By Ted Beals, MS, MD
In the Fall of 2006 Michigan State Police and members of the Michigan Department of Agriculture stopped a truck and confiscated a large amount of fresh unpasteurized milk on its way to families who had a contractual arrangement to receive their milk from the driver. Many were outraged by this action and the interference with access to their milk and rallied to support the driver. Prompted by a request to send testimonies to state authorities, hundreds of documents were generated. Many of them told stories of health problems that were being relieved by the consumption of their fresh unprocessed milk and its products.
Although these testimonials were compelling because of their sincerity and volume, it seemed likely that they would be dismissed by authorities because they were anecdotal and had been solicited. It did seem that the health benefits could be a powerful argument for making this fresh milk more widely available to an increasing number of families that were concerned about the impact of the food they were eating, on their health.
There was a newly formed coalition of Michigan dairy farmers that were using cowshare contracts as a legitimate business model (agister) to make fresh unprocessed milk available in a state that had laws prohibiting the sale of milk that was not pasteurized. Each of these dairy farmers had a well defined group of families that had cowshare contracts. And the numbers were large enough to enable a solid base for a well constructed survey.
One of the interesting observations in the testimonials was the number of families that mentioned lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance has been studied extensively, and considerable research is available about this condition. It is reported to be fairly common. So in designing the questions on health issues in the survey a set of questions targeting lactose intolerance were included. We asked about professional diagnosis of lactose intolerance, but additionally asked about personal conclusions that respondents had lactose intolerance even though they had not been given an “official” diagnosis.
After considerable review, and trials of draft questionnaires, a final survey document was prepared. Since it would be limited to the families in this part of the country and many of the questions were new and would probably require refinement for future surveys, the survey was titled: Pilot Survey of Cow Share Consumer/Owners. The survey was designed to be anonymous, which meant that some interesting information would not be available, e.g. variation of responses from different farms. The Weston A. Price Foundation contributed financial support to cover the cost of printing and providing pre-stamped return envelopes. MI-Fresh Milk Council, the dairy farmers group, allowed distribution.
Copies of the survey, a cover letter describing the purpose of the survey, who sponsored it and how it was being conducted, and a pre-stamped return envelope where made available at each farm’s distribution location. The returns were mailed directly to a single data collection address, and did not filter through the dairy farm. Respondents were asked to give comments, and to say how long it took to complete the survey. These comments were separated from the surveys when the envelopes where opened.
The final survey contained 53 questions encompassing information about the household, drinking of milk, characteristics of the dairy farm, how they learned about this milk, health problems, and experience with drinking milk. It was an extensive survey with 138 data points. Many respondents said it took about 20 minutes to complete.
The survey was conducted in the summer of 2007, sampling households that obtain fresh unprocessed milk from Cowshare Dairies in Michigan and several adjacent areas. At final count 731 completed surveys were returned by mail and analyzed. The households included 2,503 people, 60% of the households had children, 40% only adults.
Although lactose intolerance has been studied extensively throughout the world, we are unaware of any study that addressed any difference in intolerance when comparing commercial Grade A (pasteurized and homogenized) whole milk and fresh unprocessed whole milk. The term fresh unprocessed milk as used in this survey is milk that has not been processed after milking, is refrigerated immediately, is obtained directly from the farm ( usually within 48 hrs after milking ) and is consumed within 7 to 10 days.
Seventeen of the survey questions were related to health, and of these six focused on lactose intolerance, including the following three:
Based on these findings, 6% of people living in households which have an arrangement to receive fresh unprocessed milk from dairy farmers, report that a healthcare professional has told them that they have lactose intolerance. And of these, 81% report that they are able to drink fresh unprocessed milk without the symptoms they had with commercial store-bought (Grade A, pasteurized and homogenized ) milk.
We were aware that our survey population was very selective (households with cowshare contracts in the Midwest). But we were not sure if the frequency of lactose intolerance in this select population was similar to that in the general public. Consequently, we contracted with Opinion Research corporation, which conducts regular highly controlled national surveys, to ask the identical question: “Number in household told by healthcare professional they had lactose intolerance.” in one of their American household surveys. They found that 15% reported someone in the household had been told they had lactose intolerance. And they calculated that 10% of the American population had received such a diagnosis. This compares with 16% of households and 6% of people in our cowshare survey. On the basis of this direct comparison we believe that although our population is highly selective, the incidence of a professional diagnosis of lactose intolerance in our survey population appears consistent with the general population in the USA as reported by Opinion Research and many other surveys. There is no reason to believe that those in our survey had a different type of lactose intolerance than in the general public.