cavorting about the raw milk debacle
I’m a member of a cow share and receive a quart of raw milk per week, at a rate of about $3.19 / quart. Moreover, i’m a proud but insufficiently-informed foodie, and given that this community seems exceptionally susceptible to woo i feel obliged as much to the movement as to myself to understand the issues as best i can. In this first flirt with the raw milk debacle i’m attempting only to clear a space for the relevant evidence i hope to find in the future. (I can’t quite call this ongoing exchange a “debate” while keeping a straight face, but that has more to do with its similarity to other so-called debates than with any certainty on my part.)
There seems to be no contemporary statistical study suggesting that raw milk is healthier than pasteurized milk, with the exception of an inverse correlation between farm milk and asthma and allergies. The loss in nutrients during the pasteurization process maxes out at around 10%, for biotin. The more sophisticated claim that the enzymes destroyed in the pasteurization process are necessary for humans to process milk, and the related claim that these enzymes allow lactose-intolerant people to digest raw milk, appear to be unsubstantiated. (Self-misdiagnosis for lactose intolerance, on the other hand, may be common, and a means by which the latter myth is perpetuated.)
The still more sophisticated claim that the “good” bacteria (probiotics) naturally occurring in raw milk protect it from “bad” bacteria (pathogens) is essentially without merit; some probiotics may kill some pathogens at varying rates, while trace amounts of said pathogens (like e. coli) are enough to cause illness. (This sounds to me a lot like offsetting sex from ovulation as a means of birth control, given the availability of an effective and harmless, though less natural, alternative.) In itself, that’s not to say that raw milk is necessarily riskier than pasteurized milk, but rather that we must take the threat of pathogens in raw milk seriously.
There is a lot of hullabaloo in spiritualist circles, of course, rarely accompanied by citations. Interestingly, the Weston A. Price Foundation, perhaps the flagship of raw milk advocacy, hosts a page full of rather terrifying conclusions on the inefficacy of pasteurized milk drawn from scientific studies . . . from the 1930s and 40s, when the push for pasteurization was still underway. (It would be interesting to see these studies in context, in particular contemporary methods of pasteurization and the affiliations of the authors.) There’s also a lot of authoritative back-and-forth, which gets tiring and often misses the point.
It also seems obvious that the proper policy should imitate that of other widely desired and potentially but infrequently harmful products including alcohol, marijuana, and (as demonstrated in Portugal) most other non-prescription drugs: legalization or decriminalization coupled with basic regulations and education, in the form of a labeling system at least.
To interject an opinion: The more dissuasive the labels, the better, provided they’re honest. If there’s to be free consumer choice then consumer protection agencies warrant no more restrictions on their messages than the profit-driven merchants and finely-tuned advertisements that compel them. This characterization is not exclusive to corporations or big business: Of the three raw milk suppliers (cow share handlers) i’ve dealt with, not one has so much as hinted at any risk of consuming milk raw, even to refute it, and one has made the spurious “good” bacteria–”bad” bacteria claim above.
There are some other important reasons people opt for raw milk over pasteurized milk, including mine: environmentalism and community. The merits of fuel reduction by local shopping notwithstanding, i find much to be said for sustainable models for small farms, community vitality, and local economies. This makes indisputable sense for those like myself who use raw milk for cooking and baking, toward which purposes pasteurization is redundant. (When baking, i use weeks-old raw milk in place of buttermilk.) More to the point, pasteurized milk does not have to come from CAFOs, travel great distances, or waste packaging.
Looking back, there seem to be no reasons to assume that pasteurization reduces health benefits, that raw milk is safer, that lactose intolerance is due to pasteurization, that raw milk can’t be legitimately regulated, that raw milk is more sustainable, or that raw milk sales require that people drink it straight. The remaining question, then, is how serious a threat is posed by ingesting raw milk (relative to pasteurized milk). Without even considering the threat, having brushed aside the preceding obfuscation leads me to posit that an informed personal decision to consume raw milk involves taste and risk. That seems to be it.
And raw milk smells like cow.
Sites with cites:
Real Raw Milk Facts: Scientific References
Bill Marler: Raw Milk Cons: Review of the Peer-Reviewed Literature (28 June 2008)
The Weston A. Price Foundation’s response: Raw Milk: What the Scientific Literature Really Says
Amanda Rose at the Ethicurean: Memo to raw-milk advocates: Improve information, or get sued (20 July 2009)
Ted Beals at WAPF in response: Does Raw Milk Kill Pathogens? (fall 2009)
Amanda Rose: Does Raw Milk Kill Pathogens? A Response To Beals (1 October 2009)