“If people let the government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.” – Thomas Jefferson
Amid the rhetoric and sharply drawn battle lines in the controversy over raw milk, it can be difficult to parse out the facts without getting mired in scientific jargon. Used as a cure for a myriad of ailments around the turn of the century, only to disappear with the advent of pasteurization, raw milk is back in fashion, the result of growing interest in whole foods, sustainability and homesteading. It is also extremely difficult to obtain, with sales restricted or illegal in most states. In fact, in most of the United States, it’s easier to buy a gun than raw milk.
Raw milk is un-skimmed, unheated and unprocessed milk straight from the cow. Safe raw milk comes from healthy cows pastured on organic grasses, and is properly handled under sanitary conditions. It is the product of a balanced ecosystem which starts with a farmer who respects the health of his land, his herd and his customers. The two production considerations having the greatest impact on the presence of dangerous strains of e coli are a grain diet and confined quarters, both of which apply to factory farming, neither of which apply to the small family farms responsibly producing raw milk. With the methods of production and sanitation of utmost importance, not all raw milk is the same, neither is it necessarily organic, grass-fed, or safe.
Processed milk is both pasteurized and homogenized: pasteurization is heating to temperature in order to kill pathogens, and homogenization is emulsification of the fats and liquids under pressure. Pasteurization of milk came into vogue in the 1920s as a response to urban industrialization. The populations of major cities were increasing, as was the practice of housing diary cattle in or near distilleries and feeding them the spent grain. The resulting milk was blue and watery, prompting dairies to add things like flour, starch, chalk and sugar to mask it. Of no use, these collective actions only resulted in diseased cows, diseased milk, and diseased humans.
Thus did pasteurization come to be synonymous with milk production. And understandably so. However, it’s clear that with different production methods, raw and regular milk have vastly different qualities. It’s time to pioneer a whole new way with dairy by differentiating between the two and regulating them differently. Instead of a blanket policy towards all milk, there should be allowances for small raw milk producers, who generally hold themselves to higher production standards in order to produce safe and high quality milk. Instead of banning it, the FDA should work with these farmers in setting official standards towards regulating and legalizing raw milk.
A complete food, raw milk contains all eight essential amino acids, and both the fat and water soluble vitamins it is so rich with, balanced by over 20 minerals, which maximize absorption of the nutrients. It also contains polyunsaturated fats, CLA, an omega-6 fatty acid with anti-carcinogenic qualities shown to strengthen the immune system, and the necessary enzymes and bacteria which inhibit pathogen development and aid digestion, even for the lactose intolerant. Drinking raw milk can provide relief and protection from gastrointestinal, skin, respiratory and allergy problems, and it has been shown to be favorable in the treatment of diabetes, tuberculosis, and other diseases. While there have been a small handful of scientific studies on the health benefits of raw milk, mostly due to lack of funding, in turn due to an industry which is not so compelled to study it, most of the evidence in support is overwhelmingly anecdotal.
To its devotees, it is a nutritionally dense, unprocessed, balanced, and complete food, inherently full of the flavor, and the health and healing benefits that its processed cousin lacks. These consumers want to know, and have a connection with, where their food comes from, and they embrace the holistic aspect of raw milk. For them, the health benefits of the milk, the ecological benefits of good grazing and livestock management, and the economic benefits to artisanal and family farms, far outweigh the risks.
To be sure, there are real risks to consider, and improperly handled or contaminated milk, raw or not, can cause serious and potentially deadly problems. Raw milk is inherently safe, but can become unsafe if handled improperly, although the FDA insists that it is unsafe to consume under any circumstances, and is involved in the armed raids and litigation to prove it. As with anything, there are conscientious operators, and those less so, making it critical to be fully informed and knowledgeable about where, and from whom, their milk is coming.
At the heart of the issue is the effect of pasteurization on the safety, flavor and nutritive value of the milk. According to the FDA, it is the only way to guarantee safety, while advocates say it denudes the milk of all nutrients, as well as the beneficial bacteria which can help prevent contamination. Understandably, government safety standards should be set in such a way as to protect the public from the worst operators. However the war over raw milk is not simply about standards or protecting public health. It’s about something else entirely.
Part 2 will look at other aspects of the controversy, the politics behind it, and what this battle is REALLY about.
FDA information on raw milk can be found here.
A word of caution: Our advice if you’re interested in raw milk? Do your research so you can make an informed choice about acceptable risk for you and your family. Know the status of your immune system, and that of your family (it’s not recommended for those with depressed immune systems). Make sure you are procuring from a trusted, reputable farmer: educate yourself about their practices, and tour the farm and facilities. And finally, new raw milk drinkers should acclimatize by starting with small amounts and gradually building, as the process of acclimatization can upset the balance of bacteria in your stomach.
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