Raw Milk Gets Hot
Weighing pros and cons of nonpasteurized milk
In the slide show above, visit the Raw Milk Drink-In held on Boston Common May 10. Photos courtesy of Annabelle Ho (SAR’11) of Slow Food BU
After oil, the most controversial liquid in the media lately may be milk — raw milk.
Advocates of raw milk argue that it’s healthier than pasteurized milk; detractors say it comes with bacterial health risks. Advocates say the production of raw milk reinvigorates small farm dairies and that sales offer consumers a healthy choice other than factory-farmed produce.
Yet worries about bacteria in raw milk have persuaded 10 states to ban all raw milk sales, while some allow retail sales, and others, like Massachusetts, permit only farm sales.
The commonwealth’s position was made clear in January, when the Department of Agricultural Resources issued a cease-and-desist order for raw milk buying clubs, groups of consumers who pool resources and pick up the milk from farms for later distribution among members. The clubs, the department declared, are not licensed milk dealers.
Raw milk supporters, along with Suzanne the cow, responded in May with a “drink-in” on Boston Common. Dozens later testified at a Department of Agricultural Resources hearing on the practices of the raw milk industry. Officials promise more hearings in coming weeks, but they are sticking to their support of farms sales only and a moratorium on milk buying clubs.
“The right to drink and the right to buy raw milk are two different things,” says Richard Lerner (SPH’08), a public health veterinarian and a part-time contractor for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. “No one in the Massachusetts government would say that you don’t have the right to drink raw milk.”
But Lerner isn’t likely to recommend the beverage. “Pasteurized milk is a product that has been shown over a long period of time to reduce the incidence of food-borne illness,” he says. “I cannot see why we would turn our back on that history.”
While the state considers its next move, one local municipal government, Framingham, has come out in favor of raw milk sales. But Framingham’s Board of Health also placed stricter regulations on the process than the state had done. The Framingham law requires warning labels on containers about the potential for harmful bacteria, and similar signs in farm stands, as well as weekly (compared with state-mandated monthly) testing.
Ethan Mascoop (SPH’89, MET’89), Framingham’s public health director, says at least one raw milk farmer hired a food safety consultant to meet the new requirements and now sells his product without problems.
Mascoop doubts the state has sufficient funds and time to follow his town’s lead, especially when the number of raw milk drinkers is far outweighed by those who prefer pasteurized. He says 27 Massachusetts dairies, or about 20 percent of all dairies in the commonwealth, produce raw milk.
Raw milk aficionados claim that they don’t see what all the fuss is about. They argue that no club members have been sickened, and they point to pasteurized milk and other government-regulated foods as a source of multiple bacterial outbreaks. Some say drinking raw milk has actually improved their health, curing asthma, autism, and even blindness.
The club members may have a point, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has some different numbers. The center reports 69 outbreaks of human infections resulting from raw milk consumption from 1993 to 2006, resulting in 1,505 reported illnesses, 185 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths.
Michele DeBiasse, a Sargent College clinical assistant professor, says raw milk lovers’ claims are at least partially true. Pasteurized milk does contain less vitamin B and C and fewer probiotics, a good bacteria that can aid digestion.
But DeBiasse points out that the body naturally has probiotics, and she suggests that among “safer ways to get them” is eating certain yogurt brands. As for the claims of raw milk curing asthma or autism, she says there’s no scientific evidence of that.
Wendy Heiger-Bernays, a School of Public Health associate professor of environmental health, says that regardless of what the state decides, the raw milk movement should at least serve as a wake-up call to consumers about how dairy cows are raised.
“Our factory farms are not producing the healthy product that we expect,” says Heiger-Bernays. “Most of our milk is coming from factory farms, where we know that the animal husbandry processes are not clean, are not pristine, are not done in the interests of the health of the animal or of the human.
“It’s about making money.”