Raw Milk: Fighting for the Right to Choose
The debate over the value, or lack of value, of milk stretches from the dairy farmer to the the parent. Pasteurized and raw milk have been labeled as a glass of liquid poison by one group or the other in multiple ways and fashions. But, for many, the battle is really about a person or parent’s right to choose what is best for her family.
The Raw Milk Debate
Every weekend during the growing season you can find Laura Chisholm selling artisanal cheeses at any number of farmer’s markets around the Omaha metro. On the corner of her table, market goers can find information about her farm and a brochure from the Weston A. Price Foundation promoting the value of unpasteurized raw milk. It’s a subtle but steadfast flag on the battlefield of obtaining the opportunity to choose between drinking raw or pasteurized milk.
Raw milk regulation varies by state. According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nutrition education organization dedicated to promoting the value of raw milk. Raw milk can be sold legally at the farm in 27 states. Another 10 states have active cow share programs and about 10 states can sell raw milk in retail stores. In Nebraska those who want to obtain raw milk simply have to find a farm that sells it and drive there to pick it up. Farms are not allowed to promote, advertise or distribute raw milk in retail environments. In Iowa it is illegal to sell raw milk or raw milk products except for cheese that has been aged more than 60 days.
In states where raw milk sales are illegal, dedicated raw milk consumers have found a loophole – cow sharing. The idea is that the government cannot stop a person from drinking milk from his own cow. So people buy portions of a cow and enter into boarding contracts with farmers. The farmer tends to the cow much in the same way a person would board a horse. While some states are open to cow sharing, others, including Iowa are not. In 2010 the Farm to Consumer Defense Fund filled a lawsuit on behalf of two Iowa cow-share owners. The suit contends that they are entitled to own a cow, drink its milk and consume other dairy products made from its milk, and to have a farmer board their cow. The state disagrees.
For people like Laura Chisholm, she’s thankful from-the-farm raw milk sales are legal in Nebraska and that cow sharing isn’t necessary. Although, she along with other raw milk supporters would like to see the accessibility of raw milk increase.
“It’s not about convincing someone to drink raw milk,” Chisholm said. “Do the research. Visit the farms. Go to a conventional farm and look at the environment. Come to a grass-fed farm look at the environment. It’s one of those things you have to be comfortable with and if you aren’t, you aren’t. ”
While Chisholm and other raw milk loyalist are not trying to convince others to jump on the raw milk bandwagon other organizations actively tell people to steer clear of it.
The National Dairy Association, Midwest Dairy Association, Centers for Disease Control, Federal Food and Drug Administration and American Academy of Pediatrics all advise against consuming raw milk.
Each organization lists stacks of data supporting their position that consuming raw milk is like playing a game of roulette. According to a whitepaper released in May by the Federal Food and Drug Administration, raw unpasteurized milk can carry bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria, which can cause serious illness or even death. Listeria, which has made headlines recently due to tainted cantaloupes, is especially dangerous for young children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. When milk is pasteurized it reduces the enzymes in the milk and kills about 20% of the whey proteins. Pasteurization also kills 99.9% of the bacteria in the milk – good and bad.
Courtney Pinard, Ph.D., a research scientist with the Gretchen Swanson Center for Human Nutrition helped to partially explain why raw milk enthusiasts are so passionate about the cause even when the risks seem so high.
“Many people believe the enzymes in raw milk aid digestion and calcium absorption; however, their specific health benefits are debated within the scientific community. In addition to enzymes, raw milk also contains many of the good bacteria also found in yogurt that aid in digestion,” Pinard said. “One important distinction for raw milk is that the cows are typically grass fed, which reduces bad bacteria and is better for the cows. Grass is the cow’s natural source of food rather than corn feed which is fed to cows in concentrated animal feeding operations [CAFOs]. This corn feed speeds up the growth process and is also intermixed with antibiotics to fend off disease since the corn feed is not easily digested by cows.”
Chisholm and raw milk supporters everywhere swear that raw milk is nutritionally better for them and can cure or prevent any number of ailments – allergies, asthma and ADHD among them. The FDA says those beliefs are unfounded, but Fallon Morel says the proof is in a persons personal experience.
“It’s what we call passionate parents,” said Sally Fallon Morell, president of The Weston A. Price Foundation and founder of the Campaign for Real Milk. “It’s parents who have seen the amazing recoveries of children who are driving this [raw milk] movement. You cannot tell a parent who has had this experience that they cannot have raw milk. They just aren’t going to put up with it.”
Chisholm is one of those parents. She has a daughter who can’t drink pasteurized milk, because she is allergic to it, but she can drink raw milk without a problem.
“A lot of [customers] came to us because they had to be dairy free,” Chisholm said. “Everyone else gets sick during cold and flu season and our family doesn’t get sick. I attribute it to the probiotics and enzymes in the milk.”
And she’s not alone. The Chisholm’s sell about 30 gallons of raw milk per day. Their customers are mostly from Lincoln and Omaha, and, depending on the time of year, pay anywhere from $6.50-$8.50 per gallon. Even with the higher price per gallon over conventional supermarket milk, the Chisholm’s still struggle due to the expense of maintaining organic high-quality feed for their 28 Jersey cows. Organic pasteurized milk at the grocery store costs about $6.50 per gallon.
Fallon Morell founded the Campaign for Real Milk in 1999. She says much of the information distributed by the government about raw milk is incorrect. Her organization is out to provide the other side of the story while creating universal access to clean raw milk in every part of the United States.
“The number one reason the dairy industry is against raw milk is that the people who produce raw milk get paid a lot more per gallon. The people in the industry get paid about $1 per gallon, which is what they were paid in World War II. The dairy industry does not want to compete with the higher prices raw milk producers are getting.”
Trying to find statistics on the raw milk production is nearly impossible. The Weston A. Price Foundation is the main advocacy body for raw milk dairy producers. The farmers list much of the information about the number of raw milk farms per state voluntarily. Because of the controversial nature of raw milk, Fallon Morell said that some farmers wouldn’t want to be listed, which may not represent true numbers of farmers producing and selling raw milk and raw milk products. Statistics sited on the Weston A. Price Foundation website states that nearly 9.4 million people in the United States consume raw milk. The organization sites the 2007 CDC FoodNet survey for the number. The CDC randomly sampled and interviewed respondents across 10 states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Tennessee). Of the total number of people interviewed in those 10 states 3 percent or 528 people had consumed raw milk in the past 7 days. The foundation applied that 3 percent to the total population of the United States to arrive at 9 million raw milk consumers.
Fallon Morell contends that government studies are based on raw milk from CAFOs and not from small, organic, grass-fed dairy farms, as they should be. The Weston A. Price foundation only recommends full fat, raw milk consumed from the latter.
“There are two kinds of raw milk: Raw milk for pasteurization and raw milk for human consumption. The USDA is talking about the kind of milk they regulate for pasteurization. That milk is not safe. I wouldn’t drink that milk raw. Not in a million years,” said Chisholm.
The desire for raw milk has increased with the back to the farm food movements that started gaining momentum in the early 1990s and have yet to slow down. It’s about taking control of the food system that has lost the trust of many consumers. That being said, the United States still has the safest food system in the world flawed though it may be. People on all sides recommend reviewing the research and making a personal choice.
“People can’t choose it, if it’s not available. I want that choice to be available,” said Fallon Morell.
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