“…to him who preserves the life of a single individual it is counted that he hath preserved the whole race.”  From rabbinic commentary on the Torah

I was surprised recently to see a newspaper article out of Montana quoting me as saying I have fewer coughs and colds since I’ve been drinking raw milk. 

I hadn’t been interviewed by the paper.  But then I remembered that I allude to my health experiences since beginning to drink raw milk, almost as an aside, in my book, The Raw Milk Revolution. 

I was caught off-guard by this particular quotation because I try to steer clear of promoting either the health benefits or safety of raw milk. I’m doing a fair number of radio and other media interviews these days in connection with the book, and interviewers will often try to lead me into saying things that fit with their preconceptions–for example, that raw milk is safer than pasteurized milk, or that raw milk is a terrible health hazard. 

And therein lies an important explanation for why the debate over raw milk is so acrimonious, with name-calling and much worse among proponents and opponents of raw milk: most everyone involved has taken sides on either the risks or the health benefits of raw milk. 

Those who want to make raw milk difficult or impossible to obtain point to the stories of people who have become very sick from consuming raw milk.  A good example is a recent article by food poisoning lawyer Bill Marler in Food Safety News about the dangers of raw milk, in which he strings together a series of five videos of individuals, several of them children, who have become quite ill from raw milk.  Some of the children have suffered permanent kidney damage from hemolytic uremic syndrome brought on as part of illness from E. coli O157:H7 contained in raw milk.

Those who want to ease or remove restrictions on raw milk have their own set of case examples–the stories of individuals, also including children, who are experiencing health benefits from raw milk.  There is research out of Europe (pdf) suggesting strongly that children who regularly consume raw milk are less likely than other children to experience allergies and asthma. And there are endless case-examples of individuals who say their health has improved in important ways after drinking raw milk for extended periods. 

Why do discussions about these aspects of raw milk become so emotional? I keep thinking of the phrase from rabbinic commentary on the Torah that I quote at the start of this article. 

What it says to me is that those on either side of this issue are so passionate because they see themselves as potentially saving lives.  Those who see excessive risk feel that if they prevent one serious illness, they’ve done a wonderful deed.  And those who have seen people benefit from raw milk feel if even one individual who is sick regains his or her health, they have similarly done a wonderful deed. 

With such mindsets, it’s not a huge leap to see opponents in a harsh light. Those who oppose raw milk availability may come to see proponents as not having a high regard for human life.  Same with proponents–they can easily begin to see opponents as callously denying consumers the  health-giving properties of raw milk. 

My solution is to try to satisfy both sides. The way you do that is to take a reasonable approach.  That doesn’t mean you suddenly stop pasteurizing all milk any more than it means you ban raw milk. 

What it means is you treat raw milk as you would any food that can become contaminated, which is most foods.  That is, you seek to ensure the safest possible production and distribution approach.  In today’s highly charged atmosphere, that is the opposite of what happens in many states.  As just one example of what could happen, state agricultural agencies could establish extension courses on safe handling practices for raw milk, instead of obsessively focusing on trying to scare consumers away from buying raw milk, or carrying out undercover sting operations against farmers producing raw milk, as a number have done.  Not only have these tactics not worked, they seem to have done the opposite:  stimulated ever more consumer interest in raw milk. 

I’ve come to conclude that tending to one’s health is a highly personal, and private, matter.  Different treatments, and different foods, have differing effects on people.

Raw milk is a prime example. I have heard enough testimonials from people who have benefited to believe that it helps some significant numbers of people.  I have also met people who started on raw milk and still have the eczema or Crohn’s that they wanted to relieve.  And very occasionally, individuals do become seriously ill from raw milk. 

To the extent that the government involves itself in trying to regulate our access to foods or alternative treatments that haven’t been shown to be untowardly dangerous, it infringes dangerously in our lives. 

You could say I’m an agnostic in this religious war in that I don’t believe in either side’s religion, either about dangers or benefits.  My religion, if I might use that term, is a commitment to upholding the political and personal liberties our country’s founders so well articulated in the wake of British abuses, and that American soldiers have through the years died defending.

There’s another political value, attributed to Voltaire, that is relevant here. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  We can each have our views about whether raw milk is highly dangerous or a miracle cure-all.  Just don’t try to forcibly impose either belief on me. 

Let’s take a positive approach to this situation.  Let’s make raw milk available to all who want it, and do all we can to educate dairy farmers on how to produce the safest possible product.  Let’s also carry out serious research on both the risks and health benefits of raw milk to fill in serious voids in our knowledge.  Religion is never a good subject for debate.