Raw Milk: Freedom or Food Safety? Ideology vs Science

by Ashley Colpaart, RD LD

Controversy over the ability to purchase and consume raw milk (milk in its natural, unpasteurized state) has been an emerging policy debate in the US. Proponents believe citizens have a right to consume milk in its raw form and claim it provides an “undamaged” nutrient profile and supreme taste. Conversely, public health officials and regulators emphasize the threat of raw milk contamination by exposure of foodborne bacteria on the basis of public health safety. As emerging leaders in the policy world, it is important for Friedman students to understand the politics, principles, and emotions behind the issue, along with the gold standard of consensus science. Are there nutritional differences between raw and unpasteurized milk? What is the current state and federal regulation and political climate surrounding unpasteurized milk? What are the limitations in research and what effect do standard and alternative farming systems have on milk safety? It is my hope that by answering these questions students will be better equip to formulate sound policy.

Nutritional profiles

Pasteurization heats milk for various times and temperatures in order to kill microorganisms that transmit disease. (For more information see Marina Komarovsky’s article: Zoom In: Isolating Science in the Raw vs. Pasteurized Milk Debate).  Pasteurization does not sterilize milk, but aims to make the milk safer to drink; however, it is not a foolproof process. For example, in 1985 an outbreak of Salmonella from treated milk in the Midwest sickened nearly 200,000 people and led to 18 deaths. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has recorded 155 outbreaks from pasteurized dairy products between 1990 and 2006.

Raw milk advocates claim that it has nutritional superiority over pasteurized milk, including increased levels of beneficial bacteria and enzymes; vitamins and minerals; and protein and fat. The differences have been translated into speculative health claims: protection against allergies, decreased risk of autism, reduction in dental caries, enhanced fertility, and arthritis protection. As Marina concluded in her article: further research is needed to establish correlations between the consumption of raw milk and these health claims.

Advocates also argue that raw milk is superior in taste, texture, and quality, a difference that may be attributed to the effects that pasteurization (and homogenization) has on milk. Milk processors homogenize milk by forcing it at high pressure through tiny holes in order break up large fat globules and to create a standard consistency.  Raw milk is not pasteurized and rarely homogenized. A major force in raw milk advocacy is the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit that began in 1999 to disseminate the research of nutrition pioneer Dr. Weston Price, who studied isolated non-industrialized peoples, established parameters of human health and determined optimum characteristics of human diets. The foundation has a goal of establishing universal access to clean, certified raw milk.

Public health

Agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other worldwide regulatory agencies declare that pathogens in raw milk make it unsafe to consume. Raw milk may contain harmful bacteria, such as those that cause fever, dysentery, salmonellosis and tuberculosis, thus leading to serious illness, hospitalization, or death. This stance is to be expected by agencies that are charged with protecting public health; however, the adamant stance does not seem to be in line with the associated today’s risk.  Certainly the unsanitary milk production practice of the mid-1800’s led to raw milk contaminated with tuberculosis bacilli, killing thousands. Pasteurization was far reaching solution by killing all bacteria, but it could be argued that through education of proper production methods, raw milk could be produced safely.

Figures from the CDC show more than 1,000 people in the U.S. were hospitalized and at least two were killed by illnesses related to unpasteurized milk or cheese from 1998 to 2005. In 2007, the CDC reported 205 illnesses and 12 hospitalizations in which the vehicle was raw or unpasteurized milk; the majority occurred in private homes. By summing the cases caused by raw milk and dividing by the total number of cases, the author found raw milk to be the culprit in 1.56% of the all the confirmed foodborne disease etiology cases. A limitation to surveillance data is that many cases of foodborne illnesses are never reported;8 nonetheless, when compared to other foodborne disease outbreaks, raw milk’s contribution remains dwarfed.

The Weston A. Price Foundation heads a “real milk campaign” aimed at clearing the bad name of raw milk. They accuse the CDC and FDA of misuse, manipulation, and suppression of data to frighten the public. While consumption of raw milk remains a preventable cause of foodborne disease outbreaks, actual cases of illness from other foods like produce, poultry, beef, eggs and seafood are significantly higher. (See Table A) Furthermore, within the “dairy” category of breakouts, milk composes 30%; and within that, products identified as unpasteurized accounts for another 30%.2

*Table A. CSPI Outbreak Alert 2008 Current regulation

Since 1987, interstate sales of raw milk have been banned at the federal level. As of 2009, at least 29 states permitted some form of raw-milk sales to the public, including sales at dairies, farmers’ markets, or through purchase of “cow shares,” but only 13 permit retail sales. According to WAP a cow share is when consumers pay a farmer a fee for boarding their cow, (or share of a cow), caring for the cow and milking the cow. The cow share owner then obtains (but does not purchase) the milk from his own cow. Certain states also allow the public sale of raw milk, but only as pet food. In-state raw milk sales are limited to about a dozen states, with most states limiting raw milk sales to direct farmer-to-consumer transactions and requiring licensing. Many only allow the sale if the consumer goes to the farm to pick it up, limiting distribution.

An increasing number of lawsuits against farmers and confiscations of milk and equipment is fueling what has been tagged the “food freedom movement” composed of farmers who practice the back-to-the-land method of pasture raised milk cows. Religious folks have also taken refuge in this movement committing that grazing is the more natural component for cow: they are herbivores and that’s the way God designed them to be. Heeding the call of a growing attention to raw milk, Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Rod Nilsestuen is appointing a raw milk working group to consider legal and regulatory perspectives pertaining to the sale of unpasteurized milk directly to consumers, and consider what conditions would be required to protect public health. The group is charged with:

  • Reviewing the department’s statutory mission
  • Examining current laws regulating dairy farms, milk and other dairy products, retail food sales, dairy product labeling, and the prohibition on selling raw milk to consumers
  • Examining the current system of enforcing dairy regulations and consider public health needs
  • Evaluating other states’ raw milk regulations
  • Analyzing ways that Wisconsin might allow sale of raw milk

Farming systems & consumer freedom

Historically the dairy industry has seen drastic changes. According to the US Department of Agriculture, between 1970 and 2006, the number of farms with dairy cows fell an astounding 88 percent, from 648,000 to 75,000. The invention of pasteurization led to quality control, uniformity, safety, and an increased shelf life of milk. This gave way to major growth and consolidation, as the number of small farms died out and large industrial dairy farms increased herd sizes and milk production. Dairy production also looks very different.

Nowadays, cows are largely fed corn instead of grazing on grass; are given artificial hormones and antibiotics to increase production; and are packed tightly into Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, which contribute to antibiotic-resistant bacteria and other environmental hazards. One gallon of milk purchased from the grocery store can have milk from thousands of cows and most milk you find in the grocer’s dairy section are now processed by 7 prominent multinational dairy corporations. This increased consolidation and market dominance translates to increased political clout, well-funded favorable research, and intense marketing claims with little patience for competition. As Marion Nestle pointed out in her book Food Politics, the ‘3-a-day of dairy’ recommendation by the Dietary Guidelines was heavily influenced by the dairy industry.

Differences in conventional and alternative farming methods are contributing to change in consumer behavior. An increased interest in supporting family farms and ecologically sound farming practices is giving rise to smaller farms that provide value-added niche products. According to the Associated Press, raw milk has become one of those niches, and the federal government, in response, has begun cracking down and conducting raids across the country. FDA asserts that raw milk is “inherently dangerous and should not be consumed,” but to raw milk advocates, this appears to serve as a smoke screen for legislation that helps centralize the dairy industry and eliminate competition from small independent farmers. While this issue is cast as a safety problem, many proponents of raw milk believe it is actually a political issue, defending that safety problems are dealt with by educational campaigns. The question is: Can farmers who produce raw milk safely?

Recommendation

It is unsubstantiated that the dangers of raw milk are so strong that the government should prohibit its being sold or given away. Furthermore, the focus of government should be on education for the farmer and the consumer, rather than fierce regulation. Seemingly, the big risk to failed regulation is the fueling of a black market and the possible creation of a bigger health problem. Consumers are demanding, and will continue to demand, raw milk. Rather than arguing for a blanket avoidance of raw milk, dairy producers supplying raw milk must be well informed on the risks and liabilities associated with the milk they sell. While no farm should be exempt from food safety procedures, a “one-size-fits-all” approach in agriculture is unreasonable and acts monopolistic by restricting entry of smaller firms into the marketplace. Working within the existing framework, regulators, farmers, and consumers can bridge a path between food safety, freedom to farm, and educated consumer choice.

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