Got Raw Milk?

I love dairy. Unfortunately, in the last couple of years I have developed a rather painful reaction to it. I haven’t had much luck with digestive enzymes, and non-dairy alternatives such as soy, rice, hemp, or almond milk and cheeses are just not the same. As a result, I was intrigued to read that people who have problems eating dairy can do much better with raw milk products.

Most milk and dairy products available today are pasteurized. Pasteurization involves heating milk above a cow’s normal body temperature to destroy bacteria and other pathogens. This process, raw milk proponents argue, also kills the natural digestive enzymes present in unprocessed milk. Some even claim that raw milk is actually healthier than pasteurized milk, but that contention is hotly debated.

Pasteurization goes back to the 19th century. According to this timeline, back then, alcohol distilleries, producing large amounts of swill (spent grain), opened dairies and began feeding cows with it. “The low nutritional content of the swill led to sickness in the cows and in the humans who drank their milk.” By the end of the century, “[m]ilk produced at unhygienic production facilities (like distillery dairies) served as a medium to spread diseases like typhoid and tuberculosis. These diseases created a public health crisis that led to skyrocketing infant mortality in the cities.” By 1917 many the major cities in the country had made pasteurization mandatory or strongly encouraged it.

Today though, concerns about raw milk safety are overblown according to a growing body of research. The Weston A. Price Foundation, which has initiated the Campaign for Real Milk, asserts that “times have changed and modern stainless steel tanks, milking machines, refrigerated trucks and inspection methods make pasteurization absolutely unnecessary for public protection.” The Food and Drug Administration and Center for Disease Control however continue to warn consumers about the dangers of raw milk and press the protections that pasteurization offers.

Whether modern day raw milk is really as safe as pasteurized milk is difficult to say. Since the sale of it has been severely limited—depending on the state, it can be sold through retail, only through farms, only as pet food, or not at all—disease outbreaks associated with raw milk usually only affect a very small percentage of people. Until raw milk becomes as widely available as pasteurized milk, we will have no fair basis for comparing consumption risks.

My home state of Wisconsin is currently considering a bill legalizing the sale of raw milk. Its passage would be a victory of individual liberty over government nannyism. Why do we need the government to protect us from raw milk? In our modern world of mass news and communication, producers have a vital interest in ensuring that their products are safe—if they want repeat customers or even stay in business. Conversely, consumers have the responsibility to be informed about the potential risks of the products they want to buy.

More than the risks of raw milk, we should be concerned about the government abridging our ability to choose what we put into our own bodies—because that’s the real raw deal.