In the years gone by, the Maltese Islands were seriously affected by many cases of undulant fever and these were the cause of serious concern and preoccupation to the Maltese Government. Various committees were appointed to report on ways of preventing or eliminating this disease. The Commission appointed in 1931 to report on the feasibility of setting up a Milk Pasteurisation Plant, after drawing attention to the expenditure then being incurred by the Government in the hospital treatment of undulant fever cases.
The report of the Commission of 1931 gave birth to an organised dairy industry in these Islands. The principal aim of the scheme, as suggested, was to supply safe and nutritious milk free from pathogenic bacteria and moreover, to encourage an increase in the consumption of fresh milk.
Before the pasteurisation of milk was introduced in Malta, the Medical and Health Authorities shouldered the full responsibility of trying to prevent the spread of undulant fever. Precautionary measures taken included advice to the population to boil milk, (the well known slogan “Ghallu I-halib qabel ma jghallikom” appeared at this time) and the prohibition by law of the sale or supply of raw milk in restaurants, cafes etc. (Government Notice 51/1923).
As a result of the recommendations of the commission, the building of the milk pasteurising centre was started in 1936 on a government site which, until Malta’s railway system came to an end on April 1st 1931 formed part of the Railway Station at Hamrun. The Qormi Collection Depot was also taken in hand and a nucleus of the “Milk Marketing Department” was formed with temporary offices at No. 44c Maitland Street, Hamrun, (in 1943, the name was changed to “Milk Marketing Undertaking”). Mr. S. F. Barnes was appointed Manager.
It is interesting to record the issue, at this time, of a circular letter to all Parish Priests over the signature of Mr. R. Castillo, the A/Secretary to Government, asking them to bring to the knowledge of their parishoners the fact that Government was “setting up a Milk Pasteurisation Station in order to provide the population with pasteurised milk and thus diminish the incidence of undulant fever which works such havoc among the population”.
On the 11th November, 1937, the first trials of pasteurisation of milk in Malta were held at the Qormi collection depot, this milk was the contract supplies of government institutions. May 11th, 1938 saw the official inauguration and opening of the Milk Centre by His Excellency The Governor, Sir Charles Bonham Carter. The sale and distribution of pasteurised milk commenced in pint bottles, 1/4 pint penny cartons and 1/2 pint two penny cartons in Valletta, Sliema, Floriana and Hamrun in special electrically driven vans.
The war years had a retarding effect on the Department. Animal fodder could not be imported and, moreover, Government offered the slaughter of goats to supplement the meagre supplies of food. In order to meet the shortage of milk the activities of the Department were switched over to the packing and distribution of rationed quantities of powdered milk.
With the invasion of Sicily and the Italian mainland by the Allied Forces, Malta was practically out of the war, and in July 1943, the collection, pasteurisation and distribution of liquid fresh milk began again. The importance of restarting with the pasteurisation of milk and the closing of further areas to the sale of raw milk became evident as soon as the goat population started to increase. In 1946, undulant fever cases rose to 2410 with 39 deaths, this was the highest incidence recorded in the previous ten years, during which undulant fever had practically disappeared. Cases of undulant fever in areas where pasteurised milk was available were very few.
Cow’s milk in addition to goat’s milk was now purchased by the Department. It was pasteurised and sold in the same way as goat’s milk. However, the bottles had different coloured caps. At this stage of development, milk suppliers brought their milk to the depots in churns instead of milking their herds at the depots as was done before the war. Later, an increase in the cow population was encouraged by the grant under the Disease Eradication Scheme of 1 cow for the surrender of 10 diseased goats. A number of milk shops were opened all over Malta and Gozo and in September 1944, Gozitan milk suppliers were able, for the first time, to sell their milk for eventual pasteurisation at Hamrun to meet increased demands for this commodity in Malta.
In 1950, The Milk Marketing Undertaking was presented with two complete pasteurising units costing £50,000 by U.N.I.C.E.F. By 1957, the whole of Malta was closed for the sale of raw milk. Valletta and Floriana were, by means of an Order-in-Council of August 1939, the first cities to be declared closed. As a result, the sale of raw milk and the entry of goats, which had hitherto been milked at the customer’s doorstep, was prohibited.
A branch factory opened in Gozo in 1958 to heat treat the raw milk purchased in Gozo for consumption in the sister island or destined for Malta. The factory was also equipped for the manufacture of surplus milk into butter and cheese. Other surplus milk was turned into products at the Malta factory. These include ricotta, for which there was a steady sale, cream, yoghurt and cheeselets (fresh, dry and peppered). A “Milk Week”, the first to be held in Malta, was declared open by the Governor, Admiral Sir Guy Grantham, in June 1961. Malta was officially represented by, the manager at the XVI International Dairy Congress held in Copenhagen in September, 1962.
Another event that was recorded with pride in the history of the Undertaking was the supply of fresh pasteurised cow’s milk to the Royal Yacht Britannia in May, 1954, when her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness, the Duke of Edinburgh, paid an official visit to Malta. M.M.U. milk was also supplied by air in 1943 to the American Forces at Castel Benito, Tripoli and Sigonella in Sicily as well as the British forces at Idris.
From that memorable afternoon in May 1938 up to the end of 1985, the M.M.U. continued with its work to provide fresh milk and fresh dairy products to the Maltese consumer and visitors to the Maltese islands in spite of the many difficulties and occasional setbacks. The M.M.U continued to expand and grow and whereas during its first year of operations the Factory handled only a quarter of a million gallons of milk, in 1985 it handled well over 6 million gallons per annum.
On the lst of January 1986, following intensive discussions held by the Government with interested parties, the M.M.U. transferred its obligations and responsibilities to a newly formed private company known as Malta Dairy Products Ltd. (M.D.P.) which took over the functions of the M.M.U. Initially M.D.P. Ltd. was set up with three shareholders, namely the Kooperativa Produtturi tal-Halib (K.P.H. Ltd) with 40% shareholding, the Malta Development Corporation (M.D.C.) with 30% shareholding and Osterreichischer Molkerei Und Kasereiverband (Oemolk) of Austria with 30% shareholding.
The newly formed Company immediately started working to run its operations on a commercial basis and introduced the brand name “BENNA” for its range of products. In September 1988, the Company introduced milk in 1 litre carton packaging following investment in new milk filling machines. The introduction of milk in cartons was an immediate success and within a very short time over 70% of the liquid milk market was in carton packaging. Also in September 1988, M.D.P. introduced the first four types of fruit yoghurt and fresh cream in 180ml cups.
Benna Yogurt, Milk and Cream
In July 1993, K.P.H. Ltd. purchased the Austrian shareholding to become the majority shareholder with 70%. Over the years M.D.P. Ltd. continued with its programme of diversification in its product line and by 1996 it was producing 19 different types of yoghurt including full fat natural, full fat fruit, light natural, light fruit and dessert yoghurts. It also started producing peppered and white cheeselets in individual packed vacuum bags, fresh and pizza type mozzarella as well as fresh skimmed milk in pint (568ml) cartons. In 1997 M.D.P. Ltd. introduced fresh flavoured milk in 200ml and 1 litre cartons aimed especially for school children.
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Published – Saturday 28th November, 2020.