Gary Showman puts a Dixie cup full of raw milk into my hand and looks on expectantly, beaming. We’re in the room on his farm where he keeps the milk his two-dozen cows produce. There’s the familiar hum of refrigeration, small pipes passing overhead, and a large silver vat of milk, which takes up a third of the room. I’ve already admitted to him I’ve never drank raw milk, and he’s clearly delighted to be the one to introduce me to it. I don’t want to let him down.
I drain the cup in two gulps. It tastes...like milk.
I’m a little disappointed. I don’t know what I was expecting. Something unfamiliar and exotic, perhaps, a taste as outsized as the controversy surrounding it. After all, if the claims of the proponents of raw milk were to be believed, the drink should have tasted like an elixir of good health -- I would not have been surprised by an eerie, healthful glow. Likewise, if raw milk detractors were to be believed, it should have tasted foul, and looked like a vile black brew of harmful bacteria.
But it tastes like milk. Yes, with a creamy aftertaste missing from the pasteurized 2 percent milk at home. It’s familiar. Homey. Later I’ll learn to appreciate the milk more. When the temperature spikes into the 80s, or when my neighbor brings over a homemade cinnamon roll, a glass of cold raw milk is the perfect compliment, tasting thicker and creamier than its pasteurized counterparts and evoking childhood memories. Still, the taste -- like so many things about raw milk -- lies comfortably, unassumingly between the polar extremes.
And those extremes are born of the debate that begins and ends with pasteurization. That’s the process by which milk is heated to about 160 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 to 20 seconds. The process kills harmful bacteria such as Salmonella, Listeria, Campylobacter, and E. Coli O157:H7, all of which can cause serious food-borne illnesses that can cause permanent damage and may even lead to death.
French scientist Louis Pasteur “invented” the process, proposing it in the 1860s as a method to keep beer and wine from souring. A couple decades later, pasteurization was applied to milk, which had become a serious public health problem as a result of the Industrial Revolution.
In the 1800s, U.S. cities began to swell with poor, unskilled immigrant laborers who came to work the new factories, and dairies appeared among them to provide milk for the burgeoning population of inner-city children. These crowded, unsanitary dairies were often placed next to distilleries so the cows could feed on the spent grain that was the by-product of making alcohol. The distillery “swill” gave cows a temporary boost in milk production, but also made them unhealthy and susceptible to disease, and the milk they produced was watery and bluish and too often cut with dirty water, prompting producers to add chalk, flour, or starch to give it a whiter color. The swill milk was exposed to diseased cows, cow feces, human contamination, and was often poorly refrigerated (if at all), and, as a result, was a carrier of tuberculosis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and brucellosis, among other diseases.
These diseases devastated inner cities, and swill milk was a major contributor to the death rate of infants, which rose to about 50 percent in the mid 1800s.
Once pasteurization was applied to milk in cities in the late 1800s, the death rate dropped immediately for those children that drank it. The success of pasteurization was such that activists and government officials soon began calling for the pasteurization of all milk. By 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt assigned a commission to look into pasteurization, which found that raw milk was a danger and pasteurization would save lives. Following the commission’s recommendation, states began to make pasteurization compulsory and forbade the selling of raw milk. Today, only half the states allow retail or on-farm sales of raw milk, and 10 other states allow “herd shares” -- groups of private consumers who purchase a “share” of a cow and obtain milk from the farmer. Selling raw milk for human consumption in the remaining 15 states is illegal.
Raw milk advocates, on the other hand, believe the pasteurization process actually eliminates the positive health benefits of milk, killing essential enzymes and stripping certain vitamins and nutrients from it.
They also dispute that pasteurization was the silver bullet in improving public health. According to a web posting from Ron Schmid, author of The Untold Story of Raw Milk, “pasteurization was a matter of economics and practicality.” A raw milk certification movement in the early 20th century also improved both dairy and milk quality -- although production and product were expensive. And enforcing the necessary levels of hygiene on the tens of thousands of dairies that provided the country with milk was impractical. Pasteurization was cheap and efficient.
Other public health improvements accompanied pasteurization: Improved sanitation. Electrical refrigeration. The advent of the car, which allowed milk to be brought to market quickly. An increased understanding of the pathogens that create food-borne illnesses. These improvements exist today and, argue raw milk advocates, make possible the sanitary and safe production of raw milk.
To those that drink raw milk, then, the regulations restricting its production are overkill. Or worse. They’re the intrusive meddling of naive do-gooders and impersonal government bureaucrats standing between consumers and their choice to eat quality, healthy, unprocessed food.
Pennsylvania has one of the most liberal raw milk laws in the country -- raw milk can be sold directly from permitted farms or in retail stores if property bottled and labeled -- but federal law prohibits the transportation of raw milk for sale across state lines, a result of a 1984 lawsuit by Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen. Carrying milk from Pennsylvania, say, to Ohio (where it’s illegal to sell) will make you a federal criminal.
“Raw milk is the new pot,” wrote New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear, “only harder to get.”
You can see Showman Farms at least a half mile off, because it’s perched atop a rounded, verdant hill in Edinboro in some of Erie County’s most picturesque landscape, its three silver silos glinting in the sun, not unlike a kind of pastoral palace.
From the farm’s driveway, the farm still looks a little mythical. There’s a large barn, brightly painted red, with a neat farmhouse tucked alongside it. Children race around the yard, and the gentle lowing of cows emanates from inside.
It’s almost like a fictional representation of what a farm should look like. Something straight out of our collective American imagination.
Inside, my gallon glass container is whisked from my hands and filled before I can introduce myself. When I do, I notice the face of Gary’s wife, Laurie, cloud. She’s slightly taller than her husband and now bears a tired expression -- apparently she had issues with the article that the last reporter who visited wrote.
In a sense, she has reason to be mistrustful. While the farm is innocent-looking enough, farms like hers and her husband’s that sell raw milk have come under a lot of fierce government scrutiny and occasional harassment. That’s because raw milk represents something greater than just milk. It’s the vanguard of a rebellion, a food rebellion, one that threatens the way we create, distribute, and consume food, and -- according to the authorities -- one that threatens the public health.
Take Daniel Allgyer, an Amish farmer from Kinzers, Pennsylvania, who is the subject of a 2-year-long investigation by the Food and Drug Administration for shipping fresh raw milk to a private food club in Maryland. Federal agents posed as consumers in an undercover sting operation, which culminated in an armed raid on the dairy farm. Allgyer’s dairy operation has been shut down.
It’s hard to balance the image of Showman Farms with the lengthy federal investigations and threatened criminal charges against other raw milk producers. Here, in the cow barn, there are some two-dozen black-and-white Holsteins, lazy in the heat of the afternoon. Gary has placed large fans at one end of the barn, and the animals stir rarely in the breeze. In one row lie the expectant mothers with swollen udders. In another are the calves, the only cows here that show curiosity in the heat. Laurie’s Australian Blue Heeler, Matey, hovers around us as eavesdropping. A cat runs up the ladder to a loft.
“This has been a dairy farm for six generations,” says Laurie. “It used to be our neighbors would stop by and get their milk from the tank in a jar. My son’s wife just had her baby, she’ll be 2-weeks old tomorrow. She drank raw milk the whole time she was pregnant. Us folks out in the country had always drank raw milk.
“I’m not against pasteurized milk. With all the people in cities, they don’t have access to raw milk. They have to have pasteurized milk. But I don’t see anything wrong with drinking raw milk. I think it’s healthier for people. If you have access to it, you should drink it.”
Selling raw milk often saves small dairy farmers like the Showmans’. Selling milk for shipping, pasteurization, and the wider milk market is not cost efficient. The price of milk is set by impersonal commodity markets and the food processing industry, and a 2012 dairy farmer can expect to get only about $1.50 a gallon, barely enough to cover costs. On the other hand, selling raw milk allows dairy farmers to sell to consumers directly, and for a much higher price. The Showmans sell their milk for $4 a gallon and were able to trim their herd down to a manageable number, and now they run the farm the way they want to, which is with the animals foremost in mind.
“We wanted to stay where every one of our cows, we know their names,” says Gary. “They are not a machine. They’re one of the best animals, in my opinion, in the world. They give you milk, you get cheese from them, and meat.”
“They’re like our pets,” adds Laurie.
Showman Farms is permitted to sell raw milk, which means they have to undergo regular testing of their animals, the milk, and the water with which they clean the milking machines. The herd, too, is closed -- that is, no outside animals are brought into the farm, greatly reducing the chance of introducing disease to the Showmans’ cows. But what inspires the most trust in me is the Showmans themselves. The farm is tidy, the cows healthy looking. They love what they do.
Other people must sense this, too, because the Showman’s business has been steadily growing since they started selling raw milk three years ago. Now they sell between 150 and 250 gallons of raw milk a week to a variety of regular clientele, including people from as far as Cleveland.
I wonder, is it legal to bring it back to Cleveland, even just to drink?
“They’re allowed to buy it here,” says Laurie Showman. “Who knows? Maybe they drink it at the state line.” She’s warmed up to me some, and laughs a deep, explosive, and contagious laugh.
You can boil the entire raw milk debate down to two questions. Is raw milk healthier than pasteurized milk? And how risky is it?
Much of the touted health benefits come from the Weston A. Price Foundation, an organization devoted to the observations of a Cleveland-area dentist traveling among indigenous peoples in undeveloped regions of the world. According to Price, an indigenous diet of unprocessed whole foods contributed to their health, while a diet of white flour, pasteurized milk, and refined sugar creates systemic health problems.
According to the Weston A. Price Foundation raw milk contains a number of health benefits, most of which are erased with pasteurization. Notably, argue raw milk proponents, pasteurization destroys or alters critical enzymes, fats, and nutrients that aid in the digestion of milk, promote growth, and strengthen the human immune system. Raw milk, then, builds better bone density, prevents asthma and allergies in children, helps combat skin disease, kidney disease, prostrate problems, chronic fatigue, and even can help prevent cancer. Some proponents even claim raw milk can cure erectile dysfunction.
Most of the claims of the efficacy and importance of raw milk’s various enzymes and proteins are supported by a variety of sources like Scientific American and the British Journal of Nutrition, and point to studies on the growth and health benefits of drinking raw milk, like that found in a 1931 Nature article that found Scottish orphans who had been given 3/4 quart of raw milk daily had “...a growth in height...[that] is significantly greater than that to pasteurized milk.”
And raw milk advocates point to anecdotal evidence of the benefits of raw milk. Many who have lactose intolerance swear by raw milk, claiming they’re able to digest it without problem. Others tell stories of cleared up acne, eczema, and increased energy.
Still, it’s obvious that the Foundation is sifting through the scientific and medical record to find studies that support its claim, and ignores anything that challenges its particular views on health and nutrition. Fred Pritzker -- partner of the nation’s premier legal representative of food-borne illness lawsuits, Minneapolis’ Pritzker Olson -- said as much to a raw-milk-friendly crowd at a February debate over raw milk sponsored by the Harvard Food Law Society: “That passionate belief you have, that absolute certainty in the virtues of your thought process are important,” he said, “but we all have our blind side.”
“Numerous studies of the relative nutritional merits of raw and pasteurized milk have been conducted in animals and humans, and no differences were detectable,” the authors wrote in the 1984 article, “Unpasteurized milk: the hazards of a health fetish,” in The Journal of the American Medical Association. Likewise, a 2009 article in Food Protection Trends stated, “review of the scientific literature has shown that there are no significant nutritional differences between pasteurized and raw milk.”
The Food Protection Trends article, for example, notes that the enzymes destroyed in the pasteurization process are bovine, and “these enzymes are not used by humans to aid metabolism of calcium and other nutrients; enzymes naturally present in humans are used to digest and metabolize the components of milk.”
But the scientific side of the debate also carries with it a good dose of Pritzker’s blind side. That same Food Protection Trends article dismisses raw milk possibly being a source of beneficial bacteria -- a probiotic -- because it hadn’t been labeled as such by FAO/WHO guidelines, having failed to pass a safety assessment. “No such assessment has been conducted for raw milk,” note the authors dryly, hardly a definitive rebuttal of raw milk’s probiotic claims. Likewise, a series of recent European studies on raw milk consumption’s link to a reduction in asthma and allergies was met by a questionable dismissal of the studies’ methodology.
The debate over raw milk’s safety is equally confusing.
Public health officials are unequivocal about raw milk. The FDA’s policy is direct: “Raw milk should not be consumed by anyone, at any time, for any reason.” The CDC is more expansive: “Raw milk can carry harmful bacteria and other germs that can make you very sick or kill you. While it is possible to get foodborne illnesses from many different foods, raw milk is one of the riskiest of all.”
“It’s great for humans,” says Dr. Heidi Kassenborg, a regulator at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture at the Harvard Food Law debate. “It’s also great for bacteria. Bacteria love milk.”
According to Kassenborg, pathogens get into milk through contact with cow manure, which is often found on the cows’ teats. Even after careful cleaning, some vestige of manure may remain and come into contact with the milk during milking. Even constant testing doesn’t ensure contaminant-free milk. A negative test result on milk doesn’t mean pathogens don’t exist or won’t exist -- contamination is sporadic and not evenly distributed throughout the milk in bulk tanks.
“You’re really playing a game of Russian roulette,” said Kassenborg to raw milk drinkers. And those with weaker immune systems -- children, the elderly, those with illness -- are especially susceptible to raw-milk-related pathogens.
According to the CDC, from 1998 to 2009, raw milk accounted for 93 outbreaks of foodborne illness in the United States, causing 1,837 reported illnesses, 195 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths. In January, Pennsylvania experienced its largest raw-milk-related foodborne illness outbreak to date, as over 70 consumers of raw milk sold at the Franklin county farm, The Family Cow, came down with intestinal disease from campylobacter contamination.
The CDC claims that raw milk is 150 times more likely to give a consumer a foodborne illness than pasteurized milk.
Raw milk advocates don’t dispute that drinking raw milk is riskier than drinking pasteurized milk. But the risk, they say, is overblown. All food is risky. In 2006, 200 were sickened and 5 died from eating contaminated bagged spinach. Thirty died from Listeria-contaminated cantaloupe in 2011. And there have been at least 30 outbreaks of illness since 1992 from sprouts. One of the worst culprits for foodborne illness has been hamburger, which introduced the world to the deadly O157:H7 strain of the e coli bacteria in the early 1990s, when 600 were sickened and 4 died from eating tainted Jack In The Box burgers in the Pacific Northwest.
Raw milk advocates also argue that reporting of foodborne illness is biased. According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, a 2001 Campylobacter outbreak in Wisconsin, for example, was blamed on raw milk -- yet only 24 of the reported 800 ill people were members of the cow-share program that was identified as the culprit, and more than 300 members never experienced any illness. According to David Gumpert in “The Raw Milk Revolution,” if health officials discover someone with foodborne illness has consumed raw milk, they’ll ascribe the source to the milk without actually investigating other possible culprits or being able to successfully identify the pathogen in the milk supply. For government officials, raw milk is a convenient scapegoat.
And even if health officials’ figures are to be taken at face value, drinking raw milk seems to be no more risky than consuming other everyday products, such as frozen seafood or raw produce. Again according to the Weston A. Price Foundation, based on CDC statistics on a per-serving basis, a person is 10 times more likely to contract a foodborne illness from deli meat than from raw milk.
Isaiah Young is a quiet, tall man in his 20s with a handsome square face, straight brown hair that falls to his shoulders, and a thick dark beard. He holds on to words as if they were precious, speaking quietly and carefully with a rural Ohio twang that sounds almost Southern. With his height and bulk, he’s a towering presence, but so shy, polite, and good-natured, he’s impossible to dislike.
“Growing up I was exposed to much better foods,” he says, explaining to me why he’s interested in raw milk and fresh produce and other unprocessed food, “because my parents had gardens. My mom’s always canned.” Young’s family also bartered for meat, cows and hogs raised, slaughtered, and butchered by neighbors.
We’re having lunch in the cafe at Erie’s organic supermarket, The Whole Foods Co-operative, surrounded by organic produce, fresh cheeses, vitamins, and people who are invested in healthy food. Lunch is my idea: it was Young who brought raw milk to my attention, told me how to find Showman Farm.
For Young, who grew up in Ohio’s Darke county, his family, a tenant on a series of farms, unprocessed, straight-from-the-farm food was the way he was brought up. It wasn’t much of a stretch for him to rediscover the benefits of unprocessed food.
“That’s what I’ve been doing,” he says, “I cook from fresh produce, even if it may not be the best organic. I’m cooking plainly from scratch as much as I can. I’ve always done that. I don’t buy anything boxed or any prepared dinners.”
What got him more interested in the “foodie” movement was reading Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, an examination of the country’s food supply and the food industry’s negative impact on the environment and public health. That book led to other sources, including Sally Fallon’s “Nourishing Traditions,” a cookbook that espouses much of Weston A. Price’s ideas, and where Young learned about the benefit of raw milk and lacto-fermentation, a process used to make sauerkraut and yogurt, even ketchup. That process of learning eventually took Young to the documentary, “Food, Inc.,” which shows the horrific conditions at slaughterhouses and factory farms.
“I was actually sick to my stomach,” Young recounts of seeing the film. “I mean, everybody has a pretty good idea about how food is made, but once they spell it out for you -- oh my god. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else for two days.”
Young moved to Erie in 2008 to work on the Flagship Niagara, and he’s currently an able seaman on the professional crew of the 19th-century-era wooden tallship. Watching him climb effortlessly in the rigging as high as 100 feet above the wooden deck reminds you that in his professional life, he’s refused to settle for an ordinary 9-to-5 existence. But in his approach to food, he’s far from unusual. Millions of Americans like him look to healthier, whole, and unprocessed foods.
Many come to the whole food movement for whole foods in different ways. The raw milk movement has a large libertarian contingent; their beau ideal presidential candidate, Ron Paul, this campaign season espoused support for legalization of raw milk. According to Dana Goodyear in the New Yorker, raw milk supporters “converged on a hotel in Las Vegas, to attend the Constitutional Sheriffs Convention,” a group led by reactionary Richard Mack, who has ties to the militia movement. Still others come to raw milk through the liberal anti-corporate movement or religious groups.
What unites many in the movement is a shared distaste for factory farming. For food raised with pesticides and other chemicals. Crops that are genetically modified and grown with synthetic fertilizer. Meat that’s bathed in ammonia from animals raised in gruesome conditions, swollen with growth hormones, and doused regularly with anti-biotics. Not only are these processes bad for the environment and human health -- farmland prone to erosion, dangerous chemicals polluting rivers and sea and adversely impacting marine ecosystems -- they make food less nutritious. Broccoli, say, has a third of the calcium today than it did in 1950, found a 2004 study. And the less nutritious our food is, the more susceptible we are to health conditions like bronchitis, asthma, and heart disease. And that’s not even considering the damage the common by-products of our industrialized food system does to Americans’ long-term health. Soda and fast food, for example, is linked to heart disease, obesity, osteoporosis, kidney damage, and diabetes.
It’s for these reasons that I find myself agreeing with raw milk activists and thinking that the governmental regulatory agencies’ position on raw milk is absurd. Even with the evident risk that raw milk may contain dangerous pathogens, how can anybody claim it poses the same threat to public health as, say, McDonald’s and the gargantuan industrial food complex that supports it? If government agencies think parents shouldn’t have the right to feed their children raw milk, why does it allow other parents to feed their children fast-food hamburgers and soda?
More absurd still is that the most virulent of the pathogens that cause human illness don’t originate in milk. Like e. coli O157:H7, they come from animals. And more specifically, they originate on factory farms, where concentrated numbers of animals and overzealous use of antibacterials cause rapid mutation of pathogens. E. coli O157:H7, for example, is found in the gut of cattle, especially corn-fed cows. The bacteria is passed on to the cow’s manure -- millions of gallons of which, at factory farms, is dumped into open pits, which run off into crops, infecting them and causing foodborne illness outbreaks.
The real bacterial public health threat comes from factory farming, not raw milk.
It’s these kind of absurdities that cause people like Liz Reitzig to become activists. A Maryland mother of five, Reitzig turned to raw milk to solve her oldest child’s digestive problems as an infant when she was weaning. The milk was so successful she fed it to her second child -- but a state law was then passed in Maryland banning cow-share agreements, and she had to feed her next two children pasteurized milk, both of whom, as a result, “were incredibly sick.” Later, Reitzig joined the private food club that Pennsylvania farmer Daniel Allgyer was supplying. Since his prosecution and the shutting down of his farm, Reitzig has been scrambling to find a new source of milk.
“It really upset me when they banned cow shares,” she says in a telephone interview. “People who don’t even know me tell me I’m a bad mother. You can’t even decide what to feed your children. They turned me into a criminal.”
So she joined the “Raw Milk Freedom Riders,” a project of the Farm Food Federation Coalition that transports raw milk across state lines in an overt act of civil disobedience. Their first action took place in November of last year, when they bought raw milk in Pennsylvania, and drank it on the steps of the FDA in Silver Springs, Maryland.
“Our farmers are being criminalized for distributing and producing milk,” says Reitzig. “Unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats are getting between people and their food. We want to change FDA policy.”
For Reitzig, it doesn’t matter why people consume raw milk, the prohibition on raw milk is a prohibition on people’s right to decide what food they want to eat. And that issue also goes hand-in-hand other issues, like the preservation of the environment and rural economies.
It’s been a week since I bought my first gallon of raw milk from Showman Farms, and this morning I’ve finished off the last of it. I have not experienced any miracle health improvements -- in fact, I still experience my daily little aches and pains of existence. I don’t feel any extraordinary new energy, either, at least no more than you’d expect from a 150-calorie dairy drink loaded with fat. And even though I failed to contract even the slightest illness from drinking the milk, I didn’t give any to my two children. They will continue to drink the pasteurized milk I buy at the supermarket.
I’m still deeply ambivalent about raw milk.
That is to say, this article is not a clear recommendation to drink raw milk. Like author Michael Pollan, who in a 2010 Seattle Times interview said people should eat whatever they want, but “I think people turn a blind eye to some of the food safety concerns,” I’m not sold on the arguments made by the raw milk crowd. Too much of the advocacy sounds like the kind of talk you’d find coming from a carnival barker luring suckers in to see the bearded lady.
On the other hand, the government’s position is even more ludicrous. Its warnings against raw milk sound overly shrill and seem based on a willful refusal to consider consumers’ rights. Unlike some raw milk advocates, I don’t think government regulators are the tools of the corporate agricultural industry. Instead, I think the idea of small, non-industrial farm production is outside their ken. Regulating raw milk farmers is labor-intensive, an inexact science, and unpredictable, attributes that should rankle any good bureaucrat.
What’s the answer? To me, it seems clear that raw milk should be legal, but regulated, so that only small farms can produce it. The worst thing that could happen to raw milk is mass production.
Let them drink milk.
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