By Alex Buchholz
Some think raw milk is one of those weird elitist trends – right up there with country clubs. Others think it’s downright dangerous. Since “raw” has become one of those confusing health-food terms, let me offer a definition: raw milk is not pasteurized or homogenized – it goes straight from the udder to the bottle. Seems pretty flawless, right? But, many people – most namely, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) – see this udder-to-bottle pathway as a breeding ground for dangerous bacteria and pathogens. In fact, the USDA and FDA have made it illegal to sell raw milk across state lines. Many states have laws banning the sale of raw milk under any circumstance. Tough crowd. New York State, for example, only allows the sale of raw milk when purchased directly by the consumer on the farm where it was produced. Do a quick Google search of “raw milk,” and you’ll stumble upon pages of government-sanctioned horror stories and warning labels. But, you’ll also find health-food blogs oozing with raw-milk devotees praising the product for its health benefits. They claim it can heal asthma and allergies and contribute “good” bacteria to the body’s immune system. But, these two camps seem to disagree – pretty significantly. So, what’s the deal with all this raw milk stuff?
Before we go any further, let’s get it out: I drink raw milk. And I love it. But, this is relatively new for me; I was not raised on raw milk. I was raised in a typical suburban, east-coast household – a lifestyle that taught me every morning begins with a proper bowl of cereal with store-bought skim milk. Growing up, I never once questioned the safety or health of my food– especially not my ultra-pasteurized, fat-free milk. At every check-up, my pediatrician extolled me for drinking my milk. It just seemed right – my doctor told me so; my parents told me so; the government told me so. But, against the grain of government regulation and most conventional medicine, I want to propose in this article that raw milk isn’t so bad and, in fact, it’s pretty healthy stuff.
Up until the early 1900’s, what we now call “raw milk” was just called “milk.” Our pasteurization frenzy came with the rise of industrial, centralized agriculture because people started getting sick from the milk they were drinking. Coincidentally, Louis Pasteur’s “germ theory” (the theory that illness and disease are caused by microorganisms) was also developed and proposed around this time. Pasteur, as a leading scientist, recommended heating milk to kill any harmful, disease-causing bacteria — this, he thought, would solve all of our milk problems. Now, milk could be produced in an industrial, centralized system and people would not get sick. Fast forward a couple of decades: pasteurization is now strictly enforced by the USDA — requiring almost all milk sold in the U.S. to be pasteurized. For safety. But, I want to propose that in attempts to “clean up” milk, we’ve actually drifted far from a healthy product. The majority of milk today is produced in a confinement system – cows spend their entire lives in small stalls and standing in their own manure. They are fed a grain-based diet pumped with antibiotics and hormones. But, we can put all of these worries aside because we’ll just pasteurize the milk to make it safe to drink, right? Well, it’s not that easy…
If we look at nature (something we in the Western, science-driven, compartmentalized, capitalistic world hate to do), we see that cows move around, graze on grass, and fertilize the soil with their manure. In our modern dairy-farming model, we deny the cow all of her natural instincts by confining her to a small space, feeding her grain, and letting her manure pile up on the concrete floor of a confined operation. We revoke the cow’s ability to express her true identity. And with this comes a product that is nothing like nature had intended – milk now comes out of the udder with an ingredients list that is miles long (containing things like antibiotics, added hormones, and things we’ll never be able to pronounce). So, we heat it up to kill these pathogens and homogenize it to make it silky smooth. During the pasteurization process, some beneficial nutrients and bacteria as well as some fatty acids are destroyed – although, I’m sure you could find somebody from the USDA to argue against this point until the end of time. In addition to this, some scientists argue that the universal implementation of homogenization (the breaking up fat globules to make milk smooth and consistent in texture) actually sparked our modern allergy epidemic. But, to get to the point: couldn’t all of these issues be products of our industrial, confinement farming system? We didn’t see an epidemic of major health problems from raw milk until the rise of industrial dairy farming. And now we are seeing the consequences of that industrial system.
Some people, myself included, see the correlation between industrial agriculture and nutrient-lacking milk, and push back – craving nutrient-dense, unaltered milk. So, in order to get safe, healthy raw milk, some farmers retreat from modern, scientific farming standards – now putting cows out on pasture the way nature has always intended. No antibiotics, no pesticides, no GMOs… just grass. These cows regain their identity by grazing, mooing, and making milk – just as they have historically. (Please keep in mind that by grazing on pasture, the cow not only makes tastier, healthier milk, but plays a significant role in the carbon cycle as she facilitates carbon sequestration and future biomass accumulation in the grasses she mows during her breakfast, lunch, and dinner. By grazing and eating, she keeps grasses short and reduces the need for soil tillage. We need her.) Paradoxically, this initial retreat to normal farming gave birth to a radical movement – what I like to call The Food Revolution: a quest for the purest, most natural foods in existence. Raw milk consumers inundated blogs and books with anecdotes about raw milk’s healing effects on allergies, asthma, and even autism. And today, there is a wide desire for raw milk. Though this demand is small, it edifies the emergence of an industry.
But, as aforementioned, the federal government has taken such a strong stance on pasteurization that legally acquiring raw milk has become nearly impossible. With the rising demand for raw milk (in addition to most small-scale and local foods), came the emergence of what I consider to be a food police state. The USDA and FDA started to crack down on pasteurization regulation – all in the name of consumer safety. Unannounced, USDA officials along with state police officers raided (and continue to raid) countless dairies suspected of producing raw milk. Farmers were placed under arrest and taken to court. Products were seized for evidence. Livelihoods were lost. But, for our safety, right?
Let’s get the facts right. Raw-milk-induced illnesses are few and far between and typically only affect those with weakened immune systems. Most raw-milk-induced illnesses are caused by contamination or poor farming techniques and are very rare. In the 2009 book Raw Milk Revolution, author David E. Gumpert illuminates the ways by which the USDA and FDA have, on occasion, exaggerated or implied unsubstantiated cases of raw-milk-induced illness. (I highly recommend this book.) Still, the USDA persists in the fight – swords drawn. As I stated above, a quick internet search will turn up dozens of government articles advising against the consumption of raw milk. But, countless people have shared their success stories and would do anything to acquire raw milk. Interestingly, there have been some large-scale cases of disease and illness caused by pasteurized (yes, pasteurized) milk. So, there must be something more to this whole USDA story. Protecting the consumer is starting to sound a lot like protecting friends, former USDA leaders, and future USDA leaders in the big dairy lobbies. Many scholars allude to a revolving door that exists between big agricultural companies and the United States government. And, as of April 2016, the retail sale of raw milk is only legal in ten states.
So, raw milk is starting to look like a nutrition-science debate and a political / legal nightmare. But, I want to offer that beyond all of this bureaucratic ridiculousness comes a pure connection to health and the natural world.
I am a firm believer in the health benefits of raw milk. I believe that it provides my body with some positive nutrients and the correct ratio of omego-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids. I believe its microbial content helps strengthen my immune system – the stronger and more diverse my microbial community, the less susceptible I am to contract a disease or illness. I believe in raw milk’s purity – its connectedness to our earth and our ecosystem. And I also believe in the power of raw milk to change our agricultural regulation system. Oh, and it tastes good.
I am not advocating for a universal ban on pasteurization or universal consumption of raw milk because I am not sure if we could safely scale up raw-milk production to meet the demands of the entire nation. But, I am most certainly advocating for the right to choose. If I really want to, why can’t I buy milk that comes right out of the udder of a cow who has been on pasture participating in the carbon cycle and fertilizing the soil for future growth? Why can’t I have complete control over my health? I urge you to ask yourself the same questions – what does food accessibility really mean? Do we, in America, have the freedom to choose what foods we eat? This Food Revolution is as much about human health and environmental health as it is freeing foods from corporate and government control.
I recognize that I represent the lunatic side of modern food discourse, but I do so with passion and support. If raw milk isn’t your thing, that’s cool. If you feel compelled to dive into the world of raw milk, talk to your local farmer. Regardless of our individual preferences, we, as food consumers, deserve the right to choose what we put in our bodies. We must all play a part in this emerging Food Revolution. This revolution will not be pasteurized.
Alex Buchholz is an undergraduate student at New York University studying English and Environmental Studies; he is focusing his writing on food policy and food-system reform. In his free time, he enjoys hiking, cooking, and rock climbing. He is originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania — where he keeps a backyard garden and raises chickens.