The Frothy Dream of Raw Milk

Soleil Ho / Heavy Table

“I agree that we’re talking about something potentially very dangerous, but modern science has not been particularly less dangerous.” — Andre Gregory, My Dinner With Andre

The battle over raw milk consumption in the United States takes place on farms, the Internet, in packed public hearings, and — the way this writer encountered it — in a gazebo in a quiet, well-to-do Twin Cities neighborhood. To get raw milk in Minnesota, you can consult the various directories on the Internet, or, as in my case, you have to know someone who’s already knee-deep in it.

In many ways, the procedure is similar to a covert drug deal, though the participants are now much older and the product isn’t simply being left in a tree hollow in the local park. They’re both alternative markets, selling products that the United States government has deemed to be public health hazards. And it all seems so strange when one finally gets there and is able to take in the absurdity of the scene: a half-dozen or so coolers stocked full of meats, cheeses, eggs, and, of course, raw milk. Set up to be broken down and forgotten like a visiting circus, the raw milk drop-off site is essentially a convenience store in a park or backyard.

The laws regarding pasteurization and the sale of raw milk vary from state-to-state, though the Federal Drug Administration may intervene in cases where the milk crosses state lines to be sold. With regard to dairy, pasteurization has a fairly uniform definition: It generally refers to a process whereby milk is heated at a constant temperature for a set time in order to kill off naturally occurring microorganisms.

These invisible organisms lie at the heart of the raw milk debate, serving as symbols of pestilence, personal sovereignty, and counterknowledge.

Soleil Ho / Heavy Table

In Minnesota, the laws pertaining to the sale of raw milk have remained basically unchanged since 1949; in Wisconsin, they date from 1959. Chapter 403, section 1 of the 1949 Minnesota statutes states, in essence, that unpasteurized milk cannot legally be sold in stores, though the law permits incidental sales. However, doing regular business as a raw milk dealer would be illegal under these conditions.

A bill currently under consideration in Wisconsin (Senate Bill 434) would grant permits for more open sales of raw milk and raw milk products on farms. Like Minnesota, Wisconsin currently prohibits regular sales of raw milk. SB 434 would allow raw milk purveyors to advertise and sell to the public. Even though the legislation is a baby step, it has engaged the passions of raw milk devotees throughout the Upper Midwest. A recent public hearing in Eau Claire, WI received busloads of advocates from in-state, Minnesota, and Michigan.

Both the Minnesota Department of Health and the University of Minnesota maintain that drinking raw milk is harmful to one’s health. A fact sheet from the U of M’s College of Veterinary Medicine ties raw milk with bacteria such as E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes, and Salmonella, among others. L. monocytogenes has been linked to listeriosis, which is very harmful to fetuses. According to the U of M, five food-borne illness outbreaks occurring between 2000 and 2008 have been tied to raw milk consumption in Minnesota. In 2009, a Wisconsin dairy was involved in a high-profile case of bacterial infection among 35 individuals who had consumed their raw milk.

Health officials deny that raw milk is a better product, and the U of M’s literature states, “The changes that can occur to milk during pasteurization are small. Killing harmful bacteria outweighs any change that may occur.”

On the other hand, the “post-Pasteurians” who have fought for raw milk legislation reform claim that living synergistically with microbes is the key to preventing illness and bolstering public nutrition. Their approach to health is a holistic one, going against public policies that mandate the sterilization of food. In Wild Fermentation, a fermentation cookbook that doubles as a post-Pasteurian manifesto, author Sandor Katz writes:

“Microbial cultures are essential to life’s processes, such as digestion and immunity. We humans are in a symbiotic relationship with these single-cell life-forms. Microflora, as they are often called, digest food into nutrients our bodies can absorb, protect us from potentially dangerous organisms, and teach our immune systems how to function… Microorganisms are our ancestors and our allies.”

To counter the FDA’s gloom-and-doom scenarios, more than a few prominent raw milk activists have shot back by putting a “Save the Children” spin on the raw milk movement.

A public statement by Tim Wightman, the chairman of an upcoming raw milk symposium in Wisconsin, calls upon the “one million angry raw milk moms & dads” to “create a sustainable, inter-related, symbiotic, synergistic, diversified community of farmers, consumers and co-producers.” The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund displays a similar message on their raw milk dairy registry, telling potential narcs, “Please bear in mind that any move you make to stop or hinder a raw dairy operation will actually HARM, not help the infants and children who rely on that milk, and may make it difficult for all children to obtain this milk in the future–including your own children and grandchildren.” In brief: Think of the children, folks! If you’re anti-raw milk, you’re anti-children.

In a similar bent, Shari Danielson, a writer for Simple, Good, and Tasty, compares the act of buying raw milk to modern American civil rights movements: “…sometimes, when there’s a law that’s without merit — whether it applies to segregated buses, “don’t ask, don’t tell,” or, on a smaller scale, the sale of raw milk — it can take an act of civil disobedience to help spark needed change.”

In truth, legalizing raw milk differs from granting civil rights to oppressed social minorities in a key way: accessibility, or at least the pretension thereof. Raw milk will always be an exclusive product, whether or not it is legalized.

A savvy consumer must be vigilant about their purveyor, whereas pasteurized milk is suitable for those who don’t have the time or the resources to purchase the alternative. As it stands, there are no practical alternatives to pasteurization for mass market dairy consumption. Due to higher sanitation standards and the smaller scale of its production, raw milk can only ever be accessible to a limited few. The microbes themselves have and will become a premium product.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

At the moment of this writing, there are very few ironclad studies proving the claims of raw milk activists. Testimonials regarding the drink’s medicinal efficacy target a variety of diseases and medical conditions: chronic fatigue syndrome, autism, asthma, allergies, and even cancer. The few studies that do exist, such as a recent Swiss survey of children who drink raw milk, don’t control for lifestyle factors that would affect their results. Perhaps the alleged health benefits have more to do with the fact that raw milk typically comes from a small-scale farm where the cows are pastured and don’t sleep in massive hills of their own filth. Perhaps raw milk is a placebo. Nevertheless, the jury is out on this one.

On the other hand, legalization of raw milk has the potential to directly benefit small-scale dairy farmers and counter their sharp decline in numbers in recent years. A typical “gray market” gallon of raw milk runs about $6 to $8, which is a far cry from the $1 / gallon return farmers typically receive when they send their milk off to mainstream processors. Even if it isn’t a public health panacea, raw milk could be the cure for many dairy farmers’ financial worries.

So, you may ask (if you’ve hung on this far), what does raw milk taste like? To be honest, it’s difficult to describe without analogy. I’ve heard its taste compared to “standing in the middle of a dairy barn and taking a deep whiff.” The hay-ness, the cow-ness, the “I think I feel really good about this”-ness are all there. As I drank it down, images of happy, heterosexual farm families flashed through my mind. I am doing a good thing. After you shake the bottle to distribute the cream throughout the milk, the richness and viscosity of it permeate every swallow. It’s best to consume it gradually if you’re new to it in order to allow your body time to adjust to the influx of microbes in every glass.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Try going with cheese or yogurt for a while first. Raw milk cheese has that same grassiness, though the best part about it is its inconsistent flavor from farm to farm. Depending on myriad factors (falling within the realm of terroir), two blocks of similar cheese may taste very different. The taste could be affected by the type of cow, what it ate for breakfast, and perhaps what it saw on TV the night before. Raw cheeses do tend to have a constant funk about them that is basement-esque with a hint of Grandpa’s used face towel. While health-oriented raw milk consumers advise against cooking with these products (the microbes don’t like it, but I do), the funky taste shines through despite baking and frying the cheese.

Led by MIT’s Heather Paxson, several academics have pointed out that our relationship to microbes says a lot more about us than the microbes themselves. In the article linked in the previous sentence, Paxson references a researcher’s observations of how raw milk microbes create community in a rural village in Devon, England, where “villagers look to unpasteurized milk to distinguish rural folk from urban transplants, between those whose bodies are ‘used to the bugs’ in a local dairyman’s raw milk and those who have a stomach only for supermarket stuff.” For these villagers, buying raw milk demonstrated “community-mindedness,” and it might explain a little bit of what’s going on here.

Perhaps this movement, like the locavorism movement from which it emerged, stems from an unconscious desire to be a part of something; to generate a cohesive culture in a nation without town squares. It’s no coincidence that the locus of it all is, when you come down to it, an obscure, rustic beverage. A discreetly acquired gallon of milk signals enchanting conceptions of our pre-Industrial past as well as a utopian homestead future. The fight over raw milk doesn’t look like it’ll be losing steam any time soon. We can be sure that it will be long and it might smell a little off, but that’s normal.

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24 Comments

  1. I’ve been driving into 45 minutes each way into Wisconsin for a couple years to buy raw milk. The only drawback is you have to freeze it because it starts to turn after about 10 days. (there’s some question as to whether that does the same damage as pastuerizing but I’m not driving over there every week). That’s why the milk industry doesn’t want to do it. It’s not in their best interest. You have to drink local…and quickly. I don’t believe anything big business tells the government to say about it.

    As far as the taste, it changes depending on the time of year. When the cows switch back to grass from hay in the spring, it gets pretty rich. Otherwise, it’s not too much different to me than switching from skim to 2%.

    And as far as feeling good about it, I’m supporting a small farm. That’s all good.

    And I also do it “for the children”…mine.

  2. Loves To Run With Scissors03/18/2010Reply

    In more than 25 years of working with various communities of dairy farmers, I have NEVER met a dairy farmer who drives into town to buy pasteurized milk from a store. They all drink, as well as their families, raw milk straight out of the bulk tank.

    If raw milk is such a deadly foe, then why are our newspapers and televised newscasts not full of stories of dairy farmers and their kids dropping like flies? I doubt that that type of story would go untold for very long.

  3. Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl03/18/2010Reply

    This is an important, and beautifully written, story. Thanks for all the work that went into writing it, and thanks to Heavy Table for hosting it, I’m so grateful.

  4. I’m interested in raw milk, but statements like “civil rights” and “think of the children” are a total turn-off. Supporting small farmers, having a delicious tasting milk and yummy cheeses are far more persuasive reasons to join this movement.

  5. This is a great story.

  6. Thanks for the great article. It was very informative, however I think raw milk could become less “obscure.” – For centuries it was the norm.. and like the locavore movement, the effort is to create widespread change in the industry, thus making raw milk accessible to the masses. Raw milk demand necessitates cleaner farms, or clean farms make raw milk possible, I guess if people pressure from both sides, there may be some success. I’m have a weekly online documentary series http://www.theperennialplate.com – maybe i’ll do an episode about raw milk.. Thanks for the article. – daniel

  7. Thanks so much for this article. A few things I would disagree with- I have read of studies showing that raw milk actually has lower bacterial counts than store milk. And I find lots of variety in raw milk cheeses, wouldn’t say they are always ‘funky’ at all, but would say there is often more depth of flavor in a very good way. And, the taste of raw milk, as I recall it from the 70′s in Philadelphia where I could buy it at the co-op, is lovely, and includes the sweet cream flavor in a way that pasteurized milk totally does not.

    The truth about Pasteur has been distorted…he was barely educated and plagiarized the work of another Frenchman, named Antoine Bechamp. And in the process we have gotten a ‘dumbed down’ version of germ theory. Bechamp found that germs respond to changes in their environment, they actually mutate into different forms depending on the chemistry around them. So, that is why one day, your throat has ‘friendly flora’, and the next, you have ‘Strep’ and are sick. What happened to make the change? That big icecream sundae and all night party you had in between…. The cure? Not killing the bugs with antibiotics, but reversing the lifestyle/dietary damage by catching up on your sleep and eating healthy! Then you will be back to the friendly flora again, and they never really got ‘unfriendly’, they simply changed appearance and were blamed for your diet-induced illness.

  8. I buy from the dairy/coop shown in the pictures above, and have done so for awhile. There are chefs in town who do so as well. I know they are not taking new accounts, so I will follow suit with the author and not specify what it is or how you get in touch with them; I’m sure there are similar things to be found via the internet.

    I would like to de-mystify a bit. I am pretty down on food-romanticism in general, and “buy local” in particular. I wouldn’t care a bit if my raw milk came from Ecuador, but it probably wouldn’t make it here intact.

    1) Raw milk and the products made from it are delicious. Yogurt and creme fraiche are easy ways to stretch the shelf life of your raw milk products. I have not made cheese, but I have had un-pasteurized cheese in europe, and it does rock.

    2) It spoils in as little as 24 hours; spoilage here means that it becomes buttermilk, which you should cook with. Even if it does not appear to have spoiled, it can make you sick. A google search can lead you to numerous news stories documenting people getting sick from illicit raw milk. This is the price you (may or may not) pay.

    3) It is, as pointed out, somewhat more expensive than store bought milk. It is a different product, so I see little reason to compare the two. This is the other price you pay. Quality is a good in much demand; expect to compete against others for it.

    4) Do not dismiss consistency lightly. Lots of people do not like the flavor of grass fed beef. The same people might not like the flavor of raw milk in springtime. If they do like the flavor of pasteurized milk, they know that every time they go to cub and buy a gallon, it will taste like what they know and love. Those same people might enjoy a few glasses of raw milk from the fall, only to be confronted by undesirable barnyard flavors in the spring, and forever be turned off to raw dairy products.

    As a side note, the gray market coop shown in the article also deals in some of the best honey available, and definitely the best maple syrup I have ever had. Other treats are available seasonally.

    Oh, and raw milk is hard to get because it is illegal to sell for human consumption, not because of a vast conspiracy on the part of dairy producers to not provide it to consumers. Thank your government.

  9. “To counter the FDA’s gloom-and-doom scenarios, more than a few prominent raw milk activists have shot back by putting a “Save the Children” spin on the raw milk movement.”

    Remember that episode of Law & Order SVU murder trial about immunizing yr kids? I think you’ve found your screenplay, Vy. THINK OF THE CHILDREN. So close to BD Wong, ahhh.

  10. that episode of Law & Order SVU **with** a murder trial about immunizing yr kids.

    woops.

  11. RE: the hazards of raw milk vs pasteurized. Consider that dairy products, in their CONVENTIONAL, that is, pasteurized and homogenized form, are the NUMBER ONE FOOD ALLERGY in the world. If you are allergic to something, you can’t properly digest it, and it becomes at best an irritant and at worst a poison in your system. So, that means that people are being made sick daily by our ‘safe, germ-free, processed, government approved’ milk.

    That is one reason many people decide to try the more natural, raw form of milk, to see if they digest it more easily. And that is part of the increasing demand for raw milk products.

  12. Great article. I love that there is a raw-milk symposium coming up. I buy raw milk here in Philadelphia, and there is no comparison. It tastes grassy and sweet, not flat and tasteless. I was a convert on the first sip.

  13. I’m the proud husbandman of a couple of ecologically-managed Jersey cows, and loved this article. Very even-handed. When my cows are milking, I practically live on the stuff. Its the most nutrient dense food I’ve ever experienced. And I’ve come to notice that American cheeses, even if they be “artisanal,” all basically taste the same. By using pasteurized milk, cheesemakers rely on standardized bacterial cultures that imbue the same flavors on the cheese. We won’t have a real terroir in our cheese until we fully embrace raw milk. And anyone know if the French are dying off in droves by eating fresh raw milk cheese? I think not.

  14. PeanutButter man03/30/2010Reply

    Happy heterosexual farm family? Huh?

    Now then, about those calves… to they all get sick from drinking raw milk? Do baby humans get sick from drinking their mothers’ raw milk? My kids’ mother used to express milk for later consumption… never ever one single problem with that.

    And isn’t milk really, honestly, a baby’s food? Cow’s milk is for calves. Goat’s milk is for goat kids. Really, what do you imagine triggers all the milk allergies? That said, yeah, I love cheese, so go figure…

  15. Evelina H03/30/2010Reply

    Many of us grew up with raw milk,churned butter,homemade cottage cheese,and yogurt at a time when it was fashionable to have your
    own milk cow that was fed organic[because it was normal]and kept a clean barn and pasture.
    We had no idea we were getting anything special until it was not there any more. I grew up with sour cream cake,fresh eggs from chickens fed cracked corn, pigs that touched dirt and were fed grain not factory run-rejects.
    Many city people have went to special classes to learn the benefits of natural foods when some of us just consider it “normal”
    unadulterated food.

  16. Great piece! Informative and beautifully written. Another drop spot for “real milk” is Traditional Foods Warehouse. Twice a week. Seems telling that people are willing to take the time and spend the energy and money to find real food. How hopeful.

  17. Mo Sylvie04/21/2010Reply

    Really enjoyed reading the material that you researched and wrote so well about. Congratulations on more than one job well done!

  18. Heavy Table is great — a source of real news about what’s going on with our food as well as for ideas and inspiration …. this story about Raw Milk is a shining example.

  19. Our Family has been drinking Raw milk for many years, and my strong, healthy and beautiful girls are living testimonial to the benefits of raw milk.

    I do not think it is for everybody, but it doesn’t seem right that the government needs to tell me that I should only drink my milk cooked.

    Cigarettes are a known killer, but they are still legal to buy….

  20. Come to the Third Annual International Raw Milk Symposium on Sat, May 7, 2011, to learn more about the history, safety and benefits of real, farm-fresh milk. It’s being held right here in Bloomington, Minnesota, and has quite a line-up of speakers.
    http://www.rawmilksymposium.org

  21. Raw milk is inherently dangerous. There are currently six children in this country who have kidney failure because their parents gave them raw milk. Anecdotal evidence means nothing. And the only thing you’ll get out of drinking raw milk is a greatly increased chance of contracting E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, and Brucella infections.

Trackbacks for this post

  1. [...] grew up on a farm with 4 younger brothers.  Germs and bacteria are not scary to me!  I grew up on raw milk (and never got sick, thank you)!  I could care less about botulism.  No, I am afraid of boiling [...]

  2. [...] officials confiscate 400 gallons of raw milk from a farm linked to food-borne illness (also see our story on raw milk), how Taste of Minnesota was run into bankruptcy and oblivion, 20.21 is introducing a special menu [...]

  3. [...] are pushing a bill to make it far easier for Minnesota consumers to buy raw milk (also see our raw milk opus). » Lawmakers May Expand Street Food and Raw Milk » Print Version // [...]

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