“…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.

  • Amen, brother.
    It’s the high priests in the movement — on both sides — that have led to irrational behavior. I wouldn’t group Marler in the “high priest” category. I expect that he, like me, is a product of the dynamics between the two sides. Heck, he has every interest in national legalized sales.

  • sbemis

    I think David makes an excellent argument to strip away the “religious” aspects of the raw milk debate.
    And, as long as we’re into the quoting-our-own-stuff mode here at the end of the year, I’ll suggest my own stuff, originally published on David’s blog nearly a year ago, for an outline of how to carry the discussion forward: http://www.ftcldf.org/news/news-11-Great-Thoughts.html

  • As a complement to the Marler-Clark apparent religious contributions, here’s one of my favorites from the raw milk side:
    It would appear that an outbreak hasn’t happened in the history of California and, as a result, you should have no hesitation in feeding raw milk to your babies. I suggest an alternative: find milk from a human. We make it too.
    I mentioned this webpage in an analysis I did of Marler’s threat to sue the WAPF over misinformation:
    I just noticed that the WAPF webpage responds to my argument on the Ethicurean. On the Ethicurean, I pulled a published study out of the PubMed air to make the point that folks got tenure from AltaDena outbreak data. Fallon argues that the particular outbreak cluster never happened. In the process she uses the “correlation does not prove causation” argument without addressing the actual statistical analysis of the research article. Outside of a laboratory, you don’t do a whole lot better than “correlation.” You can add statistical controls and other analytical methods to test your hypothesis, but you will never escape Fallon’s criticism. As a result, there is no outbreak I can point to in which she could not make the same argument. Again, my only point was to suggest how easy it was to find an outbreak report for California in the 80s and 90s.

  • Steve Bemis

    I think David makes an excellent argument to strip away the “religious” aspects of the raw milk debate.
    And, as long as we’re into the quoting-our-own-stuff mode here at the end of the year, I’ll suggest my own stuff, originally published on David’s blog nearly a year ago, for an outline of how to carry the discussion forward: http://www.ftcldf.org/news/news-11-Great-Thoughts.html

  • Dana Schultz

    Excellent piece…thank you!

  • When peanuts kill 8, cookie dough kills several,spinach kills 3 and hamburger kills every other month and MRSA and antibiotic infections killing tens of thousands each year….this describes an America with a ever lengthening list of bad bugs and an ever weakening ever more depressed immune system.
    In CA 65,000 people every week consume raw milk from about 400 retail stores. There have been exactly zero deaths in CA for at least 30 years…( the CDC lists no deaths from Organic raw milk in CA since the beginning of time ).
    Raw milk drinkers enjoy a much different immune system than the general population and rarely get sick. They ingest more than 100 kinds of bacteria ( at very low levels ) in each cup of raw milk they consume and have built their immune systems to be able to tolerate the relatives and cousins of the bad bugs that are killing Americans.
    Lets change this debate and dialogue….
    What is America doing to enhance the immune systems of its citizens. I would argue…next to nothing. Antibiotics no longer work and depress the immune systems horribly. Bacteria in our gut is 80% of the strength of the human immune system. yet….it has been dogma and Germ Theory doctrine that Bacteria are supposedly all bad. This is bad science and soon it will be common to hear doctors saying….did you get your biodiverity today….we are jammed packed with bacteria…it is a matter of good and bad balance.
    That dietary biodiversity will be from whole unprocessed foods and raw milk. Try some….it is delicious and will change your life. say goodbye to IBS, Crohns, Asthma, Allergies, colds and flues and rarely is associated with lactose intolerance and heals or dramatically improves most immune system issues.
    Raw milk is not perfect…but it is damn close ( when tested and regulated properly ). No food is perfect.
    This is why raw milk sells for $16 per gallon in CA and the stores can not keep in stock.
    Mark McAfee
    Organic Pastures Dairy
    Fresno CA
    877 RAW MILK

  • Raw milk—another spectacularly bad idea
    Category: Absurd medical claims • Medicine
    Posted on: December 28, 2009 2:31 PM, by PalMD
    I’ve never understood food fads. Michael Pollan’s maxim, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” has always seemed like reasonable, practical advice. Maybe it’s a disease of plenty—we have so much food, we have to find new ways to conceptualize it. Unless you live in an inner city, you can go to any market and find large quantities of foodstuffs, both healthy and unhealthy. Food in this country is cheap and plentiful and, for the most part, safe. Self-“regulated” industrialized production has contributed to problems with bacterial contamination of meats and produce, but food- and water-borne illness is still relatively rare in the US compared to the developing world.
    The industrial food production that has led to monsters such as “thousand-cow burgers” needs a lot of work. Mass production and distribution can introduce many different opportunities for contamination. Once a contaminated beef patty reaches the kitchen, opportunities for illness multiply. Even if you cook the burger thoroughly, you can still be sickened by contaminated counters and utensils.
    One of the areas of success in food safety is milk. Milk has historically been one of the worst offenders when it comes to food-borne illness. Milk can harbor many disease-causing bacteria, and the same industrial processes that are problematic for meat can affect milk. When pooling milk from hundreds of cows, it only takes one sick cow to contaminate the batch. But even with careful dairy farming processes, milk is often contaminated. Thankfully, pasteurization has largely eliminated milk-related illness, and most milk-related illness seen today is the result of foolish consumption. When milk is pasteurized, it is briefly heated to a temperature that kills harmful bacteria. The nutritional value is preserved as nothing else is done to the milk. As a food, milk has calories in the form of sugars, fats, and proteins, and has vitamins and minerals. These are not adversely affected by pasteurization.
    Still, there is a movement out there promoting “raw” (that is, unpasteurized) milk. It’s promoted by many of the usual suspects, and the list of claims made for raw milk are scientifically absurd. Some examples include the following:
    Raw milk is healthier: Pasteurized milk is accused of causing everything from allergies to heart disease to cancer, but back in the day, these diseases were rare. In fact, clean raw milk from grass-fed cows is chock full of healthy amino acids and beneficial enzymes, and was used as a cure.
    The statement doesn’t support its title, of course, but even if it did, the problems with raw milk aren’t carcinogens and allergies but bacterial diseases.
    Raw milk does not make you sick: That is, if it is properly collected from cows fed good, clean grass. Grass-fed milk has natural antibiotic properties that help protect it from pathogenic bacteria. But it’s worth noting, if you’ve been using pasteurized dairy products, you might want to eat small amounts of yogurt or kefir for a week or so, for a dose of probiotics, just to be safe. I did, and it helped.
    It would be lovely if any of that were true, but it’s not. Of course, it’s not the milk per se that makes you sick but the bacteria in it. “Grass-fed milk” does not have any magical antibiotic properties, and consuming “pro-biotics” will not protect you from Campylobacter, E. coli, or other common milk-borne pathogens.
    It is also commonly claimed that raw milk contains beneficial enzymes that are destroyed by pasteurization. Humans make their own enzymes. We have no use for exogenous ones, and they are rapidly destroyed in the stomach before they can do anything.
    Outbreaks from raw milk consumption are a common feature in the Morbidity and Mortality weekly. These are completely preventable diseases. The idea that raw milk provides some significant benefit not provided by pasteurized milk is simple superstition.

  • Codi Renee

    I want to commend David Gumpert for his refreshing recommendation to remove the “religion” from the debate and his galliant effort to steer us back to the real issue of freedom of choice. However, I do not believe it is “religion” that drives the emotions as intensely as our society’s need for “drama”. There is an indwelling desire in all of us to be considered of value and signifigance in the eyes of others and we will stand up and fight for our sense of right, or our need to be right, in defense of self. This can become as extreme as the toddler that throws him/her self to the floor in a tantrum for the sake of achieving the intended goal regardless of logic, sense or truth. Hense, the “drama”.
    The fact is, no one cares what you know until they know that you care.
    With the thousands of choices each and every one of us face each and every day we need to realize that in the equal measure that we are allowed to chose in freedom we are also free to experience the consequenses of our choices without blaming others when the results do not occur in our aniticipated manner. In other words, take personal responsibility.
    As for Sally Fallon and those of the Weston A. Price Foundation, they have my deepest gratitude and my utmost respect for facing tremendous opposition as they present what they, and I also, believe to be truth and it is done without self-serving motives or gain. I am personally one of those whose health has been drastically improved by the nutritional pricipals they stand on. I can utilize my freedom of choice to reap from their earnest efforts and I do not have to bash, belittle or even criticize anyone or anything in order to accomplish this. No “drama”.
    If you want to get “religious” about it, even God almighty allows ALL of us our free will. Just be big enough to allow the same as you personally take on the responsibilty that comes with it.