“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.
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.
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.
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.