Fewer than 5% of all Americans drink raw milk. Yet, the question of whether Americans should be allowed to drink it at all is one of the hottest controversies between foodies and public health officials these days.
As demand for milk that is neither pasteurized nor homogenized booms and more families try to acquire the stuff for the health benefits they believe that raw milk confers, government regulators seem to get more and more strident about shutting down the dairies who try to sell or distribute it.
Advocates see raw milk as a nearly magic elixir with a variety of benefits over pasteurized milk: it’s more nutritious, it can be drunk by people who are normally lactose intolerant and it can treat or even prevent health conditions from allergies to asthma, especially in children.
About six months ago, my wife and I opened the first jug of our raw milk share from a local dairy run by a twentysomething couple who had interned at Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm. My experience then was similar to that described in The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights by author David Gumpert when he drank his first glass: “The milk was as creamy and rich tasting as it looked, with a slight sweetness I didn’t recall from my childhood milk.”
But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that overhanging the experience was an anxiety-laden question provoked by American history classes highlighting the importance of pasteurization in saving lives: Might this wonderful milk kill me? I actually went to sleep wondering if I’d wake up.
Like Gumpert, I also turned out to be fine. And like him, I’ve also become a big fan of raw milk. This month, our household is taking in four gallons a week and my wife Lindsay is making it into butter, mozzarella cheese, Yogurt and kefir. We then use the whey that results in pickling projects and to add nutrition to smoothies. Sometimes, by the end of the week, there’s barely enough of the creamy stuff left for me to have a glass or two in the afternoon.
But some of our friends don’t share our enthusiasm. For instance, one business acquaintance recently explained to me that I was taking my life into my hands by drinking raw milk. After all, her college-age daughter had gotten sick from E. coli. Since then, she had recovered enough to become active with a lobby group called STOP Foodborne Illness which calls for stricter food safety regulations.
I never got to ask if her daughter had drunk raw milk, but that’s almost beside the point. For many people, just the mention of E. coli in the same sentence as raw milk is enough to finish the topic. And it’s no wonder. Federal and state health officials, along with their allies in the industrial dairy industry, are uncompromising in their opposition to raw milk.
“Raw milk should not be consumed by anyone, at any time, for any reason,” warned the FDA’s milk czar John Sheehan. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains raw milk caused 1,614 illnesses and two deaths between 1998 and 2008. A raft of authorities from the American Medical Association to the National Milk Producers Federation concur that the only safe milk is pasteurized enough to kill germs including E. coli O157:H7 that can damage the kidneys and other organs.
Accordingly, over the last few years, as the popularity of raw milk has grown, federal and state health officials have gotten increasingly aggressive in trying to keep raw milk out of the hands of consumers.
Working in consort with the Food and Drug Administration, state and local health departments have demanded recalls of raw milk sold legally in retail outlets in California, have mounted a raid on an Amish dairy in Pennsylvania and have challenged the legality of a herd-share arrangement in Washington State. Gumpert’s book focuses on several of these cases, and he deftly moves the reader along their details with a sense of legal drama.
An extreme response of health officials appears to be armed raids on retail outlets or small family dairies where SWAT team members demand at gunpoint that thousands of dollars of raw milk and raw dairy products be poured down drains or doused with bleach.
Gumpert compassionately discusses several cases where drinking raw milk may have made someone ill. But he also documents numerous enforcement cases where nobody claimed to have gotten sick from drinking the milk produced at a particular dairy and no dangerous levels of contaminants were found in tests but where overzealous government agents appear to have acted precipitously and illegally on the basis of prejudice, rumor or misinformation.
Yet, raw milk is hardly a major threat to public health. Out of 76 million estimated cases of food-borne illnesses each year, dairy products of all kinds, including both pasteurized and raw milk, account for only about four percent. “Produce is four times more likely to and seafood thirty times more likely to get you sick than dairy,” concluded an official of the Center for Science in the Public Interest quoted by Gumpert.
Given that raw milk is less dangerous than spinach, what accounts for regulators’ zealousness in stamping out raw milk?
On Gumpert’s blog The Complete Patient a dairy farmer named Miguel posted a compelling theory that government regulators are colluding with the dairy industry to crush small raw milk dairies:
Today, we live in a global economy. To be profitable food has to have a long shelf life. It has to travel hundreds of miles to get to your plate. To ensure long shelf life, the bacteria have to go…If the food production industry tried to sell us on pasteurization as a way to enable the industry to consolidate and operate on a global scale, would you buy that? That is why they have to explain it as a way to make the food safe. And that is why they teach people to fear bacteria. Fear is a great motivator.
Gumpert himself doesn’t put much stock in conspiracy theories. Rather than intentionally trying to please big food companies, Gumpert thinks that government food regulators are simply acting out of their own biases, informed by the germ theory of disease, that the fewer bacteria food contains, the safer that food will be.
Coming from a more holistic view of health that recognizes the health benefits of probiotic bacteria found in raw and fermented foods, Gumpert sees the government campaign against raw milk as a war on all living food: “If secretive government regulators are successful in their efforts to deprive consumers of unpasteurized dairy products, they will be emboldened to push us farther toward their version of reliance on sterile factory food.”
But the victory of sterile food is not a foregone conclusion for Gumpert. He hopes that Americans’ natural independence and openness to new ideas could defeat the bureaucrats in the long run.
Earlier this year, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced legislation to reverse the FDA’s ban on selling raw milk across state lines. This would allow consumers in states that don’t allow raw milk sales to purchase milk from dairies in states that do.
Meantime, raw milk advocates can take heart that their issue is one of the few that unites both left and right, inspiring small-government Tea Partiers and liberal urban homesteaders alike to stand up for food freedom.
Win a copy of Raw Milk Revolution through our limited-time giveaway with publisher Chelsea Green. Click here to enter.
– Erik Curren, Transition Voice