Alongside the committee’s recommendation for publications of testing, it has also called on DEFA to ‘develop an escalation framework for food safety and quality issues, clearly setting out the trigger points for progression through the various enforcement options’, which the dept broadly accepted. Further suggestions that DEFA and MMA should create an ‘improved testing regime for producer- retailers’ and that the regulation of any industry should be separated from its promotion have both been referred to by DEFA as areas that will be covered in a consultation around the ‘Establishment of the Isle of Man Regulatory Authority’.
Further to this report, Creamery boss Findlay Macleod has issued a statement that the Creamery wanted to ‘reassure its customers that the food safety concerns raised in the Tynwald report into the “Regulation of the Safety and Quality of Cow’s Milk” do not relate to any milk processed at the Creamery’.
He added: ‘The producer that the Tynwald report is concerned with is a milk producer which, unlike all the other island milk producers, does not supply raw milk to the Creamery and therefore is not subject to testing at the Creamery laboratory.
‘Isle of Man Creamery is a farmer owned cooperative supporting 30 local farming families on the Island. All the farmers that supply the Creamery meet its rigorous food safety, hygiene and quality testing regime in accordance with the requisite legal standards.
‘All of the milk that is collected from the Isle of Man Creamery farmer producers is firstly tested each time it is collected and each and every batch of our product is then also subject to a number of important and thorough safety tests after it has been processed and packed into plastic bottles or the more environmentally friendly plant-based cartons.’
The report, its recommendations and no doubt the comments made by both Mr Macleod and Mr Huxham will be debated by Tynwald next week.