Raw Milk and the Grassroots Food Movement

What’s nutritious, possibly dangerous, and illegal in all but 25 states? The answer is raw milk, and it’s at the heart of the grassroots food movement and a regulatory controversy.

In technical terms, “raw” milk is unpasteurized–it hasn’t been heated to kill pathogens. That might sound crazy (and maybe it is), but the issue has two sides. Yes, pasteurization kills bacteria that can cause tuberculosis, salmonella, and other nasty diseases. However, fans of raw milk claim that the heating process also wipes out beneficial proteins and enzymes that promote digestive health and strengthen the immune system.

Where does this fit into green culture? First, raw milk is inherently local because it simply isn’t meant for cross-country shipping. Also, dairy farms that produce raw milk tend to use a more sustainable system. As Danielle Tsi wrote on the Etsy blog,

Because raw milk farmers don’t rely on pasteurization to prepare the product for market, all the work goes into tending the land to create the perfect ecosystem for the production of quality milk. The end result is healthy pastures (as a source of nourishment) and sustainable herd sizes — as many cows as the land can take.

Right now, raw milk is hardly a popular product. Even in California, only three percent of the population consumes it. And the few raw milk farms that do operate fight a constant battle with regulators. For example, Organic Pastures Dairy Co., California’s largest raw milk producer, found its products recalled and its business shut down after suspicions of E. Coli contamination arose. Food safety inspectors descended on the farm, running test after test. Organic Pastures insists that its facility came out clean; according to regulators, however, the answer is not that simple.

So where does the green movement stand in this debate?

Usually, greens and progressives campaign for tighter regulations, but this time the issue isn’t clear-cut. We can’t fault food safety regulators for worrying about food safety. That’s their job. Still, it is unfair to target a fringe product like raw milk when mainstream industrial farms have plenty of problems. After all, contamination in big ag is far from unheard-of.

In both the dairy and meat industries, factory farms keep thousands of animals in small spaces with astonishingly filthy conditions and feed them an unhealthy diet. Then they give the cows, pigs, and chickens heavy doses of antibiotics because, for some reason, the livestock keep getting sick. Why do these factory farms get a free pass when a dairy with a few hundred cows living in a natural way is a health threat because its milk is “raw?”

The answer, of course, is political influence. Big ag has the same advantage over small, sustainable farms as big oil and coal have over renewables startups.

The raw dairy debate also takes a libertarian bent. If consumers think the health trade-offs are worth the risks, should they have the right to buy raw milk? Or is it the government’s responsibility to keep potentially dangerous products off the shelves?

This is a serious question, and it’s one we must consider, since it reaches across the political spectrum, to the core of our values.

What do you think? Would you (or do you) drink raw milk? Should dairies be allowed to produce and sell it, if consumers are willing to buy it?

This post was written for Blog Action Day 2011, part of an annual event that unites the world’s bloggers in posting about the same issue on the same day. For more info visit http://www.BlogActionDay.org and follow #BAD11 on Twitter.

[Image: Adrian Boliston]

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13 thoughts on “Raw Milk and the Grassroots Food Movement

  1. Pingback: Dairy Ignoramus « My Blog spiritandanimal.wordpress.com

  2. Actually, the owner of Organic Pastures likes to perpetuate a untruth. When his products were linked to an E. Coli outbreak, the state of California sent food safety inspectors to his farm. They found dangerous E. Coli pathogens in his cows. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5723a2.htm

    They also found signs of contamination in his milk. This incident isn’t the only time his products have been recalled because of contamination. He won’t tell you that, and he coaches his sales team to spread clever lies about his record.

  3. Now – Premier McGuinty – it is time to meet with Michael Schmidt so that we can have healthy food… instead of milk from cows that eat corn silage – that means the leaves – not just the corn and also soy – which makes the cows sick – and then a pumped full of antibiotics – and that effluent is called PASTEURIZED HOMOGENIZED MILK not fit for human consumption – and the milk marketing board has to spend countless dollars to promote this “so called FOOD”.

  4. Pingback: Raw Milk and the Grassroots Food Movement « 3 Wheeled Cheese

  5. My wife pushed us to switch to raw cow’s milk a few years back. I balked at the price – $10/gallon(!!!)

    Then after a few days of the (much tastier and richer) new milk, I realized that digestive discomfort that I’d taken for granted for almost 40 years was almost gone. A little later, we got dairy goats, and those unpleasant digestive symptoms (you really don’t want me to be more detailed here) disappeared entirely.

    If I had no immune system, or I didn’t have personal familiarity with the farm and its practices, I might not drink raw, but for years now it’s been a huge blessing to me.

  6. My family has been drinking raw milk for two years now. We have NEVER had one problem. I feel we are much healthier now than before. We are fortunate enough to belong to a cow share program and get our milk fresh from a local farmer. Its tastes great, digests great and we would like to keep the option of choosing to drink it. I cannot understand why there is an issue here. People can choose to eat fast food, they can choose to smoke and drink. We are informed citizens who choose to drink REAL milk not the altered frankenfood they are selling at the grocery store. It is OUR business what we put in our bodies, it needs to stay that way! The government should be supporting the small farmers that are providing healthy products for the locals and sustaining themselves.

    • On the subject of “frankenfood,” I think it’s interesting that regulators have no qualms about GMO products. There’s really not enough evidence to say that they’re safe, but they don’t even have to be labeled.

  7. My family drinks raw milk, only buys raw milk (although in my state it is only sold for pet consumption), and believes it should be available to all who choose and who believe in the health benefits of raw milk. Aside from preferring it for personal use, I do NOT believe that anyone should be able to tell me what I can and cannot eat or drink. The government doesn’t tell people not to smoke, though science clearly points out the health risks of engaging in that activity; the government doesn’t tell me not to drink, when the consequences of that choice are clear; it doesn’t tell me not to eat junk food…why can I not choose this option legally? Seriously. If I could not purchase milk from GRASSFED cows, without homogenizing or pasteurizing it I would have to buy my own cow. There is no other choice. What do you think people drank before the 1950’s anyway??

    • Agreed. If smoking and eating hamburgers is a “right,” then why doesn’t the same reasoning apply to raw milk (which actually has nutritional value)? Again, industry influence probably has a lot to do with it.

  8. Now that a nearby market stocks raw milk, it is the ONLY milk I buy and drink. If there is no raw milk available, I will buy organic milk. Raw milk tastes better and is better for me. The dairy grass-feeds its cows and is not far from where I live (San Francisco). From what I have learned about industrial milk production, the idea of non-organic, industrial milk, makes me ill.

  9. Thanks for commenting, everybody. Very good points about cigarettes and fast food–these are definitely more dangerous than any kind of milk.

    I’m glad to see other people interested in this discussion–it’s often overlooked next to the more obvious food issues.

  10. My family just started buying raw milk from a local farmer and we’re happy that we belong to a cow share program too.
    Just wanted to ask a question to everyone:
    Should I be worried if I give raw milk to my two small kids without cooking it first? My parents advised me to cook it shortly because they’re affraid of kids getting bacteria.
    Thank you all!
    Worried mom 🙂

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