We must be protected from the “dangerous” white gold: Raw Milk

We must be protected from the “dangerous” white gold: Raw Milk

Apparently there is a movement afoot of milk connoisseurs, people who like to live on the edge and who believe that pasteurization—the heating process that destroys all those nasty bacteria and germs—also destroys the flavor of milk. And so, despite the fact that it’s illegal in half the US states, there is still a brisk underground trade in the lactic hootch.

Harper’s Magazine looks at the trade in raw milk as well the over-the-top enforcement of laws against it.

In October 2006, Michigan officials destroyed a truckload of Richard Hebron’s unpasteurized dairy. The previous month, the Ohio Department of Agriculture shut down Carol Schmitmeyer’s farm for selling raw milk. Cincinnati cops also swooped in to stop Gary Oaks in March 2006 as he unloaded raw milk in the parking lot of a local church. When bewildered residents gathered around, an officer told them to step away from “the white liquid substance.”

I don’t feel strongly about the “right” to have and consume raw milk, but does law enforcement have to deploy the same tactics they use with drug smugglers and terrorists? It’s an effect of the militarization of police, I think.

One interesting aspect of the argument of the milk purists is that people who live on farms develop fewer autoimmune disorders than those who don’t and they believe this is because they are being exposed to bacteria that their bodies learn to fight off from an early age. Many microbiologists and immunologists have made similar arguments about First World urbanites living in super-clean, antiseptic environments weakening themselves in preparation for being laid low by diseases our ancestors would have shrugged off without notice.

For our part, Melanie and I have never been the type of parent who freaks out about our kids touching “unclean” surfaces. If food falls to the floor, we pick it up, wipe it off, and pop it in her mouth. (Obviously not in places like hospitals or high-traffic areas such as malls or restaurants.) And I will point out that Isabella has hardly been sick at all her entire life, perhaps a few days total of sniffles and raised temperatures, which is a far cry from the horror stories I hear from other parents. Is it because we aren’t afraid to expose her to the bacteria found in the wild? Maybe, maybe not.

So maybe there is something to this unpasteurization movement. For the moment, I’ll stick to the organic, BGH-free milk we drink now, mainly because the taste is so good. But if it’s better for us too, that’s even better.


Written by
Domenico Bettinelli
  • I’m 57 yrs old and remember going with my father to a local dairy farm which sold raw milk 2 Saturdays each month until the cops shut him down. I don’t remember the taste or anything besides going to the farm.
    My father grew up on a small potato farm and developed his taste for the raw stuff when, as a kid, his job was to milk the family cow each morning. He liked that chore because he got breakfast before any one else in the family-2 squirts for the bucket and 1 for his mouth.

  • On a serious note. The same bacteria pregnant woman can get from litter boxes can be found in
    raw milk. If a young person drinks raw milk from childhood they will most likely have antibodies and be safe as an adult. But if a pregnant woman without the antibodies drinks infected milk it can easily cause miscarriage especially in the first or second trimester.

  • It is just another instance of the nanny state. If a grown and presumably reasonably literate adult chooses to go to the farm for raw milk, great. Get it get 100 gallons. As long as it is clearly labeled as to what it is, let them buy it.

    The same thing happened here. The NYS health department went to serve a warrant on a raw milk selling farm. The farmer refused them access and called his attorney. The health department called the sheriff and the sheriff said this (helping the health department raid the farm)was not part of his jurisdiction.

    They went back over a 100 miles back to Albany empty handed.

    This same state leads the nation in teen pregnancy and is #1 or #2 for abortion and the health department chases milk.

  • Dom, I don’t have strong feelings one way or the other on this topic, but I can’t let this pass without commending you for the greatness of the phrase, “lactic hootch!”  Reading that gave me one of those, “Gee-I-wish-I’d-written-that” moments!  Nicely done!

  • My grandfather was a pediatrician in Massachusetts from around 1915 until the 1960’s.  He thought that pasteurization was vital and would be appalled at this underground traffic.  I had a suspicion and went and looked it up.  The disease you get from unpasteurized milk responds to antibiotics.  Therefore for forty years he treated a disease without being able to knock it out (no antibiotics in 1915).  When antibiotics no longer work everyone will get serious about not drinking raw milk again.

  • Dom,

    Isabella is healthy in part because she is home with her mom.  It used to be the case that kids got lots of colds, etc., in kindergarten.  Now, alas, many are fighting these bugs as babies because of daycare.  Others fight them in preschool; others in kindergarten.  At what point “should” children’s bodies have to deal with building up immunity by battling preponderant cold germs in their social environment?  I don’t know, but I suspect older is better.  You run into the same issue if you move—my sister-in-law had repeat bad cold years when she moved to MA from MI, and I dealt with it moving from MA to ME, and then back again.

    But I do agree with Jane—the reason health departments are worried about raw milk is that there are public health concerns with bacteria in the milk.

  • I live in Michigan.  Some people trying to get around the rules by “buying” part of a cow.  That way, they are not buying milk (illegal) since they are just getting milk from their own cow.  If you were to do this you might want to be sure you are buying the udder part, right?!

  • I got my first lactic hootch smuggled across the state lines a couple of weeks ago. First impression: it was the most luxurious dairy drink ever. It was thicker than a frappe but completely smooth. When I finished the glass and looked at the milk in the plastic carton, I remembered the other thing that farmers don’t do to raw milk: homogenize.

    The days of absolute bans on foods need to end. It doesn’t take a lot of education to understand that “consuming raw or undercooked (enter any food here) may increase your risk of…” (a warning on every raw bar and egg-frying diner menu here in MA).

    Litigation-avoidance should keep “risky” foods sufficiently underground. By risky food we’re talking about any proprietor who does not know the origin or lacks confidence in their product: for example, Chili’s, who refused to cook me a hamburger less than medium-well.

    Anyway, my second glass and the rest of the carton which was probably the equivalent of 2% milk after that first glass, had a hint of flavor but wasn’t that different from the standard pasteurized/homogenized. It’s like going from Kraft singles to cracker barrel (mild-cheddar only).

    Try it sometime. At the very least you’ve supported an entrepreneurial farmer. Let’s face it, that’s part of what the raw foods movement is about: nobody gets a premium selling commodities.

  • And I will point out that Isabella has hardly been sick at all her entire life, perhaps a few days total of sniffles and raised temperatures, which is a far cry from the horror stories I hear from other parents. Is it because we aren’t afraid to expose her to the bacteria found in the wild? Maybe, maybe not.

    No, it is probably because Isabella is home with her mom, a mom who has mentioned that she does not tend to frequent lots of playgroups/ baby gym classes/ baby music classes/ etc.  I’ll also venture to guess that Isabella goes to Mass with you rather than a nursery, and Melanie is not dropping her off in the YMCA childcare while she works out.  So basically, she is not in the types of environments that cause the horror stories you hear from other parents.  Eventually she will meet those bugs, but it sure is nice that your baby & toddler don’t have to meet them yet.

  • Autoimmune diseases have nothing to do with infections.  They have to do with allergies.  Almost all people with MS, Sjogren’s, Lupus, etc., also have Celiac disease or some other protein allergy, and some are arguing that those other disorders are secondary to protein allergies.
    The two most common protein allergies are gluten (Celiac disease) and caseine.  Human milk is over 90% whey, with almost no caseine.  Cow’s milk is mostly casein, with a smaller percentage of whey.  However, from my research into this subject (4/6 of my family, self included, have celiac disease, and at least 2 have casein problems), there’s something about raw cow’s milk that makes the casein easier to digest.  However, as someone noted above, the process that destroys it is homogenization, not pasteurization.

  • I drank raw milk for many years growing up. Loved the rich taste and texture.  We all had the habit of taking the milk bottle out of the fridge and giving it a shake before we poured, to distribute the cream which had risen to the top. 

    It took me awhile to lose the habit of shaking the bottle when I got married and started buying (out of convenience) homogenized milk.

  • We drank raw milk straight from the farmer’s tank for the 11 years that we lived out in the country about 15 minutes from where I live now.  We paid him a dollar a gallon, later I think he asked us for another 25 cents.  We went into his milkroom, turned on the stirrer to mix the cream in, took a lid off a circular hole in the top of the milk tank, and dipped in our aluminum milk pails.  At that time my family drank two or three gallons of milk a day.  It did taste very good.  But we mostly did it because it was cheaper. 

    The main public health hazard from unpasturized milk was bovine tuberculosis.  All cows are vaccinated against this now.  I didn’t know about toxoplasmosis being carried in raw milk.  If it is the same strain that one gets from cat litter, anyone who grew up with cats probably has antibodies.  Anyway,  this farmer was very clean.  The cows udders are washed.  The automatic milkers are sterilized.  The pipes which carry the milk to the tank are sterilized with steam after every milking. 

    I tend to be rather libertarian about this sort of thing. There is a place for public health laws, but there needs to be a compelling reason for them,  and they need to be changed when circumstances changed. 

    There used to be such a thing as Certified Raw Milk,  where the collection of the milk was scrutinized more diligently and the milk tested more often, so the farmer was then allowed to sell it.  Why can’t we return to a system like that? 

    Susan Peterson

  • Raw milk is a luxury I have enjoyed for the last 5 years, thanks to a local farmer who values common sense above ridiculous laws. I am constantly amazed at the most simplest of God’s gifts—the incredible diversity of this stuff called milk, the culinary potential of such a common thing as an egg, and the beauty of birth as it was meant to be (at home). I have drunk this milk through breastfeeding 4 children and 2 pregnancies. I have learned to make yogurt and butter, with the buttermilk going into my multigrain/seed bread. It’s life in the slow lane, and so worthwhile. So many people with lactose intolerance CAN handle raw milk products (I mention this because no one yet did). Of course the laws were put into place to keep greedy entrepreneurs from packing those cows in so hard that disease was inevitable, but instead of killing all disease AND most nutrition potential, why not, as someone said, return to a system where cows are treated humanely, standards keep things clean, AND we get to enjoy one of the ultimate health foods (raw milk)? Do most people know that up to 20% of store milk can include “milk products”? How are the laws protecting us from a greedy dairy industry, that not only pasteurize and ultra-pasteurize and homogenize, but also “stretch” the milk by 20%? Why do we not recognize that the diseases in our society caused or aggravated by pasteurization, homogenization, rBGH, etc. are so widespread, that they are far more dangerous than the risks associated with responsible raw milk production? I applaud the courageous farmers who are willing to obey God rather than men. (Remembering, of course, that a farmer could not obey God if he was taking shortcuts that promoted risk of contamination).