Written by: Chris Larsen-Gould
Many question the safety of drinking raw milk, but how safe is the pasteurized milk that we are used to? According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, from 2000 to 2009 there were five outbreaks of contaminated pasteurized milk in the US resulting in ten deaths (Dexter 37). Alternatively the raw milk movement is based on the original values set by the organic food movement which focuses on wellbeing over sales. On the small farms that produce raw milk, cows live their lives in as close to a natural state as possible, with farmers who care about the welfare of their customers and cows more than their profits. Furthermore, healthy cows produce healthy milk that is resistant to contamination and contributes positively to the health of the consumer. Small farms don’t offer the same threat of wide-spread illness from contamination that the large scale industrial dairies do. The difference between raw and pasteurized milk to a bacterium is that pasteurized milk is essentially a clean slate for the bacteria to thrive and reproduce should it find its way into the milk after or despite pasteurization. Raw milk contains so many enzymes and bacteria living in a synergistic harmony that any new contaminant introduced will most likely be out-competed by the beneficial microbes. Raw milk is healthier for the humans who drink it in part because the cows who produced it were healthier. Risk is a part of every meal and it takes informed consumers to be able to keep themselves safe. A raw milk consumer is aware of the possibility that milk may be unsafe without pasteurization and is therefore more inclined to get their milk from a farm which implements the highest standards of safety and quality, and ideally from one that they have some connection to. It isn’t possible to farm raw milk on a 7,000 acre concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), and in fact, many of the contamination concerns associated with raw milk didn’t begin to show up until we started industrial style dairy farming. The history of milk in this country is as corrupt as the entire food system and is a great representation of the problems we face as a nation in ensuring our food safety. Drinking raw milk is not only better for the health of the consumer, cows, farms and farmers but is a crucial step in our opting out of the industrial food system and supporting our own self sustaining food future.
Many of the concerns over drinking raw milk are sensationalized by the lobbyists of the same corporations that are ruining the rest of our food system. We seem to forget that humans have an ancient history of consuming raw milk. Dr. Price was a nutritional anthropologist who studied the diets and health of indigenous peoples. “All the healthy milk-drinking populations studied by Dr. Price consumed raw milk, raw cultured milk or raw cheese from normal healthy animals eating fresh grass or fodder” (Fallon 35). Pasteurization and homogenization are relatively new technologies that we implement to make safe the terrible milk produced by unhealthy cows. It was in fact the industrial style ranching with ever decreasing care for the cows that lead to problems with the safety of milk, which then in turn necessitated pasteurization. Large scale industrial dairies do not need to be careful with the cows or milk because it will get pasteurized regardless. This has lead to a cycle of carelessness that produces lower quality milk and unhealthier cows needing more and more chemical intervention.
The regulations for pasteurized milk actually allow for greater levels of contaminants before pasteurization and result in many problems for us once ingested. When the milk does get pasteurized all of the bacteria and enzymes killed don’t get filtered out; they remain in the milk which leads to the allergic reaction many people have (Pitchford). Raw milk contains a safety net of cohabitating bacteria and enzymes which will out-compete almost anything introduced. A contamination outbreak at a large scale dairy could lead to thousands getting sick or worse, whereas all of the raw milk diaries are small, limiting the number of people affected by possible outbreaks. Also, many of the small dairies are held to higher standards of maintenance and testing than their large scale counterparts. Raw milk cows are not given antibiotics, unlike the industrial dairies which through their excessive antibiotic use are breeding resistant strains of disease. According to Sally Fallon, “All outbreaks of salmonella from contaminated milk in recent decades – and there have been many – have occurred in pasteurized milk. This includes a 1985 outbreak in Illinois that struck over 14,000 people causing at least one death. The salmonella strain in that batch of pasteurized milk was found to be genetically resistant to both penicillin and tetracycline” (34). Raw milk is not on the FDA’s 10 Most Dangerous Foods in America list, yet it is often touted as an extremely dangerous thing to ingest. In fact one of raw milk’s special safeguards is a compound called lactoferrin, which has been FDA approved for use as effective against E. coli as a spray in the meat industry (Dexter 6). This is just one of the many wonderful bioactive ingredients in raw milk. The use of lactoferrin for its antiseptic quality shows our governments’ hypocrisy in its financially biased opinion. Having this bioactive community requires the most vibrant, healthy milk that contains all of its necessary components which can only be produced in small quantities by farmers who provide as natural a setting for their cows as possible. When a person drinks raw milk their intestinal flora is strengthened by all of the enzymes, hormones and quality fats present in milk, strengthening their immune system and making them more immune to any possible unsafe milk.
Raw milk is actually much better for our health and creates a stronger immune system in our bodies. When milk is pasteurized and homogenized all of the beneficial microbes that help us to digest the milk are killed and then not recognized by our bodies who then mount an immune response against them (an allergic reaction). One of the biggest health problems for Americans is our building cholesterol levels and Paul Pitchford believes this is due to the homogenization process. “Homogenization allows the enzyme xanthine oxidase in the milk cream to enter the bloodstream instead of being excreted, as would normally occur. When this enzyme enters the heart and arteries, it damages the membranes, creating scar tissue. Cholesterol accumulates on the scars and gradually clogs the arteries” (287). This happens because the fat globules are broken down to such a small size that they slip right through our stomach, acting as free radicals in the body. In 2007, a private survey was conducted of raw milk drinkers in Michigan. Of those diagnosed with lactose intolerance, 82 percent stated that they could drink raw milk without any problems (Dexter 105). This isn’t an intolerance of lactose, it’s an intolerance of the lack of lactase in pasteurized milk, which enables us to digest it, which is why some milk is sold with lactase added after pasteurization. There is also strong evidence that the processing of our milk makes the assimilation of nutrients less possible. According to Alton Eliason, “Of course, the push to increase milk consumption for the treatment of osteoporosis is a farce because the enzymes and vitamins in the missing cream are needed to assimilate the calcium.” Raw milk is a perfect food containing protein, high quality fats, vitamins and minerals and comes complete with its own biological community to keep the milk safe and help us digest it.
Many of the problems with the safety of raw milk were not introduced until we began producing milk in unsatisfactory conditions. In the 1800s many US dairies began producing low quality raw milk to satisfy a rapidly growing demand as rural people moved to the cities. These were known as brewery dairies because the cows were fed the waste products from the beer breweries, and in turn produced very low quality milk. The cows were raised in the city, in conditions that would put even today’s CAFOs to shame. This was at the beginning of the industrial food system when the number of cows per farmer was increasing dramatically and before the use of pasteurization, stainless steel, or refrigeration. This was an ideal situation for contamination of the milk being produced in sub-standard conditions without proper techniques for keeping the milk safe. The invention of modern milk pasteurization techniques allowed for milk to be produced in horrible conditions for the cows, full of contaminants because it would all eventually get funneled through a pasteurization plant before being distributed. According to Alton Eliason, “The truth is, Louis Pasteur developed pasteurization to overcome the fermenting problem that was being experienced by French wine-makers. In fact, it is reported that Pasteur sadly lamented, ‘What are they doing to my wonderful food?’ when informed that pasteurization was being used for milk.” It was the process of pasteurization which enabled dairies to continue down the path of industrial farming which has led us to the very unstable food system we live with today.
Since the safety of raw milk depends on its abundance of bioactive components and quality of production, consumers are inclined to support only the best farms. It seems to me that if industrial dairy farming got us into this mess, then small scale sustainable farms will get us out. Consumers who drink raw milk are aware of the possible dangers with low quality raw milk and are therefore inclined to seek out only the highest quality milk available. The best way to do this is to actually meet the farmer and see their land. As Salatin would say, take a look at their bookshelf. This encourages a relationship between the farmer, cows and consumers which will all act together as checks and balances to maintain the highest quality and standards. A farmer would be inclined to be ready at any moment for one of his customers to pay them a visit and see how well they are caretaking creation. This model supports the farmers who are doing things right. The quality of the milk directly correlates to the quality of life for the cow that produced it. At Organic Pastures Dairy near Fresno California they say that, “the average lifespan of a conventional dairy cow is 42 months, compared with 10-12 years for a pastured cow…we use only organic and homeopathic remedies for treating our sick cows. Nothing works better than prevention, which is why we take every precaution to keep our cows healthy, safe and clean” (Organicpastures.com). They are one of the few family owned dairies left in California and have been producing high quality raw milk for generations. The more that we decide to purchase raw milk, the more we will support these farmers and the less the giant agribusiness men will profit.
Here in Humboldt County, we are one of California’s leading dairy counties and one of only three in the state where raw milk is illegal. In 2011 there was an effort to overturn the ban which ended up being heard by the county board of supervisors. Unfortunately it did not pass. Many dairy owners feared the market’s opinion of all milk produced in the county should an outbreak occur. I was at that meeting, and it was hard to see these men, who obviously loved their cattle and land, afraid of their own milk. How quickly we seem to forget that it was only as long ago as our grandparent’s time that we thrived on raw milk. This being said, no one has ever claimed that raw milk is 100% safe. What the issue boils down to, here in Humboldt and around the country, is that we have a freedom to feed ourselves how we choose, regardless of risk. Risk is inherent in everything we do and everything we consume. For instance, our tap water contains many harmful contaminants and an increasing amount of pharmaceuticals and heavy metals. We all have a choice as to whether or not we will drink the tap water, but it is our choice in the matter that makes us American. I can think of nothing more patriotic than a family farm with a fresh glass of raw milk in everyone’s hand while eating some apple pie, with happy cows outside grazing, fulfilling their cow nature.
In this time of food un-security where much of our future lies in the hands of a few corporations and even fewer varieties of plants, every safeguard we can take for our food future is crucial. The more we support each other in growing independent from the industrial system, the better the foundation our food system lies upon. Drinking raw milk is one of the many avenues we have as consumers to do something that is win-win: for ourselves and our health of course, for the health of the cows and the farms from which they live as well as the overall biodiversity of our food web. Having more small farms gives more redundancy to the system, as opposed to relying on the production of #2 corn to feed us all. Our modern paradigm tells us that we are separate from the natural world and that it is something to be tamed, pasteurized and categorized. This attitude has gotten us further and further down the rabbit hole of food un-security. When fear prevails over our birthright to produce our own food, we must rely on corporations to feed us, to sustain us. Food safety is surely a matter of opinion; one may favor the information provided by several generations of food scientists and lobbyists with serious financial incentive to decrease quality in the name of quantity, or instead favor our collective human history as agriculturalists who have had healthy relationships with our pasture grazing friends and their milk for almost as long as we have been farming.
Dexter, Lee. A Campaign for Real Milk Power Point Presentation. September 2011.
Weston A Price. Foundation. Web. Nov. 1 2013.
Eliason, Alton. (2000). The Crime Against Raw Milk. Wise Traditions, volume 1,
Number 2. Retrieved from
www.westonaprice.org/journal/journal-summer-2000. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.
Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions. Washington DC: New Trends P, Inc., 1999. Print.
Organic Pastures FAQ. Organic Pastures, May 2012. Organicpastures.com Web. 1
Pitchford, Paul. Healing With Whole Foods. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1993.