The War on Raw: Your nanny state boils the milk, but you don’t have to drink it

It’s banned in Canada and 18 US states, but it’s legal in Europe and always has been. Three in California were recently arrested for selling it. In other states, everyone from local police to the FDA take it upon themselves to eradicate it, even where laws permit its production and sale.

What is this substance, and why is the subject of so much kerfufflery? It’s raw, unpasteurized milk – from cows, goats, sheep, and anything else with four legs and an udder. The source of the controversy can only be seen under a microscope. It’s the wriggling bacteria that colonize everything from skin to the vacuum of space.

Is raw milk really the pathogen-loaded drink of insanity that the mainstream media has made it out to be? Of course not. Is there any reason to prefer it over pasteurized milk? Well, people wouldn’t be going to jail in their determination to consume and sell it if there wasn’t.

We tend to think of pasteurized milk as the norm, but really, it’s only a recent phenomenon. The practice of pasteurization began around the period of industrialization in the US – the late 1900s and early 20th century. Around this time, farmers quit their livelihoods in mass numbers to take jobs in the cities. The reasons for this are complex, but the result was that the farms that remained got bigger. Food preservation – canning, pasteurizing, freeze-drying, etc. – went from a home practice to a factory process. This made food more suitable for long-distance transit and less time consuming for people to prepare, while coincidentally (or not) multiplying the profit margin for the corporations running the whole thing.

Dairy animals also got the shaft in this transition. Because people no longer owned their own cows, goats or sheep, milk had to come from somewhere, and the first mega-dairies were born in the 1920s, with cows the new dairy standard. Sanitation was poor at first, and the USDA was still a small government department. It didn’t have the funding to keep up with inspections or the power to limit dairies to a reasonable size. Also, modern-day methods of testing for pathogens, or bad bacteria, did not exist, so pasteurization was proposed as a way of guaranteeing the safety of the milk supply. Today, despite advances in testing and the potential to track a given jug of milk back to the dairy at which it was produced with barcodes and microchips, not much has changed. We’re still using the outdated technology of heating milk to near-boiling temperatures for 15-20 seconds, just to be on the safe side.

What does pasteurization do, other than kill anything that might be living in the milk? Actually, the bacteria-annihilation thing is part of the problem. In the human gut, there are millions of varieties of bacteria, known as the “gut flora”. Obviously, they’re harmless, or else we’d be sick all the time, and many of them are beneficial. Our bodies have evolved along with them to enhance our ability to digest certain substances and absorb nutrients. Ever bought “probiotic” yogurt? It’s just pasteurized milk that’s had bacteria added back in and left to ferment.

One of these bacteria is Lactobacilli, which eats and digests lactose. Many lactose-intolerant individuals find that they can digest raw milk, but not pasteurized milk, because pasteurization destroys Lactobacilli. Scientists haven’t even begun to identify the trillions of bacteria in our environments and our bodies, so I’m guessing Lactobacilli has a few million relatives present in raw milk. Just because we haven’t studied them doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from them.

In addition to micro-flora, milk carries hundreds nutrients and enzymes. Pasteurization cooks the life from these as well, another side-effect that scientists don’t really know the impacts of. We do know that extreme heat denatures, or modifies beyond recognition, certain molecules that build enzymes, proteins other necessary building blocks present in milk. As a result, David Gumpert, author of Raw Milk Revolution, calls pasteurized milk nutritionally inferior to raw milk.

Look at it this way: many of us were raised on unpasteurized milk. It came from our mothers. Personally, I just don’t like the idea of drinking anything with dead stuff in it.

But is it safe? Yes, we have an obsession with safety these days, so here are the quick and no-so-dirty numbers: Illnesses from raw milk consumption average about 42 per year. In 2010, 9.4 million people reported having consumed raw milk. Around fifty million suffered from a food-borne illness. There are only four pathogens commonly found in raw milk that lead to illness in humans, and all of them can be eliminated with proper handling of the milk. If animals are healthy and clean, the milk is not exposed to outside contaminants, and it is refrigerated right away, chances of it ever making you sick are close to none. (Source: The Weston A. Price Foundation)

Raw-milk enthusiasts, and I guess now I’ve admitted to being one, have other reasons to seek out milk straight from the udder. Usually, farms that produce raw milk are small-scale, close by, and practice good farming methods. Compare that to a mega-dairy with 30,000 cows who never set hoof outside the barn. Most raw milk producers pasture-feed their animals, which has a thousand benefits for that animal’s health, translating to healthier milk for us to drink.

So the cows (or goats, camels, sheep, etc) benefit, the consumer benefits, and farmers benefit also from being able to sell raw milk. Raw milk represents a market niche for small farmers – it’s a product they are uniquely suited to produce, and consumers are willing to pay top dollar for it. Around Eugene, it’s anywhere from $7 to $15 a gallon for goat or cows’ milk (pasteurized cow milk in the store is about $3 a gallon). Some farmers will tell you this price barely matches their cost of production, while others will admit raw milk sales are the literal “cash cow” of their operation, allowing them to take on less profitable ventures, like growing vegetables or saving seed. Many also keep rare heirloom livestock breeds, milking animals like Guernsey cows and Nigerian Dwarf goats that fell out of favor when the demand for machine-ready cows covered the landscape with Jerseys and Holsteins. Either way, no one can argue that farmers are an asset to the community, and any way they can earn money to keep themselves afloat should not be discouraged.

Unfortunately, it is discouraged, and mightily. In Oregon, raw milk sales are legal, but most people who sell it are probably doing so illegally. That’s because they don’t have expensive USDA approval of their facilities. It doesn’t make a difference to customers, who usually pick milk up at the farm itself and can perform visual inspections at will. Recently, though, raw milk has also started appearing on the shelves of our local natural foods stores, presumably produced by slightly larger farms with USDA licenses.

Those store owners may still have to watch their back, however. In California this month, three owners of the natural foods co-op Rawsome Foods were arrested in a SWAT team raid and pressed with criminal charges of conspiracy to sell unpasteurized milk. Law enforcement seized and destroyed $10,000 worth of raw milk. The officers, from the LA County Sheriff’s Office, the FDA, the USDA and the Centers for Disease Control, contended that the owners did not have proper business licenses and the farm producing the milk did not have permits to do so. The owners hold that they weren’t actually selling milk but facilitating a “cow share” agreement, in which individuals share ownership of a cow and pay the farmer to board it, milk it, and deliver the milk. The case is currently in the courts.

Meanwhile, cow share agreements, while causing unknown confusion to the cows, have been a successful tactic for Canadians to circumvent the legal system to obtain raw milk. An Ontario farmer named Michael Schmidt, whose fight to sell raw milk has made him a hero for real-foodies, pioneered the movement. Legally, farmers can produce raw milk for themselves, so cow shares simply create a way for people who live in the city to own a cow and drink its milk. On the surface, it works the same – farmers keep the cows together in the barn, milk them, care for them, and make the milk available to the cows’ real owners. Cow shares have the added benefit of circumventing Canada’s restrictive milk quota system, which gives the government total power over the milk market and prices. British Columbia, Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia are all home to cow shares, and farmers are battling in the courts for the right to sell raw milk in a simpler way, without having to arrange shared ownership. Maybe they should get the animal rights activists involved – this has got to be causing some emotionally taxing identity crises for the poor bovines.

Here in Eugene, I’ve found a slightly easier way to obtain raw milk without denting my pocketbook. Pining for the goats I left behind in Canada, this spring I began work trading at a local goat farm. I bike out into the countryside once a week, spend the morning petting goats, picking up their poop, milking them (after thoroughly washing hands, of course), and cutting grass for them to eat. In return, I go home with two or three gallons of creamy, fresh, delicious and – gasp! – raw goat milk. It’s a fun way to spend my day off and my cheese-making skills have developed to new heights. (I’ve also been enjoying kefir, especially the reaction I get to the phrase “fermented goat milk”.) I found the farm through craigslist, where I find everything else that is wonderful, and would encourage anyone living in vicinity of a farm with extra time on their hands to look for a similar arrangement.

The raw milk movement is at the stage the organic movement was in the US thirty years ago. For those who fear microbes in all forms and prefer a standardized product, pasteurized milk will probably always be there. For the survivalists, though, there’s always a way to get your hands on the world’s most nutritious illegal substance.

The blog The Bovine does an excellent job tracking developments in raw milk and other real-food movements. Go to RealMilk.com for short, succinct articles on why raw milk is better. They also have very useful listings of where to find raw milk in most US states and some other countries.

If you’re a farmer considering or already selling raw milk in various stages of legality, the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund offers assistance to farmers under legal fire for selling or otherwise distributing raw milk.

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4 Responses to “The War on Raw: Your nanny state boils the milk, but you don’t have to drink it”

  1. Great idea to trade work for milk!

  2. Good job, Tuula, but the thing I really want to know is why you deserted Canada for Eugene?

    We have set up a small herd share on Salt Spring Island, BC.

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