Moving Towards Raw Milk
I’m currently doing some catch up on old Underground Wellness podcasts. UW is simply the best podcast on heath at fitness out there right now, along with Robb Wolf’s Paleolithic Solution. Sean Croxton is doing some excellent work uncovering the myths and fallacies about nutrition. Some of the topics Sean has covered so far are the dangers of soy, the importance of gut bacteria, and the myths about cholesterol. I’d highly recommend you go to Itunes and check out the solid work that Sean is doing.
The Face of Raw Milk
Back in April 2009, Sean spoke with Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures farm in Fresno, California about raw milk. Organic Pastures sells raw milk, butter, cheese, and cream at select stores throughout California. Mark is a very well spoken, intelligent advocate for the raw milk movement, and his conversation with Sean discussed the pasteurization process or regular milk, the health benefits of raw milk, and the misconceptions and government intervention in the raw milk business. Before listening to this podcast, I had little knowledge about the facts surrounding raw milk. The only things I knew going in was how heavily processed pasteurized milk is and that raw milk gets very little publicity. By the end of the podcast, my libertarian leanings were out in full force, frustrated again with the government’s uncanny ability to meddle with the decisions of the consumer.
The Pasteurization Process
In the beginning, all milk is raw. But at that point, milk diverges into either the kind that becomes pasteurized and the milk that remains raw for people to drink. The government sets much different standards for raw milk that is consumed and raw milk that becomes pasteurized.
Named for Louis Pasteur, milk pasteurization involves the heat treatment of milk to kill pathogens. To pasteurize, raw milk is heated to 161 degrees fahrenheit for about 15-20 seconds, effectively killing most of the pathogens and bacteria contained in milk. At first blush, this appears to be a good thing, because nobody wants to get sick. However, let’s look at the benefits of raw milk that are lost during the pasteurization process.
Raw Milk Benefits
One of the effects (and main goals) of pasteurization is to kill all of the bacteria in milk, both good and bad. This acts like one giant antibiotic for the milk you drink and destroys all of the biodiversity of flora in raw milk. And we all now how important good bacteria and probiotics are for our gut health, right? Mark describes how the good bacteria in his raw milk are so biodiverse that some don’t even register on the probiotics scale. Some of the crucial roles played by good gut bacteria like Lactobacillus are in the immune response, the metabolic process (digestion), repression of pathogens, preventing allergy, and preventing inflammatory disease.
Additionally, Mark’s milk contains a plethora of digestive enzymes, which take significant pressure off of our digestive system. He has countless stories from people who are lactose intolerant that are able to drink raw milk with absolutely no problems. Additionally, the benefits from raw milk have been so effective for these lactose intolerant folks that they were able to even tolerate some processed milk and ice cream after drinking raw milk for a while.
Mark describes how cultures like the Masai and early herders have been drinking raw milk for many centuries with no illnesses or danger of pathogens. This milk from pasture raised, grass fed cows is extremely high in omega 3’s, which is a crucial aspect especially in the modern American diet that is unfavorably balanced toward Omega 6 fats.
For a referenced summary of the many health benefits of raw milk, go here.
The pasteurization process, in order to protect us against milk-borne pathogens, is killing all of the good bacteria in milk, which protects us against other pathogens, not to mention the other functions of our gut flora. The real question becomes, is it worth it to lose all of these benefits of raw milk to pasteurization? Is raw milk really so dangerous that we need to protect ourselves?
Raw Milk Safety
It’s true there have been issues with raw milk in the past, specifically with the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes and Campylobacter. According to the FDA’s statistics, raw milk has led to 187 hospitalizations fro 1998 to 2008. However, pasteurization itself is hardly perfect, as noted by a study by Fahey and Morgan who noted an outbreak of Campylobacter from failed pasteurization. Despite what the FDA would have you believe, pasteurized milk has resulted in salmonella outbreaks and is not a perfect system. In fact, the processing of food in general has had significant problems with infection lately, so it’s not like raw milk is the black sheep when it comes to food borne pathogens.
The big truth to glean from this is that the source and quality of raw milk is of the utmost importance. This study assessed the association of risk factors with raw milk contamination in dairy farms. They found the cleanliness of the cows, the cows’ exercise area, and the process of milking to be the biggest factors associated with contamination. Additionally, the diet of the cow is critical. Raw milk cows that are grass fed as nature intended it have significantly more health benefits and lower incidence of contamination. This is in contrast to cows who are fed with grain, soy, or cottonseed oil.
At Organic Pastures, Mark has never had a single problem with contamination. His cows are 100% grass fed and well cared for. The biggest problem he’s had is actually getting his milk to the consumer. The FDA bans sales of non-pasteurized milk and it is outlawed in 25 states. However, strangely enough, it is permitted as pet food. Consumers in states where raw milk is banned have taken to driving hours to find it under the guise that it will be used as pet food. Despite the many noted benefits described above and in the referenced link, the FDA has released a statement that raw milk is extremely dangerous and has no ‘nutritional difference’ to pasteurized milk. This is sadly typical of the FDA or USDA, who tend to break things down into nutritive categories, rather than considering the fact that maybe nature had a plan a few hundred thousand years before we got here. It is with this hubris that they come up with ‘fortified’ food products, which effectively process the natural nutrients out of our food and then decide to artificially add them back in to the end product. If not hubris, their declaration that there is no nutritional difference between the products is simply an outright lie in order to make consumers focus only on the negatives of raw milk.
For me, this is another case of the government seriously overstepping it’s bounds. There is an obsession in this country with making everything perfect. With protecting us from ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING. Yes, raw milk has bacteria. But everything has bacteria. You can’t sterilize the whole world. As an informed consumer, I am happy and secure in the knowledge that I can learn everything I can about my raw milk producer in California and make an educated decision to buy from him. What about the people in the 25 states where raw milk is banned? Sadly, they don’t have that luxury.
The FDA is treating the consumer as if they were idiots who need to be childproofed and stifling local agriculture at the same time. The problem with raw milk for the government is that it doesn’t work as a national, industrial enterprise. Scaling this up to the magnitude of factory farming simply does not work because the minute it gets too big, cleanliness and bacteria become a problem. Because the process is well, unprocessed, healthy raw milk will always be a local endeavor between the farmer and the consumer. And this means small farms. Who don’t have general counsels. And branding officers. And marketing teams. And people to do paperwork. Essentially, they don’t live on the level as the FDA, or the government in general. And so the FDA hates the fact that they can’t control the process rather than god forbid, allow the market to dictate. It boils down to the fact that if I want to take the chance to buy a product with proven health benefits despite a chance of negative side effects, that is my right as a consumer. And unfortunately that right is currently unavailable to the citizens of 25 states in this country.
In the future, I’ll get into detail about some of the current news involving bans, legal issues, and regulatory standards for raw milk across the country.