by Marion Nestle
Jun 7 2010

The raw milk fights: economics, ideology, or both?

Today’s New York Times has an op-ed, “Crying over raw milk“, about the political fights over raw milk in Wisconsin.  The Wisconsin legislature has introduced a bill allowing dairy farmers to sell raw milk directly to consumers.  The conventional dairy industry is not happy about that.

The author of the piece, Michael Feldman, is dubious about the purported health benefits of raw milk but is quite clear about its economic benefits: “you can’t get $6 a gallon for pasteurized milk.”

Crass economics is behind much of the politics of raw milk these days.  The conventional dairy industry is in trouble: too many cows, too much milk, and not nearly enough regulation of supply.  In contrast, raw milk has passionate advocates willing to pay premium prices.

Not fair, says the dairy industry, which wants raw milk to be regulated:

In a letter to two senior members the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, the dairy groups called for a measure obliging all facilities producing raw or unpasteurized milk products for direct human consumption to “register with FDA and adhere to the tried-and-true food safety requirements that are followed by all other facilities producing milk products”.

As for the safety of raw milk, it is useful to take a look at Seattle attorney Bill Marler’s website: “Real Raw Milk Facts.”   There, he summarizes recent cases of illness caused by toxic E. coli and Salmonella contaminants in raw milk.  These constitute a full employment act for attorneys like Marler who represent victims of foodborne illness.

My position on raw milk has long been that people have a right to drink it but it had better be produced safely.  I believe that all foods–no exceptions–should be produced under well designed and carefully followed HACCP plans (or their equivalent) with pathogen testing at intervals commensurate with the level of risk.

But food safety experts tell me that raw milk can never be tested frequently enough to be confident it is safe.

Raw milk carries a greater risk of bacterial contamination than pasteurized milk and people who buy it should know what those risks are.  The risk may be small, but it is finite.  Putting a child at risk of hemolytic uremic syndrome from toxic E. coli just doesn’t make sense to me.

Like Michael Feldman, I’m dubious about the claims made for the health benefits of raw milk.  No question, it tastes better and that may be reason enough to want it.  But until I can be sure that the producer is scrupulous about safety, my personal choice favors pasteurization.

But that’s just me.  You?

  • LiveAndLetLive

    Oh right, EB Nine, let’s just create another sin tax for a “risk” that you obviously do not take. And what next after the raw milk tax? Perhaps a tax on women who don’t walk around in potato sacks because they attract crime and run up your law enforcement taxes? Or maybe we should tax people for what you think is risky sexual behavior that spreads expensive diseases around?

    Or maybe we should tax people who choose to live in zones of high seismic activity for the beautiful views they find there, or maybe take their kids away since the kids can’t choose for themselves whether or not to take that risk? I know that a certain food germ lawyer lives in one of the highest risk locations for earthquakes in the United States, if not the world.

    Fear-mongering and micromanaging via sin taxes is going way too far and seems to have phonier and phonier motivations. It’s starting to smell like the business end of a dairy cow mentioned above.

  • stephanie

    We can buy cigarettes. We can buy alcohol. These each have a much higher risk involved. We can buy factory farm spinach, tomatoes, factory peanut butter, etc. which all pose a chance of a food borne illness. The localization and personalization of the food supply is a step in the right direction. And, one more thing that bothers me, why do we only want to make illegal acute food-related problems? What about the more devastating problems of metabolic syndrome, CAD, diabetes, obesity, etc. related to the chronic consumption of unsafe food-like products? In my opinion, I’d rather have my child drink raw milk than eat a Twinkie. Anybody read those ingredients?

  • TD

    I am quite amazed that you would think that raw milk is simply risky to drink!! You must research drinking habits of other diets where people don’t have access to pasteurized milk all the time. I grew up drinking milk that came home in raw form, was then boiled couple of times at home to kill any bacteria if present at all and then consumed as any other form of milk. I never once got sick because of milk. No one in my entire household got sick because of milk related bacteria. Repeated heating up of milk up to boiling temperatures is a form of pasteurizing that makes the milk last a little while longer. Can you please research how Americans drank milk before the huge dairy industry with strict regulations was formed? We should find out how raw milk back in those days was treated at home before consumption. Of course raw milk comes with more work, need to get milk daily (it is unsafe to drink milk that has been sitting around more than 24 hrs), must boil it once or perhaps even twice daily. But to me the biggest benefit is the taste. Unpasteurized milk tastes heavenly rich and you don’t need to drink a tonne to feel content either. Yogurt and other sweets made from raw milk is so tasty that I just can’t figure out how anyone started to like the pasteurized milk in the first place. But by my understanding back when pasteurizing milk in industrial scale started, yogurt was not common in American diet. Perhaps non-existent.
    Anyway, my point is milk in natural form is raw. Millions of people around the world for thousands of years have figured out a way to drink it safely at their homes. So it is definitely worth considering as an option even if you are used to pasteurized milk. The point of slow-food movement is to look back and consider where the food is coming from. Dairy is no exception. I am not against pasteurization at all, by the way. I think it suits the lifestyle of those who simply don’t have time to boil milk twice a day or even buy milk daily from near-by grocery store, and that includes me. But that doesn’t mean the milk enthusiasts shouldn’t try to drink it just because no one now remembers how to treat raw milk before drinking it. It might take a bit of learning, but that is not a huge problem.

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  • OK. This is confesional time. I loath milk but love cheese, particularly a couple of French favourites; an unpasteurised Normandy Camembert and an aged delight from the Haute-Savoir, whilst a raw Devon Cheddar smelling of postmans socks has me drooling even before taking the first bite. I make mayonnaise using raw eggs, let my dogs kiss me, adore pigs and even more so the fattiest cuts of their belly pork. I love country walks and would prefer to slip on a cow pat than wonder why we tolerate herds of cows being kept in sheds and fed foods they were never meant to ingest. I ponder why the leading turkey producer in the UK is permitted to convey the impression that they are reared on farms when they endure the whole of their sorry lives in buildings that conjure up images of the gas chambers of an extermination camp. In a country where, when driving, the wearing of seat belts is compulsory, I ask myself if it isn’t improving my driving but merely a means of personal protection, why is that deemed more important than legislating on issues such as should the doors of fast food restaurants be radically reduced in width. I may be naive but why do so many of the staple foods in supermarkets now have to have a laundry list of ingredients that my mother and grandmother just wouldn’t recognize. Which brings me back to unpasteurised Dairy. It is a simple, uncomplicated and natural food, free of the plethora of artificial additives that plague the processed food industry. Most certainly I agree with Marion Nestle that people should know that unpasteurised milk and dairy carry a greater risk of bacterial infection than pasteurised products, but I do think that I should be allowed to make that choice without the draconian excesses of State interference by way of the prohibition of it’s entire production. Thankfully, here in the UK, that spectre no longer looms and the raw milk sector is ever burgeoning and thriving. Personally, knowing of the scrutiny employed by those engaged in the raw milk industry, I am more than happy to indulge my taste buds in the incomparable pleasures that attend a wonderful, artisan, hand crafted, unpasteurised cheese than be handed a stale baguette in which languishes a mass produced slice of rubbery cheese, wrapped in a long -deceased limp lettuce by a waitress who probably hasn’t washed her hands since her last visit to the loo.

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