Monday 30 July 2012

A permeating puzzle

Canadian supporters of supply management note that they're helping to protect Canadians from "permeate" milk. Or at least my Twitter friend from the Canadian Dairy Lobby keeps needling about use of permeate.

Permeate is a concentrated byproduct from cheese-making that, in diluted form, can be added into fluid milk. You can also get it through ultrafiltration: ultra-filter the milk, then add stuff back in varying proportions depending on the blend you want to achieve. It's relatively high in lactose, so it could make milk less friendly for those with lactose intolerance, but it otherwise seems pretty innocuous. Most supermarket milk in New Zealand uses permeate; it's been a bit controversial in Australia.

You could tell a story about how while supply management keeps prices up, it also avoids the introduction of a lower calibre product. If the product isn't as nutritious or is less safe, and if poorer customers aren't able to make good choices weighing nutritional quality and price, then you could start building a story about supply management being less bad for poor consumers than the standard cartel story would lead us to believe. I still wouldn't much believe the story: banning the practice if it really is unsafe would be a more direct solution than having a dairy cartel. But maybe there's some second-best case.

Except that story really requires that permeate milk be the low-tier product in systems that have both.

Klondyke is the main local brand in Christchurch providing guaranteed permeate-free product. They mostly sell in dairies (small corner stores). And the dairy on my commute home that sells milk for $2.69/2L sells Klondyke. That's $0.94/L Cdn. So the discount brand milk is permeate-free. The main brands sold in the supermarket use permeate. You'd pay a premium in the supermarket for varieties that do not have permeate, but none of them advertise as permeate-free: SilverTop sells for a bit more because cream is expensive; organic milk has the usual organic premium; A2 milk has the small market niche premium.

My read from this is that nobody really here cares about permeate addition to milk. I buy raw unpasteurised milk when it's convenient; I don't much care that there's permeate in the supermarket stuff when we buy supermarket milk. You can't tell a story from New Zealand's mixed market (permeate and non-permeate) about how "Only the rich can afford additive-free milk in a free dairy market": the cheapest stuff is permeate-free and while Klondyke tried pushing permeate-free as a selling point, it didn't lead to anything like the outrage over permeate that picked up in Australia.

Bottom line: while permeate is used in New Zealand, it's awfully hard to go from that to a "supply management helps make sure pure milk is available for everybody and not just the rich" kind of story. And even if that were the thing you worried most about, it isn't hard to just ban the sale of milk that has added permeate - supply management is about the least efficient way of achieving that end, if that's an end you want to achieve.


  1. It's been some time since I worked in the dairy industry, but I assume the process hasn't changed much. We used to balance the composition of market milk by the addition of cream, milk powder and/or permeate. In this way the company could be assured of having a standardised finished product throughout the season (the composition of raw milk changes during the year depending on factors like the weather, quality/type/quantity of feed, etc.) For the company I worked for permeate was very much a by product, and from memory adding it to market milk was seen as a cost saver.

    Out of curiosity why do you prefer to buy untreated milk when it is available?

  2. The raw milk we sometimes get generally tastes better. That's about it. I don't put much stock in the "it's healthier" arguments as that's surely counterbalanced by risk of pathogens. That risk seems pretty low though, and I like taste.

  3. Yeah, you're right, there is a slightly elevated risk of pathogens, but for a normal healthy person that risk is minimal. It would only really be of concern for someone who is immuno-compromised for some reason. Although possibly if you and Sue decided to have another child it might pay to avoid untreated milk during pregnancy, listeriosis increases the risk of miscarriages or still-births, and Listeria is reasonably common in raw milk. Mind you, it is also common in soil, people's fridges, and a myriad of other locations.

  4. Oh, yup. We avoided soft cheese when Sue was pregnant for the same reason.

  5. NZ the milk companies dilute milk down with permeate, which is a watery natural high-lactose waste product. Lactose is a big issue for people unable to process dairy products. New Zealand also has the second highest prevalence of asthma and the highest youth suicide rates in the world. The big question – are NZ milk companies slowly kill us by adding permeate for profit ? . I have always felt Australian super market milk (non permeate) tasted so much nicer. Milk from Italy and Switzerland also . NZ High in permeate milk should come with a warning label??