Photo by Ms. Cowboy, Dawnnell Holmes
A pail of raw milk
Winton Pitcoff offers a detailed list of reasons he's a fan of raw milk, beginning with perhaps the most basic one: "Well, it tastes really good. You start there," he says.
"A lot of people don't know what real milk tastes like, because they've been drinking the cooked stuff so long," says Pitcoff, referring to the pasteurized, homogenized milk that most of us grew up drinking. Fans of unpasteurized, or "raw," milk rave about its creaminess and fresh taste, which varies depending on the breed of cow or the contents of her diet.
Beyond the aesthetic appeal, raw milk enthusiasts contend that it offers numerous health benefits, retaining important minerals and enzymes that are lost during the pasteurization process. And in an area where the buy-local movement has been so warmly embraced, raw milk—which is produced and sold locally by small dairy operations—has a particular appeal, especially for consumers looking for ways to opt out of the monolithic food production and distribution system.
"You know you're supporting the farmer. You know the person you're giving your money to is the person who's actually squeezing the teats," says Pitcoff, coordinator of the Raw Milk Network of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Massachusetts. (NOFA will hold a symposium on raw milk at its annual conference, held in Amherst Aug. 13-15; for more information, see sidebar.)
And given the extreme pressures faced by dairy farmers these days—the Worcester Telegram-Gazette reports that between 1982 and 2007, Massachusetts lost more than 600 dairy farms, leaving fewer than 200 in operation—the rise in consumer interest in raw milk represents a much-welcomed growth area for struggling producers.
So what's not to love about raw milk?
A lot, say critics, including government health agencies such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They dispute the health claims made by raw milk supporters, and warn that raw milk carries serious, even deadly health risks, potentially exposing drinkers to harmful bacteria.
Laws regarding raw milk sales vary from state to state; in Massachusetts, consumers can buy it directly from farms, but not in retail stores. Last winter, however, state officials moved to crack down on certain sales of raw milk, prompting a spirited response from proponents. While that issue has yet to be resolved, it has added fuel to the already simmering debate over raw milk, its purported risks and benefits, and consumers' rights.
Pasteurization, as every elementary school graduate can recall, was invented in the 1860s by French microbiologist Louis Pasteur. While Pasteur initially developed the process to keep beer and wine from spoiling, it's most commonly known for its use on milk.
In simplest terms, pasteurization involves heating a food to a high temperature, just below the boiling point, and then quickly cooling it. The process kills pathogens that can cause serious diseases in humans, such as salmonella and listeria. (The process is not foolproof; there have been documented cases of outbreaks of diseases linked to improperly pasteurized milk, including cases in which the contamination took place during the bottling process, post-pasteurization.)
Pasteurization was introduced in the U.S. around the beginning of the 20th century, and within a few decades became a standard practice in U.S. milk production. Scientists consider it a landmark development in public health that dramatically reduced cases of milk-borne diseases such as typhoid fever, tuberculosis, scarlet fever and diphtheria.
Government and mainstream health organizations are united in their contention that consumption of raw milk poses serious, unnecessary health risks and represents backward movement in the area of public health. The American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics both have taken strong positions against raw milk.
According to the CDC, between 1993 and 2006, it received reports of 1,505 illnesses, 185 hospitalizations and two deaths linked to raw milk—and, the agency adds, "Because not all cases of foodborne illness are recognized and reported, the actual number of illnesses associated with raw milk likely is greater."
"[R]aw milk can harbor dangerous microorganisms that can pose serious health risks to you and your family" and "can carry dangerous bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria, which are responsible for causing numerous foodborne illnesses," the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns consumers. "These harmful bacteria can seriously affect the health of anyone who drinks raw milk, or eats foods made from raw milk. However, the bacteria in raw milk can be especially dangerous to pregnant women, children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems."
"Real milk" fans maintain that it's a healthier choice than pasteurized milk—that it contains beneficial bacteria that aid healthy digestion and that are lost in standard milk processing. "These good bacteria help produce and assimilate vitamins and minerals, fight off illnesses, and regulate bodily processes," says NOFA's Raw Milk Network. In addition, the Network says, raw milk contains high levels of important vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, and the enzymes necessary for the body to absorb them—all of which are destroyed, or significantly reduced, during pasteurization.
According to the Campaign for Real Milk, a project of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on public health through a healthy diet, "Pasteurization destroys enzymes, diminishes vitamin content, denatures fragile milk proteins, destroys vitamins C, B12 and B6, kills beneficial bacteria, promotes pathogens and is associated with allergies, increased tooth decay, colic in infants, growth problems in children, osteoporosis, arthritis, heart disease and cancer."
The FDA strongly disputes claims by raw milk enthusiasts that it has particular health benefits, insisting: "There are no health benefits from drinking raw milk that cannot be obtained from drinking pasteurized milk that is free of disease-causing bacteria. Drinking pasteurized milk has never been found to be the cause of any disease, allergy, or developmental or behavioral problem."
In addition, the FDA says, "Many studies have shown that pasteurization does not significantly change the nutritional value of milk and dairy products. All of the nutritional benefits of drinking milk are available from pasteurized milk without the risk of disease that comes with drinking raw milk."
Raw milk advocates don't deny that the product can come with risks (although they'd probably balk at its characterization, in a recent Salon article, as "milk for daredevils").
"Some raw milk can make you very, very ill," writes Randolph Jonsson, a California nutritionist who runs a website called raw-milk-facts.com. "Drinking milk destined for the pasteurizer before it's sterilized can be like playing Russian roulette, but with all the barrels loaded. Why? Mainly because cleanliness standards are far lower for milk which will eventually be heat-treated."
In large dairy operations, Jonsson maintains, cows are unlikely to grass-feed in pastures, but rather spend their days cooped up in dirty pens. Often they're pumped with synthetic hormones to increase milk production, and as a result end up with udder infections that require antibiotic treatments.
"You can see why humans have no business consuming raw milk produced by the large factory farm complexes that dominate the industry today," he writes. "It's simply not safe for human consumption before it's processed."
Pitcoff concurs. When pasteurization became widespread a century ago, he told the Advocate, it was absolutely necessary due to the crowded, unclean conditions at large urban dairy operations and the challenges of keeping milk properly refrigerated at the time. And it's still necessary, he says, in large factory-like dairy operations today. "Absolutely their milk should be pasteurized. I wouldn't want to drink it raw," Pitcoff says.
But raw milk as it's produced today is "an inherently safer product," Pitcoff says. For one thing, it offers easy "traceability," an important notion in the field of food safety that means that any food-related health problems can be traced back to their sources. When milk—or any food—is produced or processed on the large scale that dominates the food system in the U.S., it can be extremely difficult, if not virtually impossible, to trace contamination or other problems back to the source. But because raw milk is sold in small quantities, and sold directly by the farmer, there's no question about where the milk comes from. That's a level of accountability that's hard to find in large food operations.
While federal government health agencies are uniformly opposed to the consumption of raw milk, state governments have taken varying positions on its sale.
A map put together by the pro-raw milk Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FCLDF) showing raw milk laws across the country reveals a patchwork of policies. In 10 states—including Connecticut, New Hampshire and Maine—retail sales of raw milk are legal. Massachusetts, Vermont and New York are among the 15 states where consumers can buy raw milk directly from farms. Raw milk sales are completely illegal in nine states, including Rhode Island.
The FCLDF, a nonprofit based in Falls Church, Va., is part of a growing movement to loosen up those kinds of laws; its mission includes "protect[ing] the constitutional right of the nation's family farms to provide processed and unprocessed farm foods directly to consumers through any legal means" and "protect[ing] the constitutional right of consumers to obtain unprocessed and processed farm foods directly from family farms"—all without "harassment by federal, state, and local government interference with food production and on-farm food processing."
In Massachusetts, raw milk advocates mobilized earlier this year in response to a move by the state Department of Agricultural Resources against certain sales of raw milk. At issue were so-called "buying clubs," groups of raw milk consumers who take turns driving to farms that sell the stuff to buy enough for the whole group. Such arrangements are especially popular among consumers in parts of the state where raw milk dairies are few and far between because they allow them regular access to the milk without having to make lengthy weekly drives to pick it up. (A directory of raw milk sellers compiled by NOFA/Massachusetts shows 23 across the state, with more than half in the four western counties. The total number has doubled since 2006, according to NOFA.)
In order to sell raw milk to consumers, farms must be certified by DAR and comply with certain regulations, including labeling the bottles with the warning: "Raw milk is not pasteurized. Pasteurization destroys organisms that may be harmful to human health."
But DAR does not certify, or approve of, milk-buying clubs—and last winter, the agency issued cease-and-desist letters to four of the clubs. "They were operating illegally; they were engaged in a commercial business that they were not licensed for," DAR Commissioner Scott Soares later told the Boston Globe. "The sanitation controls that are required by the state are at the farm, and we have no way of knowing what happens to the product after it leaves the farm."
DAR announced that it was considering new regulations that could put an end to the buying clubs, and sought public comments of the proposed changes. The agency was flooded with responses from raw milk proponents, with a notable voice of opposition: John Auerbach, commissioner of the Mass. Department of Public Health, which has been a strong critic of raw milk. (NOFA, which considers DAR "our only ally for raw milk at the state level," believes that agency issued the cease-and-desist letters to buying clubs in response to prompting from DPH.)
In a letter to Soares dated May 7, Auerbach wrote that "DPH continues to have very serious concerns about the public health risks of raw milk," citing CDC statistics about disease outbreaks linked to its consumption. "Although only 1-3 percent of the U.S. population consumes raw milk or raw milk products, 68 percent of all outbreaks related to any dairy product are related to raw milk or raw milk products," he wrote.
"While in an ideal world we would prefer that all milk sold in Massachusetts be pasteurized, we recognize that some local farms are realizing an economic benefit from the sale of raw milk," he continued. "If raw milk is to be sold, procedures must be in place to ensure the greatest possible protections to consumers."
Among DPH's specific suggestions, Auerbach called for the regulations to "make clear that 'buying clubs' are prohibited, as they attempt to evade the requirement of on-farm sales.
"Limiting sales to the premises of the farm helps to ensure that the milk is held at the proper temperature before being sold and reduces public health concerns," he wrote. "Raw milk by its nature contains a great deal of bacteria, which quickly multiply if the milk is held or transported at an improper temperature. Once the milk leaves the farm, there is no way to control the temperature."
The Raw Milk Network disputes many of the contentions in Auerbach's letter, including the CDC statistics linking unpasteurized milk to 68 percent of all dairy-related outbreaks. That data, the Network wrote in a response to the DPH letter, does not indicate whether the milk responsible came from dairies that are licensed and regulated by the government, such as the DAR-licensed farms in Massachusetts. "[T]here have been no reported illnesses due to consumption of raw milk from dairies inspected by MDAR, demonstrating how effective these standards and inspections have been," the Network wrote.
In the end, DAR decided to table the matter, removing from its proposed revisions to raw milk regulations any language pertaining to second-party, or buying club, sales. "MDAR's reason for doing so is so that it may conduct a broader inquiry into the milk market as it relates to raw milk. ... The passion and concern on all sides of the raw milk debate have led MDAR to plan for a broader look at issues associated with raw milk," the agency said in an announcement. "While MDAR expects that there are many ways that raw milk can impact the milk market, further investigation into all aspects of this issue is needed."
DAR's decision to defer action on raw milk buying clubs should not be read as a victory, cautions Pitcoff. While the agency hasn't pursued any further action against the four co-op buying operations that received cease-and-desist letters last winter, it still considers it illegal for people to distribute milk without a state license. "A Milk Dealer is defined within the Milk Control Laws as anyone in the business of receiving, purchasing, pasteurizing, bottling, processing, distributing or otherwise handling milk," MDAR said in its May announcement. "This is still the case, and MDAR will take such steps to enforce violations as they become aware of them."
That's left a lot of raw milk consumers—and the farmers they buy from—in a state of uncertainty. "It's an awful way to have to run a business, looking over your shoulder, not sure if a chunk of your business is going to disappear because rules are being interpreted in a somewhat inconsistent way," Pitcoff says.
Farmers who sell raw milk, he adds, already face pressures that other dairy farmers don't, from requirements that they label their products with the government warning to the reluctance of insurance companies to cover their operations.
The Raw Milk Network objects to the DPH's assertion that buying clubs are an effort to circumvent the law; rather, it contends, they're attempts by consumers to work within the laws (and in an environmentally friendly way, given the gas saved when one consumer can make the long trip to the farm for multiple households).
The Network also maintains that the buying clubs are not commercial enterprises, and therefore shouldn't be subjected to the sorts of regulations that would apply to a milk seller. Participants in a co-op buying arrangement don't hold inventory, or mark up the price for a profit, or resell it outside the network, Pitcoff points out.
"These aren't milk dealers," he continues. "These are people acting as agents for individuals, just like I could ask you to go pick up some eggs for me at a farm—or a pack of cigarettes, or a bottle of vodka."
And therein lies one of the more galling aspects of the anti-raw milk movement—galling to raw milk fans and to personal freedom advocates alike. The American marketplace is already filled with plenty of products known to be associated with health problems, from tobacco and alcohol to fatty and salty foods.
And while these products, too, come with varying degrees of restrictions—age requirements to buy cigarettes and booze; more recent calls for "junk food taxes" to dissuade consumers from buying unhealthy food—they remain legal to buy (notwithstanding the "dry counties" that still exist in certain parts of the U.S., the South in particular).
The viability of those products has been helped by the deep pockets of the industries behind them, and the political connections those deep pockets have helped them make. In the case of raw milk, Pitcoff believes, it's the big players in the mainstream dairy industry that have helped keep that product on the fringe. "It's pretty clear that the big dairy industry is somewhat threatened by [raw milk]," he says. "I think they ... feel threatened by a market they can't control."
And, he adds, "A lot of the federal agriculture and food safety policy is driven by big agribusiness. It makes sense they would be parroting the same line."
Products from large food companies are not immune to health risks, Pitcoff adds, pointing to the deaths and illnesses last year resulting from peanut butter contaminated with salmonella, and a recent salmonella outbreak in Illinois that's been linked to Subway restaurants. No one has suggested shutting down Subway shops or making peanut butter illegal, Pitcoff notes, yet "There's a feeling with milk that it can be treated this way."
Raw milk advocates argue they should be able to make the same decisions about the benefits and risks of what they consume as do people who choose to smoke or drink or eat large quantities of corn chips. "No food is 100 percent safe— all are sold with a certain amount of risk that regulators deem acceptable," NOFA's Raw Milk Network wrote in response to DPH's letter. "The policies currently in place for raw milk in Massachusetts mitigate risk with consumer warnings, inspections and testing. The excellent record of safety proves that those policies work. ...
"At its core, this is an argument about responsibility—the responsibility of farmers to follow practices that have been proven safe, the responsibility of consumers to understand what they are eating and that with every bite of any product comes a risk, and the responsibility of regulators to balance public health issues with consumer demand and the livelihoods of farmers," the Network continued. "We feel that Massachusetts farmers, consumers, and regulators are able to meet these responsibilities."
In his letter to the DAR urging stricter controls on raw milk sales, Auerbach, the DPH commissioner, rejected the notion that the raw-milk issue comes down to individual rights. "It is unfortunate that some raw milk advocates have chosen to portray their choice to buy raw milk as a 'right,'" Auerbach wrote. "With respect to food that is sold to the public, it has long been established that states have the authority to enact laws and regulations to protect the health and safety of their citizens."
And, indeed, states have enacted safety laws regarding raw milk—including laws in states like Connecticut, New Hampshire and Maine that allow it to be sold in stores. These laws, the Raw Milk Network maintains, demonstrate that government regulations and consumer access can happily coexist.
In contrast, banning the sale of raw milk in the name of safety, as the Mass. DPH and other critics advocate, could, in fact, backfire, the Network warns: "Creative regulation can provide a safe, accessible product that meets consumer demand. Prohibition will drive this demand underground and safety will be the first victim."