Milk: The Raw Deal 

A few days ago I received an offer to purchase unpasteurized milk for my pets from a local organic farm. For $103 I'd receive a gallon of raw milk once a week for 12 weeks. I'll save you the trouble of doing the math: that's $8.58 a gallon. I'm really fond of my cat, but not $8.58-a-week fond. Which is why I'm pretty sure this offer is an end-run around Tennessee's laws preventing the sale of raw milk for human consumption.

It's still very much on the fringes, but there's a growing movement in this country promoting the health benefits of raw milk. But a little history first.

When our country was largely rural, raw milk was a common beverage, often produced by your own cows, but sometimes purchased from a neighbor. There were no mortality and morbidity survey from public health departments or the Center for Disease Control to track illness from raw milk but it's certain no one thought twice about drinking it. Both of my parents, who were born in 1920, regularly drank raw milk as children.

But as our society became more urban, providing truly fresh raw milk became more and more difficult. Transportation was slow and there was no effective refrigeration. Perhaps worse, because the milk producers weren't the friends and neighbors of the people buying the milk they were less inclined to be scrupulous about the quality. And even for well-intentioned milk producers, the inability to easily test for contaminants like campylobactor, salmonella, and e-Coli meant problems could arise. And, given all these factors, they did.

Food poisoning from raw milk sky-rocketed in the first half of the 20th century. In 1938 25 percent of all cases of food poisoning were associated with dairy products. In 1924 the federal Public Health Service began mandating pasteurization for milk sold across state lines. With the passage of this ordinance (and subsequent legislation in most states) incidents of poisoning dropped dramatically (although they still haven't disappeared, as we'll see) and the program was deemed a complete success.

Jump ahead to today. Transportation is an order (or two) of magnitude faster and everything is refrigerated. Testing for bacterial contamination is easy, cheap, and highly effective. And these days, even living in a metropolis such as New York City, you can know and learn to trust a milk producer if you take the trouble to do so.

Still federal and state governments remain strongly antagonistic to raw milk sales (22 states absolutely prohibit it and where it's permitted sales are discouraged in various ways) and they are quick to point fingers at raw milk as a source of food poisoning. In 2008 three cases of campylobacter poisoning were blamed on raw milk from Hendricks Farms near Franconia, Pa. A single sample of the milk did turn up the bacteria — at the purchaser's home. Additionally, two of those sickened had just returned from travels abroad. No other samples tested positive and thorough testing at the dairy failed to find the bacteria. I happen to have a friend (a professional chef) who works at that dairy and he tells me the food processing areas are as clean or cleaner than any restaurant where he's worked.

In 2004 FDA Consumer published an article warning against drinking raw milk. Ironically, that same year 38 cases of salmonella poisoning in several states were traced to pasteurized milk but FDA Consumer didn't publish a subsequent article warning of the dangers of pasteurized milk.

Raw milk advocates argue that raw milk is healthier and tastes better than pasteurized milk because the pasteurization process kills helpful bacteria (probiotics) as well as harmful bacteria and that the process also destroys helpful enzymes. True or not, there are people who want to drink raw milk. Presumably they're aware of the risks — it takes some research to even find a source. And clearly pasteurized milk presents a risk as well.

Raw milk does taste better, but not so much so that I'm willing to pay $8.58 a gallon for it. But it's ridiculous that in order to sell raw milk here in Tennessee, the farm near me has to emphasize that it's for pets, not humans. As I said, I'm fond of my cat, as most people are of their pets, and if I thought raw milk was unsafe for me I certainly wouldn't feed it to my cat. But at that price neither of us are going to be drinking it.

Copyright © 2007, SteelWill, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Spot On is a trademark of SteelWill, Inc.

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