On March 10 West Virginia’s legislature passed a bill authorizing the consumption of raw milk. Republicans supported the measure on the basis of “farm-food freedom” and “consumer choice.” Democrats, soberly noting that unpasteurized milk can contain high levels of deadly bacteria, opposed it on the grounds that “it’s unwise and unsafe,” as one opponent said.
There’s good reason to fear raw milk. The same day that West Virginia passed its bill, a long-awaited study from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland reported that raw milk consumption significantly increased the risk of foodborne illness. Detection rates of Listeria and Campylobacter—two common food-related bacteria—were seven percent and three percent, respectively, in raw milk samples. More alarmingly, rates of these dangerous bacteria rose to 20 percent and 22 percent in the milk filters used to remove specks of feces from the milk (cows’ tails frequently brush feces samples into milk containers while they’re being milked).
Dr. Wayne Anderson, director of FSAI, wrote: “While the market for raw milk is small, it remains a serious concern given the well-documented public health risks posed by the presence of pathogens in raw milk. We are therefore recommending that raw milk should be avoided by consumers.” His message reflects what the United States Food and Drug Administration has long noted: that “unpasteurized milk can pose a serious health threat.”
It’s fine to criticize industrial agriculture. But to reject scientific breakthroughs simply because they also happen to have helped foster industrialism is to allow ideology to cloud common sense. It would be like blaming cells for melanoma.
The effort among a vocal cult of consumers to reject wholesale pasteurization highlights how, when it comes to reforming the industrial food system, aesthetics easily trump reason—not to mention public safety. Not unlike the movement among anti-vaccine advocates, proponents of raw milk allow shallow idealizations of purity and free choice to undermine the quest for a food system that can provide safe and healthy food for all consumers all the time.
Raw milk advocacy is warped by a particularly insidious kind of agrarian nostalgia. It evokes a supposedly simpler era when farming families consumed the food they produced. As such, many raw milk supporters see their product as a wholesome emblem of a pre-industrial, all-natural diet. “Raw milk,” one proponent writes, “is almost exclusively produced by local farmers.” One should therefore drink it because “a growing segment of the population is choosing to support local, family farms and businesses over multi-national conglomerates.” In this respect, raw milk plays nicely into the growing emphasis on whole foods, health, and small farms.
But while we should by all means support the family farm—as well as healthy whole food—there’s no need to put our lives at risk in the process. What’s missing from this rosy portrayal of raw milk is the fact that, before pasteurization, when mom was milking the family cow for breakfast, people (mostly children) were routinely dying from raw milk.
Common milk-borne diseases included typhoid, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, and diphtheria. Even today, disease outbreaks from milk most commonly happen when children visit dairy farms where they sample raw milk. When Louis Pasteur invented pasteurization—heating liquids to kill harmful and deadly pathogens—in 1864, he pioneered a technique (a “natural” one, assuming that heat is natural) that would save untold millions of lives. To reverse that accomplishment in a bid to support the local farmer, or to promote raw milk as a romantic paean to a lost way of eating, is nothing short of perverse.
Equally troubling is the anti-scientific implication in the decision to reject pasteurization. Much in the way that the anti-vaccine folks circulate various crackpot theories through social media to counter the scientific legitimacy of vaccines, so it goes with pasteurization. Sites with a whiff of legitimacy unabashedly link pasteurization with cancer and heart disease, claim that pasteurization causes constipation and “nervous troubles,” and conclude that, in general, pasteurization is “dangerous for your health.” It’s perfectly fine to criticize industrial agriculture. But to reject scientific breakthroughs simply because they also happen to have helped foster industrialism is to allow ideology to cloud common sense. It would be like blaming cells for melanoma.
While we should by all means support the family farm—as well as healthy whole food—there’s no need to put our lives at risk in the process.
Another concern raised by raw milk is its association with a retrograde kind of culinary libertarianism. Writing in Slate, Deborah Blum notes that, “Raw milk ... has become a poster child of the food rights movement,” adding that “it’s in this carnation that ... the raw milk idea becomes dangerous.” Call it food freedom run amok.
What culinary libertarianism forgets is that open societies are about more than free choice. They also entrust a representative government to minimize consumer danger while promoting the health of its citizenry—something that requires us to sacrifice some choices in the name of the common good. The desire to make pasteurization optional derives from the same impulse to deregulate weaponry or eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency—moves that favor individual over collective freedom while compromising our safety, which raw milk assuredly does.
Given that many raw milk supporters—those from the “food movement”—are often advocates of “nanny state”-type measures such as the soda tax and a National Food Policy, the anti-pasteurization push becomes that much more confusing. Can you be pro-raw milk and pro-soda tax at the same time? No way.
Finally, why do raw milkers believe raw milk to be so “pure” and “natural”? From where does this aesthetic judgment derive and why is its appeal so powerful? Given that humans have been around for about 250,000 years, and given that it was only about 7,000 years ago that we began to steal the milk of another species away from its children, it’s difficult to see anything “natural” about cow’s milk. In many ways, our reference point is so skewed toward hyper-industrialization (with pasteurization being just one manifestation of that industrialization), that any move away from the industrial model ipso facto appears to be “natural,” despite the fact that domestication itself could easily be portrayed as one of humanity’s most artificial creations. Even the Paleo people sort of get that.
Raw milk, for all these reasons, is more of an aesthetic than a rational decision. It’s yet another case of the “narcissism of small differences” posing as food reform. Supporters routinely shroud it in the rhetoric of choice and freedom, but raw milk, no matter how wholesome and fresh, is a raw deal.
The Things We Eat is a regular Pacific Standard column from James McWilliams on food, agriculture, and the American diet.