The Raw Milk Debate: Don't Have a Cow

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A week or so ago I drank a cold, refreshing glass of a liquid the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says is "inherently dangerous" and "should not be consumed by anyone at any time for any purpose."

We're not talking about kerosene, or even the hard cider I brew in the basement, but milk. More precisely, raw milk.

I obtained my raw milk in return for a few dozen seeds I'd saved from last summer's ultra-hot Scotch bonnet pepper crop. (Talk about something that should come with a FDA warning.) I gave them to a neighbor who tends a small herd of Jersey cows, and she filled a clean quart Ball jar for me from the cooling tank in her milking barn.

It seemed like a pretty good deal. I survived the experience and came away reminded that, safety issues aside, you've never tasted real milk in all of its rich, creamy, complex glory until you've tasted raw milk. I was also left wondering why the mere mention of raw milk sparks such fierce controversy.

Raw is the term applied to milk that has not been pasteurized, a process that involves heating it to a specific temperature and holding it there long enough to kill potentially harmful bacteria (typically 161 degrees F for 15 seconds). The process destroys a virtual rogues gallery of bugs that can sicken or, in rare cases, kill people, particularly the young, the old, the pregnant, and those with weak immune systems. The list of germs includes Enterotoxigenic Staphylococcus aureus, Campylobacter jejuni, Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Mycobacterium bovis, Brucella, Coxiella Burneti, and Yersinia enterocolitica. Government agencies are fond of quoting the statistic that since pasteurization became common in the 1930s, the share of food-borne illnesses attributed to milk has dropped from 25 percent to less than 1 percent.

The FDA requires that all milk for human consumption to be pasteurized if it is to be sold across state lines. However, 28 states permit raw milk to be sold within their borders, though often under strict and even Byzantine regulatory guidelines that typically limit the amount a farmer can sell, prohibit advertising, and require that customers purchase directly from the farm. (Click here to see your state's policy.)

Proponents of raw milk contend that the government's restrictions and dire warnings are exaggerated, misguided, and in some cases blatantly wrong. Among the most outspoken and controversial of the advocates for raw milk is Sally Fallon, founder and president of the Westin A. Price Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that promotes the consumption of nutrient-dense, non-processed foods such as animal fats, organ meat, eggs, butter, and other dairy products, preferably raw.

The government's position, she says, is based on the premise that pasteurization is the best public health initiative we've ever had. "I believe is that pasteurization is the most disastrous public health initiative we've ever had," she said in a telephone interview.

Fallon claims pasteurization compromises the nutritional value of milk, destroying vitamins and enzymes necessary for good health. Drinking raw milk, in her view, prevents allergies and promotes a healthy immune system. And furthermore, raw milk contains beneficial bacteria and other components such as lactoferrin that kill harmful microbes. The FDA and other health agencies and academic groups say such assertions are flatly untrue.

Fallon also points out that the percentage of illnesses caused by raw milk compared to other foods is small. The Price Foundation's website cites statistics showing that between 1990 and 2004, bacteria-contaminated produce caused 639 disease outbreaks in the United States, poultry 541, beef 467, and seafood 984. Between 1994 and 2008 there were only 85 disease outbreaks associated with raw milk, according to the FDA. Most recently, campylobacter-tainted raw milk sickened 13 people in Michigan late last month and sparked a barrage of dire warnings from the FDA.

An outbreak of any kind is one too many, but these statistics do beg the question of why the government is not prohibiting the consumption of salad greens, steak tartare, oysters on the half-shell, and sushi. "I think the dairy industry is putting a lot of effort on the FDA to protect their industry. They don't want the consumer to have access to a different kind of product, and they certainly don't want farmers to get a better price for their milk," Fallon said.

"We are in the midst of a very degraded food supply. We're surrounded by advertising for total junk foods. It just doesn't seem just that raw milk is not available to everyone."

So who is right?

How about neither. Last summer, Vermont, the state in which I live, adopted a middle course that requires farmers who sell raw milk to adhere to strict standards of sanitation and animal health. Milk samples must be taken each day and preserved. Sellers must maintain a contact list of all their customers and can sell only to end users, not middlemen. The containers in which raw milk is consumed must bear a label clearly warning of its potential dangers. And—here's my favorite—customers must be provided with the opportunity to tour the farm from which their milk comes.

Thus armed, consumers are left to make their own informed decisions, which is more than they can do when they buy bags of pre-cut fresh spinach shipped in from California, a product that in recent years has killed more people than raw milk.

Presented by

Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.

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