An elderly Manakau couple have sought legal advice after a Government raid on their farm made them feel like drug dealers.

Their crime? Selling milk.

John and Phillippa Martin run a dairy farm in Manakau, south of Levin, that has been in the family for 103 years.

Two weeks ago four cars and six men swooped on their house during breakfast as part of a coordinated Ministry of Primary Industries raid on eight farms around New Zealand.

Advertisement

Their cowshed and house was searched. Investigators loaded all phones, electronic devices, files, financial records, delivery sheets and private agreements into plastic bags.

The men sifted through rubbish bins. Mr and Mrs Martin were required to hand over all their passwords. They were then read their rights.

"We wondered if we were farmers milking cows or gangs of drug dealers," she said.

At 76, Martin said he's farmed his entire life and has lived through massive changes to the dairy industry.

He, like many New Zealanders, had grown up drinking raw milk. He started in a wooden shed with 50 cows, milking six at a time. Now the herd numbers nearly 350.

"We started producing market milk and I can remember going down to the train station to load cream cans...tankers started collecting the milk in 1966," he said.

Dairy cattle Supplied to the NZ Herald by Dairy NZ
Dairy cattle Supplied to the NZ Herald by Dairy NZ

They started selling raw milk 10 years ago in response to demand from people who wanted an authentic product, citing an increase in health and well-being from raw milk.

They set up a small bottling plant and formed MannaMilk, allowing them to distribute that milk to partners of the limited company.

Advertisement

Mrs Martin said less than 10 per cent of their daily production was distributed under partnership, or herd share, where essentially partners sourced milk from their own animals.

MannaMilk partners paid for the costs of animal husbandry and bottling the milk, with a majority living on the Kāpiti Coast, Wellington and Hutt Valley.

"People need and want real food – milk with its correct full cream, its protective bacteria, enzymes and high levels of vitamins and protein," she said.

"What we should be raiding are soft drink vending machines and purveyors of high sugar energy drinks and fake foods loaded with chemicals."

Many limited partnerships were formed after new regulations were introduced in 2015. She described the new rules as impossible, impractical, unreasonable, unrealistic and uneconomic.

"The guts of it is the MPI doesn't want limited partnerships," she said.

Advertisement
NZ dairy calf Supplied to the NZ Herald by Dairy NZ
NZ dairy calf Supplied to the NZ Herald by Dairy NZ

Mrs Martin had received massive support from partners and milk drinkers who emailed her in frustration at the shutdown. There were 215 emails on her inbox.

"We have had hundreds of emails from people who cannot tolerate shop-bought pasteurised milk telling us how disappointed, irate and angry they are," she said.

An estimated 100,000 New Zealanders drank raw milk each week.

The Martin's had received a notice last year detailing new rules around the distribution and had since engaged legal representation.

"Ideally we would place the bottles into the loving hands of the customer waiting at home by their doors, but that is totally unrealistic when people have jobs and lives," she said.

Instead, they had chilled stations for shareholders to collect their milk. But the new rules amounted to hand-to-hand delivery.

Advertisement

Meanwhile, Manawatū farmer Cedric Backhouse had 25 cows he knew by name on an certified organic farm that solely provided raw milk for customers he also knew by name.

The raid effectively had shut down his business and source of income.

After 25 years, he had 300 partners. To hand deliver milk to them "would take all day and all night", and the new testing and delivery regulations were over the top.

As his farm was certified organic he couldn't have people turning up to the gate. It was a biosecurity risk.

Two weeks after the raid, he is still waiting for his phones to be returned.

He shuddered at the cost to taxpayers of the raid, which was a year in the planning. He believed MPI should work with raw milk providers to come up with workable solutions, rather than a raid their properties and shut down livelihoods.

Advertisement

Backhouse said the raid was "draconian" and worried it set a precedent.

"It was heavy-handed. It was beyond the pale," he said.

"If they can do this to us every farmer in the country is vulnerable."

He had sought a request under the Official Information Act for details around any illness related to raw milk consumption, as he suspected any complaints were "anecdotal, at best".

View of a dairy farm Supplied to the NZ Herald by Dairy NZ
View of a dairy farm Supplied to the NZ Herald by Dairy NZ

"They should have said we would like to talk to you about it rather than a heavy hammer destroying your business and scaring you with prosecution," he said.

He said if the raid was done a month or so earlier he could have raised calves with his herd to offset losses.

Meanwhile, Ministry of Primary Industries detailed reasons for the raid earlier this month.

Advertisement

MPI had directed unregistered milk suppliers across the country to stop selling their product until they complied the new rules.

MPI staff searched farms in Auckland, Hawke's Bay, Manawatū, Horowhenua, Nelson, and Southland, following a year-long operation.

MPI's manager of food compliance Melinda Sando said they wanted to gather evidence of and further investigate non-compliant sales.

"We believe that the suppliers we visited today are operating outside of the regulatory framework. By not adhering to the rules for selling raw drinking milk, they are putting consumer health at risk," she said.

"There have been multiple instances in the past of people getting sick after drinking raw milk from some of these suppliers. We can't let this continue."

"Raw unpasteurised milk is a risky product as it hasn't been heat-treated (pasteurised) to remove illness-causing bacteria including E. Coli, listeria and Campylobacter."

Advertisement

"These types of bacteria most commonly cause severe diarrhoea and vomiting, but occasionally some have been linked with more serious complications that include miscarriage, paralysis, meningitis and serious kidney problems in children. Raw milk may also be a source of tuberculosis (Tb)."

"We support consumer choice. We're not saying people can't drink raw unpasteurised milk.

"What we are saying is that when people do choose to drink raw unpasteurised milk, they're able to make that choice with a degree of confidence that the milk they're consuming is produced within the regulatory framework."

"Purchasing from MPI-registered suppliers who are being audited regularly to ensure they are managing risks and testing regularly helps consumers reduce the risks if they choose to drink this product."

"The suppliers need to stop selling unregulated product immediately and will only be able to resume selling once they have met all requirements to make them compliant."