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The Raw Milk Fights: Economics, Ideology, or Both?

Yesterday’s New York Times has an op-ed, “Crying over raw milk“, about the political fights over raw milk in Wisconsin.  The Wisconsin legislature has introduced a bill allowing dairy farmers to sell raw milk directly to consumers.  The conventional dairy industry is not happy about that.

The author of the piece, Michael Feldman, is dubious about the purported health benefits of raw milk but is quite clear about its economic benefits: “you can’t get $6 a gallon for pasteurized milk.”

Crass economics is behind much of the politics of raw milk these days.  The conventional dairy industry is in trouble: too many cows, too much milk, and not nearly enough regulation of supply.  In contrast, raw milk has passionate advocates willing to pay premium prices.

Not fair, says the dairy industry, which wants raw milk to be regulated:

“In a letter to two senior members the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, the dairy groups called for a measure obliging all facilities producing raw or unpasteurized milk products for direct human consumption to ‘register with FDA and adhere to the tried-and-true food safety requirements that are followed by all other facilities producing milk products.”

As for the safety of raw milk, it is useful to take a look at Seattle attorney Bill Marler’s website: “Real Raw Milk Facts.”   There, he summarizes recent cases of illness caused by toxic E. coli and Salmonella contaminants in raw milk.  These constitute a full employment act for attorneys like Marler who represent victims of foodborne illness.

My position on raw milk has long been that people have a right to drink it but it had better be produced safely.  I believe that all foods-no exceptions-should be produced under well designed and carefully followed HACCP plans (or their equivalent) with pathogen testing at intervals commensurate with the level of risk.

But food safety experts tell me that raw milk can never be tested frequently enough to be confident it is safe.

Raw milk carries a greater risk of bacterial contamination than pasteurized milk and people who buy it should know what those risks are.  The risk may be small, but it is finite.  Putting a child at risk of hemolytic uremic syndrome from toxic E. coli just doesn’t make sense to me.

Like Michael Feldman, I’m dubious about the claims made for the health benefits of raw milk.  No question, it tastes better and that may be reason enough to want it.  But until I can be sure that the producer is scrupulous about safety, my personal choice favors pasteurization.

But that’s just me.  You?

Editor’s Note:  The raw milk fights: economics, ideology, or both? by Marion Nestle first appeared at Food Politics on June 7, 2010.  Republished with permission from the author.

© Food Safety News
  • hhamil

    Dr. Nestle,
    Raoul Baxter recently described a lot of what is going in one part of agriculture as, “Arrogant Intelligence = Practical Ignorance.” I have no question that the same is true about what is called “food safety.”
    As you “believe that all foods-no exceptions-should be produced under well designed and carefully followed HACCP plans (or their equivalent) with pathogen testing at intervals commensurate with the level of risk,” I urge you to give up your current employment and join those of us who actually grow, pack, process, store, distribute and/or retail food for a living.
    Then, you would be forced to learn how astonishingly ignorant and/or foolish so much of what you advocate actually is.
    For example, you wrote, “But food safety experts tell me that raw milk can never be tested frequently enough to be confident it is safe.” Not if “safe” is defined as zero chance of foodborne illness; but, then, Dr. Nestle, no food can ever be “tested frequently enough to be confident it is safe,” if that is the standard. And it doesn’t take a “food safety expert” to tell you that, Dr. Nestle, any 3rd or 4th year math major could. That is why HACCP was invented. It is impossible to assure that all food is safe by testing.
    And another example, there is no “equivalent” to a HACCP plan, Dr. Nestle. There are only true HACCP plans and everything else (including EVERY legislated “HACCP” plan) that is simply masquerading as HACCP.
    Were you to actually work in the food system, you would learn, as the nonpareil HACCP expert Dr. William Sperber wrote almost 8 years ago, “HACCP does not work from farm to table.”
    And, you might have to face someone like me in person who knows enough to call you out about your arrogance, ignorance and foolishness.
    But who would give up a 6 figure income and prestige to get your hands dirty 60+ hours a week, every week for less than the minimum wage while risking 6 figures of your own money to do so? Who would give up the ivory tower?
    And, for once, would you respond to the content of my critique?
    For the record, the only “raw milk” I advocate is that which sustained my daughters for at least 6 months at the start of their lives, milk produced by their mother—the original raw milk. Or should that be pasteurized, too?

  • Alan

    Lots of assumptions in this editorial. One, that HACCP can gauruntee 100% safety. Two, that all foods can and should be risk free. If you look at the history of pasteurized incidence of sickening thousands of people in the not too distant past, you realize that the main problem of our food system is it’s on too large a scale and too centralized so that if something goes wrong, it goes wrong on a big scale. Our food system needs revamping and decentralizing.
    Life is not risk free. I agree standards for raw milk should be high but not so much that it’s unprofitable or impractical.
    Your taste buds and your instincts are telling you something. Good taste and good nutrition are not separate. Food that naturally tastes good without being spiced, flavored or sugared up is probably good for you. I’ll go with my gut instincts.

  • Doc Mudd

    *”Your taste buds and your instincts are telling you something.”*
    Are these not precisely the human weaknesses that have sponsored the bemoaned ‘obesity epidemic’, not to mention teenage pregnancy and the AIDS epidemic? What’s so great about any of these?? And, so then, what’s so vital about unpasteurized milk in this context???

  • Harry Hamil

    Dr. Nestle,
    Raoul Baxter recently described a lot of what is going in one part of agriculture as, “Arrogant Intelligence = Practical Ignorance.” I have no question that the same is true about what is called “food safety.”
    As you “believe that all foods-no exceptions-should be produced under well designed and carefully followed HACCP plans (or their equivalent) with pathogen testing at intervals commensurate with the level of risk,” I urge you to give up your current employment and join those of us who actually grow, pack, process, store, distribute and/or retail food for a living.
    Then, you would be forced to learn how astonishingly ignorant and/or foolish so much of what you advocate actually is.
    For example, you wrote, “But food safety experts tell me that raw milk can never be tested frequently enough to be confident it is safe.” Not if “safe” is defined as zero chance of foodborne illness; but, then, Dr. Nestle, no food can ever be “tested frequently enough to be confident it is safe,” if that is the standard. And it doesn’t take a “food safety expert” to tell you that, Dr. Nestle, any 3rd or 4th year math major could. That is why HACCP was invented. It is impossible to assure that all food is safe by testing.
    And another example, there is no “equivalent” to a HACCP plan, Dr. Nestle. There are only true HACCP plans and everything else (including EVERY legislated “HACCP” plan) that is simply masquerading as HACCP.
    Were you to actually work in the food system, you would learn, as the nonpareil HACCP expert Dr. William Sperber wrote almost 8 years ago, “HACCP does not work from farm to table.”
    And, you might have to face someone like me in person who knows enough to call you out about your arrogance, ignorance and foolishness.
    But who would give up a 6 figure income and prestige to get your hands dirty 60+ hours a week, every week for less than the minimum wage while risking 6 figures of your own money to do so? Who would give up the ivory tower?
    And, for once, would you respond to the content of my critique?
    For the record, the only “raw milk” I advocate is that which sustained my daughters for at least 6 months at the start of their lives, milk produced by their mother—the original raw milk. Or should that be pasteurized, too?

  • Alan

    “Human Weaknesses?” Yes, and food companies know all about those weaknesses and how to trigger and manipulate them using products like fructose corn syrup and sodium that are not good for you and who knows what else developed in laboratories. However, there is nothing manipulated when it comes to raw milk.
    Raw milk is a probiotic. Bacteria is an essential component in maintaining good health. And if you disagree, I could care less. Keep drinking ultrapasturized milk and I’ll keep drinking raw and let us live with our own judgement and decisions.

  • Ray

    “the dairy groups called for a measure obliging all facilities producing raw or unpasteurized milk products for direct human consumption to ‘register with FDA and adhere to the tried-and-true food safety requirements that are followed by all other facilities producing milk products.”
    What a load. I wander if it is the same tried-and-true safety requirements that allow for only about 1% of our beef supply to be inspected. The same FDA that allow hormones to be pumped into dairy cows in order stimulate milk production throughout the year. Or what about the all the sea food imported from oversea that’s overlooked?

  • “Putting a child at risk…”
    Dr. Nestle,
    Dr. Nestle, You have pulled the ‘child at risk’ card from your sleeve. A rare performance indeed, and just in time
    to serve as an opportunistic and influential ‘cry’ on behalf of the mega-dairy industry feeling the little pangs of
    financial threat from small dairy. In your gross concern for the welfare of our children, did you, in like manner,
    wail over the presence of rBGH in mega-dairy milk? Or bemoan the ever increasing amounts of pesticide use,
    hence increased residue on vegetables and fruits? And the list goes on. I’m underwhelmed; your selective effort to
    ‘save the children’ receives no applause from me.
    And, Doc Mudd, in your attempt to follow Alan’s line of thought, you jumped right off the bridge. His point is that
    unadulterated, fresh food requires nothing more, nothing less; to eat it is, in itself, a divine pleasure and provides
    essential components, in readily assimilated form, for the myriad of syntheses necessary to maintain physiological
    ‘stasis.’ Today’s ‘obesity epidemic’ isn’t attributable to ‘instinct’ but rather the consumption of chemically-laden
    food (with some of those chemicals stimulating the pleasure centers of the brain, thereby creating the ‘impulse’ to
    consume more). Obesity was indeed a rare body state prior to ‘better living through chemistry.’
    And let’s not forget, Ray, that the same government so concerned with safety and health requirements, classified
    corn syrup — oh, they call it ketchup, as a ‘vegetable’ for children’s school lunch programs.

  • Doc Mudd

    *” Today’s ‘obesity epidemic’ isn’t attributable to ‘instinct’ but rather the consumption of chemically-laden
    food (with some of those chemicals stimulating the pleasure centers of the brain, thereby creating the ‘impulse’ to
    consume more). Obesity was indeed a rare body state prior to ‘better living through chemistry.’ “*
    Oh, piffle. I suppose you have a bridge to sell us, too? Obesity has been a natural part of the human condition for thousands of years wherever self-indulgent affluent societies have existed.

  • Elizabeth Ball

    While it’s true that anyone can become overweight through overeating, I have found that it’s much more likely when consuming modern foods, especially when those foods contain sugar.
    Although sugar and carbohydrate sensitivity vary from person to person, I’ve noticed a distinctly different chemical response from my brain when I eat it. The chemical response drives me to eat more than I should. While no one is holding a gun to my head, I definitely notice the chemical drive! Whole, unprocessed foods, such as meat, cheese, vegetables (I limit my fruit intake) do not seem to produce this effect.
    Dr. Nestle’s view of raw milk seems moderate to me. From this article and her discussion of raw milk in _What to Eat_, it appears that she is not against raw milk per se, but does want to know that it is absolutely clean. I believe she indicated in her book that if she had just visited the dairy, determined it safe, & wanted to take some home, that would probably be ok. Pasteurization is probably here to stay; & while it does produce taste differences & kill the probiotics, in the era of large-scale farming, long-distance travel for dairy products, & uncertain handling at the grocery store level, it might be one of those “necessary evils” that we accept as a compromise. Raw milk should still be available for those who wish to drink it. Let us at least hope that the milk, pasteurized or not, comes from cows that have been grazing in pasture.