Reading online about the raw milk debate can make your head spin. In the beginning, it’s an excited, hopeful kind of disorientation like that experienced when first reading about the wonders of apple cider vinegar, grape seed oil or acai berries. Suddenly you wonder why you haven’t been downing bottles your whole life because if you’d have been, you’d be problem-free, obviously. But after reading some of the not-so-nice stories and then hearing Colbert make fun of you, you start to wonder if you’re actually insane, like Ron Paul or the people who drink their own urine. Are you turning into one of those compulsive message-board fanatics? Is this going to be like the time you spent every night for a week with goat yogurt on your face? How will you fit all of these various all-natural supplement-taking activities into your morning routine? Will you need to wake up at 5:30 now instead of 5:45? And so on. Ugh.
To those of you who have better things to do than spend hours online researching the latest health fad (which clearly I don’t), raw milk is unpasteurized, unhomogenized milk. It’s the kind of milk everyone used to drink before our farms became mammoth-sized and disgusting, before all the milk from thousands of cows was mixed together prior distribution, allowing even just a drop of bacteria-contaminated milk to poison the entire batch. Pasteurization, which is basically heating the milk to a high temperature, serves to kill the bacteria and was introduced as a means of protecting the public from outbreaks of sickness. Today it’s very difficult to find milk that’s not been pasteurized; it depends on the state you live in, but at least in MA you need to go directly to the farm and purchase it there (it’s not sold in grocery stores). Of course, not all bacteria is bad; probiotics, naturally found in milk, are ‘good’ bacteria that live in our gut and help with our digestion and other health benefits. But in pasteurization these get killed too. The mantra of the raw-milk advocates is that their milk is healthier because of all the good bacteria that doesn’t get killed. They go to great lengths to score the contraband- from joining buyer’s clubs to seeking out undercover black market distribution spots. Police raids in California of raw-milk distributors bear a striking resemblance to drug busts.
From what I’ve learned, raw milk is a pro-biotic, fresher alternative, but like anything, it offers a risk. Much of this risk, however, seems to resemble the kind you take when you eat a rare steak or raw cookie dough; food poisoning is a possibility, but it’s a chance many are willing to take. To decrease this possibility you can get raw milk from a small farm that you trust to uphold a high standard of safety and cleanliness. It’s good to be informed about the chance you’re taking when drinking unpasteurized milk, but why make it illegal?
The demonization of raw milk seems to be less out of a concern for our safety and more out of the ability to control what we buy. If the decision-makers actually cared fundamentally about our health and safety over the profits of a few of their homies, we wouldn’t have a lot of disgusting things in America: factory poultry farms, Monsanto anything, antibiotic-filled meats, fracking, and so on, and so on, and on…. things would be a lot different. Instead, the big players pick and choose what ‘public health threats’ to go after, and small diary farms who can’t afford to buy fancy pasteurization equipment are the ones who suffer. It reminds me of the debate over how we dispose of our dead. The funeral industry big-shots have played on the hyper-sensitivity of the public to the idea of germs and the fear of the soiled dead body by making us believe we need to purchase their embalming services and their hermetically-sealed coffins, when in reality the dead body in itself, unless infected with a contagious epidemic, poses little to no health risk when simply buried in the ground. This kind of manipulation pervades so many facets of our society- especially those related to germs and microbes. We’re paranoid. I don’t think everyone should drink raw milk- I don’t even know if I want to – but I do want to be able to make an educated choice.
Sometimes when we’re not sure whether to listen to the CDC, the libertarians or the hippies, we can turn to Europe for an answer. On the one hand, there’s a smaller dependence on the whims of the agroindustrial complex here; small dairy farms are still deeply intertwined with mainstream everyday life. On the other hand, there’s also less of a food counter-culture; you don’t see the same kind of trendy hype for cure-all magic products and supplements like we do in the U.S. It’s a good place to look for a more level-headed comparison.
Most people here in Switzerland buy pasteurized milk from the grocery store. It’s by no means illegal to buy raw milk (my co-workers couldn’t believe what I was telling them about the scandal in the U.S. over it) but generally people prefer to stay on the safe side; here, too, industrial-scale farms exist. But the policy really changes with cheese. In Europe the most prized and delicious artisanal cheeses are made with raw milk. In fact, it’s required that they be made with raw milk, if they are under a protected tradition. In the U.S. you can’t make or sell a raw milk cheese that hasn’t been aged for at least 60 days. And you can’t import European cheeses that don’t meet the same requirements.
Why does this matter for cheese makers and cheese lovers? According to food expert Harold McGee, the pasteurization process kills not only a range of useful bacteria, it also inactivates many of the milk’s own enzymes. Enzymes and bacteria are two out of five of the sources of flavor development during cheese ripening- two flavor sources that pasteurization kills. Without raw milk, many of Europe’s most prized and well-known artisanal cheeses- Brie, Camembert, Compté, Emmental, Gruyère, Parmesan and all of the cheeses we make here in Bruson- would not live up to their potential. The European policy-makers thus have their own economic motivation for protecting raw-milk cheese production. It acknowledges that traditional methods of production have yielded products that can’t be replicated by industrial processes.
It’d be great, as McGee says, if we could concentrate on improving safety practices and quality on dairy farms in the U.S. rather than just having to pasteurize everything, dismissing the problems in our system as irreparable. The fact that we need to pasteurize our milk highlights the inhumane, unhygienic large-scale dairy farming system that exists. To me, it’s yet another reminder of why I should choose to support the smaller farms around where I live. Small dairy farms are more sanitary, more humane and far more endangered. It’s important that these operations are supported by their communities- whether we want our milk raw or not.