In August, a year-long federal investigation culminated in the raid of a California natural-food market and the arrest of its owner. The alleged crime: the illegal production and sale of raw milk.
The laws governing raw (unpasteurized) milk vary from state to state: California actually does allow the sale of raw milk but only with the proper permits. In other states, raw milk can be sold straight off the farm (not at retail), and in 10 states it cannot be sold legally at all. In 1987, the FDA banned all sales of any raw milk that’s been transported across state lines.
Public health risks are the reason for all this regulation, says the FDA, which warned consumers once again this past spring that drinking raw milk could put their health at risk. Straight out of the cow, milk can harbor a variety of pathogens (Salmonella, Listeria, E. coli), no matter how the cows are raised and the milk is handled. Those pathogens are especially dangerous to the elderly, those with compromised immunity and children.
The FDA is one of the public health organizations arguing that pasteurization, standard practice in this country since the 1920s, has been an unqualified success; the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association agree. The simple process of heating milk to 161° F for at least 15 seconds kills pathogens and has greatly reduced our incidence of milk-related sickness. In 1938, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, milk caused a quarter of all food-related outbreaks. By 1993, milk was behind just 1 percent of those cases, thanks to pasteurization. The CSPI advises raw milk remain in the “Do Not Eat” category.
Now the number of cases of milk-caused illness is starting to edge back up again, as more people shun pasteurization in favor of the unadulterated product. According to the CDC, between 1998 and 2008, more than 1,600 people got sick from drinking raw milk. Two people died.
But fans claim raw milk (or “real” milk, as it’s sometimes called) proffers a multitude of health benefits, saying it can cure everything from asthma, gastrointestinal disorders, allergies, cataracts and arthritis to autism; it’s also said to improve cholesterol levels and immunity. Supporters welcome raw milk’s bacteria and are unconcerned about the health risks, pointing out that any food can become contaminated and cause illness, and that, in fact, living with microbes is the key to preventing sickness. Some also point to a big farm/small farm argument. Selling raw milk may keep some small dairies viable: They can sell their unpasteurized product for up to $8 a gallon, an alternative to the $1 or so per gallon that big processors offer.
Raw milk has become a cause that unites far sides of the political spectrum to decry the abuse of government authority — or at least a waste of its resources — in trying to control what we can choose to eat. And we are allowed to consume other things that are health risks (alcohol and cigarettes, for example), so, they ask, why not raw milk? The California raid has brought that question back to the table once again.