Food regulation is one of the most important issues consumers face today. And for people who are concerned with where their food comes from (and how it got there), milk is now at the center of this debate. And because of its health benefits, many more people are turning to raw milk. Even lactose intolerant folks have found they can digest the un-pasteurized liquid; and it's been said to reduce allergies and asthma in children—ailments that are on the rise in the U.S.
But there's one hitch: raw milk is illegal.I spoke with journalist David Gumpert, author of The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America's Emerging Battle Over Food Rights, about our right to healthy food--what could very well be the new civil rights movement.
Makenna Goodman: Okay—I'm just going to ask, even though it seems like it should be obvious: What is raw milk?
David Gumpert: Raw milk is just what the name suggests—milk straight from the cow (or goat), which hasn't been pasteurized (heated to 161 degrees for 15 seconds) or homogenized.
MG: Mass media says raw milk is bad for me. Is this true?
DG: That is a complicated question. Yes, people do become ill from pathogens that can crop up in raw milk, like campylobacter, salmonella, listeria, and E.coli O157:H7. Most of the illnesses are mild, but occasionally, people have become very ill, and those most inclined toward the serious illnesses are children. But it's important to note that people also become ill from a variety of other foods, including raw spinach, ground beef, peanut butter, lettuce, and peppers. To the extent the mass media suggest that raw milk is highly dangerous, they are misleading people. Data from the CDC shows in the 33-year period 1973-2005, there have been an average of about 50 reported illnesses annually from raw milk. And consumers should be aware that it's possible to become ill from pasteurized milk; there have been outbreaks from contamination that has occurred post-pasteurization and led to occasionally thousands of people becoming ill. In Massachusetts during 2007, three elderly people died from contaminated pasteurized milk.
MG: What exactly is the difference between pasteurized (the milk we normally drink) and raw milk?
DG: Pasteurization is a heat-treatment process that took hold in the early and mid-twentieth century, in response to large numbers of illnesses and deaths from disease (like typhoid and tuberculosis) spread by contaminated raw milk. That, however, was a time when much less was known about the danger of pathogens, or the importance of sanitation and refrigeration.
Pasteurization kills off pathogens, and once it was introduced, childhood illness from pathogens in raw milk declined by 25% or more. The decline in illnesses, however, coincided as well with better sewerage systems and cleaner water.
There's been lots of debate in alternative health and nutrition circles as to whether pasteurization, in particular, depletes milk of important "good" bacteria, enzymes, and proteins. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control maintain that pasteurization has no appreciable effect on the nutritional composition of milk, but does get rid of potentially dangerous pathogens like campylobacter and salmonella. Pasteurization is really a processing function, though, and with all the concern over processed food, more people are questioning whether pasteurization does, in fact, alter milk's composition.
MG: What are the health benefits from drinking raw milk?
DG: There was a time during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when raw milk was pushed by some in the medical profession as nearly a cure-all for conditions ranging from arthritis to diabetes to gout. Today, there are extensive anecdotal tales of improved health from raw milk, such as relief from lactose intolerance. There is also research from Europe in the last few years indicating that children who drink raw milk have reduced rates of asthma and allergies.
MG: In your new book, The Raw Milk Revolution, you talk about how pasteurization has affected the way milk is being processed, sold, and consumed. Can you explain how, here?
DG: Sure. Pasteurization allows milk to be safely transported regionally, and still remain on store shelves for a week or more without spoilage. Increasingly, milk is being transported ever longer distances—for example, milk from the West, where there tend to be surpluses, is often transported to the East, where there are shortages. As milk is increasingly transported long distances, standard pasteurization has been supplemented by ultra-high temperature pasteurization, which involves heating milk to 275 degrees for a few seconds. The effect is to kill off even more organisms, and thereby allow the milk to last for up to six to nine months without refrigeration. Because organic milk must often be transported the longest distances, it tends to be subjected to ultra-high temperature pasteurization more often than conventional milk.
MG: Why is the raw milk revolution similar to the organic vs. conventional food debate?
DG: For a long time, organic veggies and fruits were seen as marginal products, produced by just a few local growers. A fringe group of consumers proclaimed their benefits. Eventually, organic food was produced in ever-larger quantities, with large agricultural growers becoming involved. It has become mainstream. Today, raw milk is similarly a marginal product, produced generally by a few local dairies. It's not clear, though, that it will follow the same trajectory as organic food, since even among raw milk advocates, there is a preference for obtaining it locally from small dairies. And among these advocates, there is doubt large feedlot type dairies could produce raw milk that would be consistently safe.
MG: What does the divide between traditional and factory farming have to do with raw milk?
DG: Advocates of raw milk have consistently argued that they wouldn't want milk from factory farms sold unpasteurized, since the crowding of cows makes sanitation sometimes questionable. Indeed, there have been studies of the unpasteurized milk at factory farms (before it is sent for pasteurization), which show significant contamination by pathogens. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Dairy Science found that in milk samples taken from 861 bulk tanks in 21 states around the country, 2.6 percent contained salmonella and 6.5 percent tested positive for listeria monocytogenes. Pasteurization, of course, kills off these pathogens.
Instead, raw milk advocates seek out smaller traditional farms, which encourage pasture feeding of cows and diligent sanitation.
MG: Why is there a crackdown on small farms who produce raw milk (even if they have devoted, happy customers)?
DG: The FDA is adamantly against consumption of raw milk, even if customers are happy. The head of its dairy division has been quoted on numerous occasions as saying that consuming raw milk "is like playing Russian roulette with your health." The FDA's warnings have done little to slow consumption of raw milk, however—quite the contrary. So as raw milk has grown in popularity, the FDA, beginning in 2005 and 2006, has joined with state agriculture agencies in trying to instead cut the supply of raw milk. It has focused its efforts heavily on such large dairy-producing states as New York, California, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In these states, there have been varying actions against producers of raw milk—"sting" operations, shutdowns for contamination even when no one has become ill, and legal proceedings and fines.
MG: When it comes to food, how much freedom should people have to choose their own--regardless of the "risk"?
DG: This is a controversial issue. I think individuals should be free to assess the risks associated with foods, and make the final choices. All foods can be contaminated, and some, like deli meats and raw seafood, involve more serious risks than raw milk. Opponents argue that in certain situations, like with milk, which are heavily consumed by children, consumers shouldn't have free choice, since children can't make an informed choice.
For more information on The Raw Milk Revolution, watch this video with David Gumpert, or order his book here.
Image credits: Above, Chelsea Green Publishing; Top, istockphoto.
Read More About the Raw Milk Debate:
Raw Milk Risks and Benefits Explained
The Milk Police—Smuggling Raw Milk across State Lines
Do You Trust Raw Milk?
Amish Farmer Challenges Raw Milk Laws
Buy Green: Milk