Are some milk producers getting a raw deal?

March 11, 2012|By TIM ROWLAND |

“Are you a raw milk drinker?” a CBS news report darkly begins. If so, “according to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there’s a good chance you might get sick.”

Never mind that the report didn’t say this. The report did come to the rather obvious conclusion that a person is more likely to get sick from raw milk than from pasteurized milk, just as it is more likely that a person would get sick from drinking unboiled water.

But the news made it sound as if the odds are good that raw milk drinkers will become ill, when actually the CDC report would indicate just the opposite. The CDC had to go back almost 20 years to discover a grand total of 4,413 illnesses and three deaths nationwide from raw milk consumption. Frankly, that’s a pretty good track record for any consumable.

Yet, raw milk remains the poster stepchild of the factory farm establishment that it threatens. And, unfortunately, government and the urban media are all too fast to fall into line.

A recent episode of raw milk contamination in Pennsylvania went viral after about 80 people became sick. It was, gushed one press report, “the largest food-borne illness linked to raw milk in Pennsylvania history.” Again, if that’s true, raw milk in the Keystone State would be the least of its — or any state’s — food-related problems.

Just last year, 50 people in Germany died from eating bad bean sprouts, while 29 people in the U.S. died from eating contaminated California cantaloupes. And let’s not forget spinach, eggs, peanuts, ground beef, tomatoes and so on. The deadliest dairy outbreak, in fact, occurred in 1985 and involved cheese that had been made from milk that had been, yes, pasteurized.

The National Institutes of Health says that nearly 50 million people each year are sickened by contaminated food. So why thunder the news from the hilltops when 80 people get sick from drinking raw milk? Or when a grand total of 4,413 people are sickened by raw milk — since 1993?

A telling thing happened earlier this year when an outbreak of salmonella at a “Mexican-style restaurant” sickened 68 people. The same CDC that is so free with its publicity concerning raw milk refused to identify the source, referring to it only as “Restaurant Chain A.”

You can be sure that a small, raw milk producer will never be referred to as “Dairy Farm A” in order to protect its identity. But small dairy farms can’t afford to hire lobbyists or contribute to political campaigns, so the government will never award them a protective cloak.

So why has raw milk become the lightening rod of the sustainable agriculture movement? Possibly because, from a potential for contamination standpoint, it is natural foods’ most vulnerable link. It’s the factory farm’s best chance to convince the public that sustainable agriculture has its risks as well.

But perhaps the bigger reason is this: Heat is the factory farm’s silver bullet. Whether it’s warming milk to 161 degrees, cooking vegetables to the point of disintegration or broiling a steak until, as Mark Twain said, it’s “overdone as a martyr,” heat camouflages an agricultural house of unsanitary horrors. Cook everything to death and filth ceases to matter.

This means that if we were really concerned about increasing the quality of our diet, we would not prohibit the sale of raw food; we would require it.

Raw foods must meet a higher standard for care, conscience and cleanliness. The producer can’t cut corners or make decisions based on output alone. Animals cannot be allowed to stand in quagmires; dead chickens cannot be allowed to pile up in cages; vast lagoons of manure slurry become problematic; and valuable time must be spent cleaning animal pens.

In Iowa and Nebraska, lawmakers are pushing legislation that would criminally punish those who photograph the inner workings of large, factory farms. If the farms were clean and humane, of course, this would not be an issue. But factory farmers (one hates to call them farmers) are afraid of what you might see. They are afraid you might be horrified, and come to see, for example, raw milk, as an antidote to today’s modern agricultural practices.

For all the hand-wringing over potential health benefits and potential health risks, raw milk should be treated like what it is: an uncooked product that, as is the case with a raw oyster or medium-rare hamburger, should be enjoyed with a clear understanding of what we are eating. In a perfect world, that would include an understanding of where the food product was raised and how. But those are issues the pasteurized milk industry would prefer we not think about. They want the spotlight to remain on raw milk instead.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is

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