Turning Up the Heat on Raw Milk in U.S.

milkBy Nitaisundara dasa

Currently the U.S. senate is considering the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (HR 875), which has been billed as a way to ensure the safety of food for Americans. HR 875 has been surrounded by controversy since its initial proposal in February 2009. At that time, the Internet was overloaded with rumors that the bill would outlaw backyard gardens, destroy farmers’ markets, and bring organic farming to an end. These rumors have since been cleared but some maintain that the bill is too broad, and by virtue of that, they claim, it will become troublesome to small farmers.

HR 875 is in the news again these days as dairy companies try to insert their agenda into the legislation. The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF)—which represent more than 85 percent of the dairy industry—have pushed the Senate to include raw milk and raw dairy products in the pending reform, whereas previously these goods were not subject to the same rigors that “conventional” milk is.

Don’t be deceived, however, by the dairy industry’s inclusive spirit; as usual, this is all about money. The IDFA and NMPF recognize the growing market for raw milk, the overwhelming majority (all?) of which is produced on a small, or even micro, scale. Despite, or perhaps because of, its small scale production, raw milk is seen by some as a threat to the entire dairy industry because they think its supposed inherent danger could ruin the reputation of all types of dairy. Thus, in an effort to push senators to include raw milk in the food safety reform, IDFA CEO Connie Tipton and NMPF CEP Jerry Kozac recently sent legislators a letter that included claims like the following: “Before pasteurization became widely utilized in the 1920s, human consumption of raw milk was one of the major sources of food borne illnesses and one of the primary causes of infant mortality.”

If Tipton and Kozac and their supporters get their way, raw dairy producers will be subject to the same food safety regulations as regular dairies. While some raw dairies would rise to the occasion, many raw dairies could potentially be forced to close down, doubly diminishing mega-milk’s perceived threat. Because they are often so small, raw dairies might find it hard to finance and implement the necessary practices by which they could be evaluated by the same standards as a dairy with hundreds or thousands of cows. But that does not mean that any given raw dairy product is any less safe.

Putting aside the fact that for thousands of years (until the late-nineteenth century) “milk” exclusively meant raw milk (and it was only in recent history, due to human actions, that raw milk became an issue), there are quite a few studies and even more testimonials that attest to raw milk’s equality, and often supremacy, to pasteurized milk.

Regardless of the loud yet misinformed opposition to raw milk, there is another downside to this scenario: agribusinesses’ use of food to profit to the maximum possible degree is unethical, period. One could argue that this is not inherently so, but only one who is invested could argue that it is not the practical truth. Ironically, if one explores the history of milk it becomes clear that it is the same profit-over-truth mentality that made raw milk dangerous in the first place. In the nineteenth century, farmers and processing plants were doing all sorts of unnatural and unhealthy things to their cows and their milk, with only their profit in mind. Now, seeing as raw dairy is a niche market with an extremely bad reputation amongst most people, it behooves everyone involved in the business to have a high standard of food safety. Additionally, most producers of raw dairy have some sort of ideological motive, which naturally lends to ethical, and thus hygienic, practices. But having actual food safety might not always mean a dairy has what it takes to meet all legal standards, and those are what the IDFA and others seek to impose on the grassroots raw dairy market.

Given the state of the environment (amongst other things), it should be clear that local, small-scale, natural agriculture done by people with more than a financial motive is a good thing, and some reports indicate that the Food Safety Modernization Act actually helps such projects. One can only hope then that legislators will not submit to the monetary agendas of major dairies and take steps that cause the decline of raw milk. As always, it is desire (in this case for money) that is the real problem.

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14 Responses to Turning Up the Heat on Raw Milk in U.S.

  1. This proposed legislation would bring substantial burden to small farmers, as will NAIS (national animal identification) if it passes. Very troublesome for us small farmers and dariy men and women indeed.

    • Regulation is not the issue in my mind, but rather regulation that amounts to an artificial one size fits all. Regulation aimed at large dairy conglomerates will undoubtedly not fit a small dairy like ours of three cows and 50 share holders that is on solar power. Thus in the name of regulation, small dairies may be driven out of business.

    • Thank you for the link. I looked through all the entries you had on raw milk and definitely found them educational. As I mentioned above, and Swami commented, my concern is that there are some who would be forced out of the raw dairy business because they cannot conform exactly to the standards of the PMO. But I do not think that is entirely synonymous with unsafe milk.

      I am not too familiar with exactly what the regulations for pasteurized milk are, but I would hazard a guess that much of them are to account for people who would cut corners if and whenever possible. Also, the larger the scale of production, the more oversight is needed.

      What to speak then of a small rural cow-share program where money is not the only consideration and neither is it plentiful enough to invest in all the equipment that I assume would be involved in raw milk regulation. Should such an operation be shut down?

      Lastly, not to attempt to quell the discussion, but I wonder where raw milk should fall on a list of food-safety priorities. I would hope it is addressed in its proper sequence, meaning after any more pressing issues are addressed.

  2. Dear buglady! I was raised on raw milk. it was my main food in my infancy and childhood- just raw sweet or sour milk. I never got sick although I was consuming even 3 liters a day (usually just after milking when it was still warm and full of foam). I don`t know anyone else suffering from any milk caused deaseases although some villagers were much less then clean…
    Of course, maybe bacterias in US are totally different than in Europe where milk left in warm place becomes tasty and healthy sour milk… Maybe it becomes poisonous in US…

    But puting consumers of raw milk in one line with people drinking alcohol I personally consider quite offensive.
    If you consider it risky then just let us risk. No one asks people buying bread in supermarkets whether they tolerate gluten or not…

  3. Brajasundari, I did not mean to offend. I was merely stating that prohibition simply causes people to find other – sometimes unsafe – means of obtaining what they want to buy. Milk that is taken fresh from a healthy cow is not an issue, as long as the milking process is carried out hygienically (clean hands, clean udder, clean containers). If the milk is consumed soon after milking, there should not be a problem. As for things like gluten sensitivity, there are rules requiring clear ingredient labeling, especially for allergens.

    Nitaisundara, I agree that one size does not fit all. For me, what is important is that the final food (milk, meat, produce) should be safe to consume. How that is achieved must, logically, depend on many factors, including the size and nature of the producer. But I must stress that small size does not exempt a farmer, livestock operator, dairy operator, or a food processor from the legal and moral responsibility for producing a safe food.

    • Brajasundari, I did not mean to offend. I was merely stating that prohibition simply causes people to find other – sometimes unsafe – means of obtaining what they want to buy.

      But I see a big difference between prohibiting to use health ruining substances like alcohol and prohibiting healthy food. Comparing the two things gives the readers subtle impression that drinking raw milk is something harmful and the new laws will just make people less suffering the results of taking it…

      Using the words in media is a big art. One may say: “300% more flue cases in compare to last year” and cause panic. Or one may say: “Last year there was one person with flue and this year there was 3”. Both statements are truth

      If the milk is consumed soon after milking, there should not be a problem.

      What is the problem then? Whole thing is about having it fresh.

  4. That’s just it. There are a number of commercial raw milk “producers” who bottle and sell their milk. It could be, for example, 2-3 days old by the time it reaches the consumer. That is where the greatest danger lies.

    Also, some producers (I think of Organic Pastures in California, for example) have been unscrupulous in their sales tactics – using loopholes in the federal ban to sell their milk Interstate.

    Drinking raw milk, per se, is not automatically harmful. Drinking raw milk that has been held for a day or more carries a greater risk. One has only to look at the number of raw milk and pasteurized milk- related illnesses reported over the years in proportion to their respective market shares to understand that there is a need for a better approach.

    Would you remove federal safety regulations from other food products?

    • Drinking raw milk, per se, is not automatically harmful.

      It might even be good for you. I take it that you do not think that raw milk is particularly beneficial, as opposed pastuerized and homogonized milk?
      Excuse me if I am wrong. But that is probably a debatable issue.

      However, there is certainly a difference between the milk from a grass fed micro organic dairy with well loved and cared for cows and milk that comes out of a factory farm. The latter certainly needs to be regulated, if not eliminated. There is something to be said for small dairies and eating locally. And were we to move in that direction, it’s possible that federal regulations overall could be relaxed. Instead it seems that we have factory farms setting the pace that are in need of considerable regulation at best asking the government to be sure that micro organic raw milk dairies be made to conform to their standards. You have agreed that one size does not fit all, but it seems doubtful that the government will draft regulations that takes all of the above and more into consideration.

    • That’s just it. There are a number of commercial raw milk “producers” who bottle and sell their milk. It could be, for example, 2-3 days old by the time it reaches the consumer. That is where the greatest danger lies.

      I do not understand this point- what is the danger? I`ve asked you this question before but maybe it wasn`t specific enough. So i will repeat it differently: in Europe, Russia, Central America milk left for 3 days outside the fridge becomes healthy and tasty sour milk. In Tibet if you leave milk like this it will become kefir, in India it will turn into yoghurt. What is wrong in USA that milk becomes toxic? What kind of bacteria causes it to become harmful? And where does this bacteria come from- milk itself or the air? I guess it should be in the air because I can`t imagine US cows to be of totally different genotype that in the rest of the world.

  5. If we are going to talk about regulation, I think I would say something like this: “We need a new model,” and appointing a former Monsanto lobbyist as the US administration’s food czar is not a step in a new direction.

    After Food Inc., here is the latest on Monsanto:


  6. Swami, I agree completely. I’m not happy with the current model.

    Brajasundari, I think that a good part of the problem is simply poor attention to proper cleanliness and sanitation. There is, for example, a high level of E. coli O157:H7 infection in dairy herds in the US and Canada. Even the tiniest bit of faecal contamination due to improper cleaning of the udder or poor sanitation in the dairy barn can result in harmful bacteria being transferred into the milk.

  7. Bijaya Kumara Das Brian D Grover

    Hygeine is the key and that is what the threat is for the large dairyman. It is not healthy and sustainable lot to have over 100 cows in an area the size of a football field. The regulation needs to force the conglomerants to provide proper acreage for the size of the herd for proper physical fitness and hygeine. They have monopoized the industry and put most small dairyman out of business.

    This is not a problem for a small operator. In the 60s & 70s our family farmer ran 40 head on 40 acres with a rotating pasture for optimal health and hygeine.

  8. Such strict regulations in the name of “safety”, meanwhile the conventional milk industry, in complete impunity, produces unlimited amounts of nearly hazardous so called milk. And profit stays with the big corporations. Any other news?

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