Jan 22 2009

Raw Milk: An Historical Rant

First, a little milk history. Pasteurization of milk started at a time when dirty milk was a real problem. Industrialization was increasing the numbers of cows per dairy—a precursor to today’s huge 10,000-cow factory dairies—so it was becoming harder to give them all good individual care. People didn’t really understand the connection between cleanliness and disease prevention. They couldn’t cool the milk as quickly or reliably as we can today.  They milked into open pails, often without making any particular effort to make sure the cow and equipment were clean, or even to keep manure out of the milk.  (Look at a cow sometime, and you’ll notice that where the milk comes out isn’t all that far from where the manure comes out.  Certainly within splash range.)  This led to a lot of contamination, and a lot of illness as a result.

There were two possible solutions: change the milking process to keep the milk clean and give dairies a way to certify that they followed safe practices (somewhat like the way we license everything from hair stylists to restaurants today); or cook the milk to kill whatever nasties happened to fall into it. The former would have required a difficult education campaign to convince people it was necessary and help them understand it. The latter had several advantages, from the perspective of a government or corporate bureaucrat: it could be done quickly; the people didn’t have to know or care about it; it required a new industry to be created (jobs!); and (most important to the processors) this new lifeless milk could be stored longer and shipped farther. No longer would customers need to care where their milk came from, because it was all equally inert. Milk became a commodity rather than a local product, and commodities are easier to manage from the top down.

Jersey Milk Cow

Jersey Milk Cow - Flickr.com

Today, those safety reasons for pasteurization that were valid in 1900 no longer exist. Cows’ udders are cleaned before milking and treated after milking with an iodine-based “teat dip” to sanitize them. Diseases like Johne’s and brucellosis have been wiped out or controlled. Instead of falling into open buckets, the milk goes directly from the udder into vacuum-powered milkers and is drawn through glass and stainless steel pipes into a closed tank where it is quickly cooled. The milkers and pipes are cleaned after each milking with successive treatments of soap, bleach, and an acid that breaks down calcium deposits, all with extremely hot water.

Every single truckload of milk is tested for harmful bacteria, antibiotics, and other contamination before it can be used.  A sample is taken from each dairy when the milk is pumped into the truck, so if a truckload is too high in some contaminant, the problem can be traced to the dairy it came from, and that dairy can be charged for the entire truckload.  Every time milk leaves a dairy, a sample of it goes along to be tested.  All these test results are made available to the farmer, so he can quickly recognize problems with cleanliness or poor health in his herd.  Before milk is pasteurized, it has already been tested more than anything else on your dinner table.

Maybe in 1900 it wasn’t possible to keep milk clean, but today it is.  If you can look at a dairy farm and see that the cows are healthy and clean, the equipment is properly cleaned, and the milk is kept protected and cold, the safety reasons for pasteurization don’t exist there.  The only remaining reason is commoditization.  As long as milk is shipped around the country and the gallon of milk you pick up in the store could have come from any dairy (or any number of dairies) in almost any state, it’s impossible for you to look at the source and see whether it’s trustworthy.  From the bureaucrat’s perspective, it’s safer to pasteurize it all, so ultimately it doesn’t matter whether a particular dairy is lazy about cleaning or has a sickly herd.  Just kill all the milk, and we’ll be safe.

Unfortunately, pastuerizing all the milk to kill one batch that might have bad stuff also kills all the good stuff, and all the milk has good stuff.  (And, as we’ve seen in recent years with E. coli in processed spinach and tomatoes, even multiple layers of inspection and regulated processing aren’t a guarantee against the bad stuff.)  Heat destroys enzymes like lactase and lipase, which help us break down the sugars and fats in milk, which explains why lactose (milk sugar) intolerance is so high these days.  It destroys B vitamins and folic acid, things missing in most diets nowadays.  It kills beneficial bacteria, the probiotics we’re all supposed to eat yogurt to get.  The baby is gone with the bathwater, and what’s left is little more than sugar and calcium.

It also makes the milk less useful to the artisan or home dairy processor who wants to make cheese, crème fraîche, and other products.  Without its bacteria, milk doesn’t sour; it rots.  Souring the milk is the first step in many dairy products, so the first thing a cheese-maker has to do is introduce new bacteria into it, usually in the form of yogurt or cultured buttermilk.  But now we’re back to using an industrialized product again; so instead of a sour cream or cheese unique to your area and a particular herd of cows, your controlling bacteria may have been produced a thousand miles away—even with milk from another country—giving you a product no different from anyone else’s.  Each batch of raw milk will be slightly different from another, depending on the breed of cows, their surroundings, their feed, and even the season; so cultured products from raw milk will have interesting variations, just as a 1965 California wine will be different from a 1973 California wine, and they’ll both be different from a 1973 French wine.

Fortunately, this situation is starting to change.  Despite the warnings from our nannies in government and the FUD from the big dairy processors, people are starting to educate themselves about the benefits of raw milk and how much the dangers have been overblown.  Most states allow people to buy and sell raw milk in some way, although some (like Illinois) make it too much of a hassle to be practical for most consumers and farmers.  In some states, raw milk can legally only be sold for pet food, so customers pretend to have a dozen cats and the transaction takes place with a wink and a nod.  In others, customers buy a share in a cow, so they’re technically not buying milk from the farmer, but instead paying him to milk their 1/10 cow.  Humans are pretty ingeneous when it comes to finding ways around silly regulations.

The regulations make it obvious that the real concern isn’t safety, because in most states they don’t actually stop people from drinking raw milk.  (And giving it away is never a problem.)  They just make it hard for farmers to sell it.  If safety were the issue, why would it be okay to give it away or let people pick it up with their own containers?

It’s time to drop these outdated regulations.  There will still be a place for pasteurization: obviously, most people, especially in large cities, are not going to develop a relationship with a dairy farmer and visit the place to see whether the cows and facilities are clean and trustworthy looking.  Those people will still be safer drinking dead milk.  I wouldn’t buy raw milk that came from an anonymous dairy who knows where and was packaged and shipped by who knows how many strangers.  I also wouldn’t buy raw milk (or any milk) from a 10,000-cow dairy where the employees turn over faster than the cows.

But those of us who do have the option of finding a small local dairy farm we trust, and who want to exercise that option, should be able to do so; and we shouldn’t have to pretend it’s for pets or sneak around with it in the trunk of our car like Prohibition-era bootleggers.  If we want the farmer to bottle it and sell it at the farmer’s market or through the corner grocery store to save us trips out to the country, that should be okay too.  We should also be able to make cheese, butter, ice cream, yogurt, and other products from it and sell them to people who trust us to be conscientious about the source of the milk and our own production systems.

It’s time to stop pretending raw milk is the same product it was a hundred years ago, and legalize it already.  Let’s get on with it.

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