In 1856, a French biologist, microbiologist, and chemist known as Louis Pasteur discovered that microbes were responsible for souring alcohol and came up with the process of pasteurisation, which destroys bacteria by heating beverages and then allowing them to cool.
Before the pasteurisation of milk was introduced in Malta, the medical and health authorities advised people to boil milk due to the many cases of undulant fever. In fact, the well known slogan “Għallu l-ħalib qabel ma jgħallikom” appeared at the time. The Scottish doctor Sir David Bruce discovered the causative organism of undulant fever here in Malta and named it Brucella Melitensis in 1887. In 1904, the Imperial Authorities appointed the Mediterranean Fever Commission as a result of an alarming increase in the prevalance of Mediterranean Fever. Sir Temi Zammit, a Maltese doctor, anthropoligist and member of the Commission, discovered that goat’s milk was responsible for the great majority of Mediterranean Fever cases.
“…the above, of course, is only a small part of the financial loss entailed on the public by the prevalence of a disease, which, on account of the prolonged disability brought about by its frequent complications and sequelae, is apt to cripple men and women during the most productive part of their life. This wastage of health and of the earning capacity of the community should diminish with the progressive increase of the use of pasteurised milk…”
As a result of the recommendations of the Commission, an organised dairy industry was initiated on the Maltese Islands. The aim of the scheme was to supply safe and nutritious milk free from pathogenic bacteria, as well as to encourage the consumption of fresh milk. Subsequently, in 1936, the building of a milk pasteurisation centre commenced at the old railway station in Ħamrun. The Qormi Collection Depot was also taken in hand and a nucleus of the “Milk Marketing Department” was formed.
Source: Times of Malta: 17.09.1937 -A scene at the old railway station in Ħamrun where the Government Milk Centre was being constructed.
It is interesting to note that at this time, a letter was circulated to all Parish Priests over the signature of Mr. R. Castillo, the A/Secretary to Government, bringing to the knowledge of their parishioners the fact that the 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 in Malta were held. This milk was the contract supplies of government institutions. The official inauguration and opening of the Milk Centre took place on the 11th May 1938 by His Excellency The Governor, Sir Charles Bonham Carter.
The sale and distribution of pasteurised milk commenced in pint bottles – ¼ pint penny cartons, and ½ pint two penny cartons in Valletta, Sliema, Floriana and Hamrun in special electrically driven vans.
Source: Times of Malta: 20.01.1938 - One of the vans that had been supplied to the Government for the distribution of pasteurised milk. The vans weighed 1 tonne and were electrically driven.
During World War II, animal fodder could not be imported and the Government offered the slaughter of goats to supplement the meagre supplies of food. In order to meet the shortages 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 started 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 240 with 39 deaths; this was the highest incidence reported in the previous ten years, during which undulant fever had practically disappeared. However, in areas where pasteurised milk was available, cases of undulant fever were very few.
In 1943, the Milk Marketing Department changed its name to Milk Marketing Undertaking. A year later, Gozitan milk suppliers for the first time were able to sell their milk for eventual pasteurisation at Hamrun to meet increased demands for this commodity in Malta.
In 1946, 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 milk collection 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 Disease Eradiction Scheme which granted 1 cow for the surrender of 10 diseased goats.
In 1950, U.N.I.C.E.F. presented M.M.U. with two complete pasteurising units costing £50,000. By 1957, all of Malta was closed for the sale of raw milk, and as a result, the entry of goats which had since then been milked at the customers’ doorstep, was prohibited. Valletta and Floriana were, by means of an Order-in-Council of August 1939, the first cities to be declared closed.
In 1958, a branch factory opened in Gozo to heat treat raw milk purchased in Gozo, for consumption in the sister island or destined to 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 included ricotta, for which there was a steady sale, cream, yoghurt and cheeselets (fresh, dry and peppered). The M.M.U. continued to expand and grow and whereas during its first year of operations the company handled only a quarter of a million gallons of milk, in 1985 it handled well over 6 million gallons per annum.
On the 1st of January 1986, following intensive discussions between the Government and interested parties, the M.M.U. transferred its obligations and responsibilities to a newly formed private company known as Malta Dairy Products (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 Koperattiva Produtturi tal-Ħalib (K.P.H.) 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, following investment in new filling machines, milk in 1 litre carton packaging was introduced and was an immediate success, so much so that within a very short time over 70% of the liquid milk market was in carton packaging. In the same year, M.D.P. also introduced the first four types of fruit yogurt and fresh cream in 180ml cups.
In July 1993, K.P.H. Ltd. purchased the 30% Austrian shareholding to become the majority shareholder with 70%. Over the years, M.D.P. continued its programme of diversification in its product line and by 1999, the Company was producing 23 different types of yoghurt including natural yogurts and stirred fruit yoghurts in light, full fat and dessert varieties. Other products now included peppered and white cheeselets packed in individual vacuum bags, fresh and pizza type mozzarella, irkotta, fresh flavoured milk in 1 litre cartons, fresh cream in 180ml cups, as well as 200ml and pint cartons, and obviously fresh milk (whole and skimmed) in pint and one litre cartons.
Souce: Alan Edwards. Yogurt lids 180cc produced between 1988 and 2010.
Benna range in the 1990s, before milk glass bottles were phased out in 1997.
Benna strawberry flavoured milk in 200ml carton introduced in 1998.
All of these products have contributed to the ever-increasing demand for milk from herdsman, which in 2011 reached the figure of almost 9 million gallons (41 million litres) per annum. M.D.P. always kept up to date with new dairy technologies and in the beginning of this century started renovating its facilities in Ħamrun. This refurbishment costing millions of Euros involved complete renovation of the premises and upgrading of all the machinery to bring Malta Dairy Products Ltd. in line with the best Dairies found in Europe. The dairy facilities in Gozo were also brought over to Malta in order to have everything centralised and therefore increase efficiency in operations.
In order to honour its commitments to keep up with the market trends and consumer demands, Malta Dairy Products Ltd. has also started catering for lactose-intolerant people and people suffering from high blood cholesterol levels. In 2017, the Company also expanded its range by introducing butter and three types of hard cheeses.