The Raw Milk Raw Deal
Obsessive Covid cleaning is just the most recent and most palpable government regulation to serve no discernible health and safety policy goal. Many rules ostensibly made to “protect” you and yours really serve to protect incumbents from new entry by artificially increasing new entry costs. Others are paternalistic efforts designed to save you from yourself, including your natural cravings for wholesome natural foods.
One particularly stunning example of the latter is the US Food and Drug Administration’s ban on the interstate sale of raw, which is to say unpasteurized, milk. According to the FDA, the ban is necessary because “raw milk can contain a wide variety of harmful bacteria, including Listeria, E.coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, Yersinia, and Brucella.”
Like so much government disinformation, that claim is only partially correct. Bovine milk can become contaminated with anything after it leaves the cow’s udder due to unclean milking or handling processes but to suggest that milk from healthy cattle naturally teems with such nasties is disingenuous.
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Some groups of humans have consumed the milk of cows and other mammals for thousands of years. Consuming animal milk may have helped human immune systems adapt to living intimately with ungulates, a major source of meat, muscle power, and fertilizer in addition to milk and its sundry cognates. The oldest confirmed production of cheese dates from 7,200 years ago!
Genes that allow people to digest milk throughout their lives became more prominent in many populations with access to animal milk, so we know that it helped them to survive and reproduce. (People who don’t possess those genes are called lactose intolerant.) It proves that being able to drink mammal milk throughout life on net helps people with access to milk.
Well it proves that drinking raw milk from grass-fed ungulates, the form of milk that humans consumed for thousands of years, benefits people. Pasteurization, the process of heating milk to kill off some pathogens, has been practiced for centuries but only sporadically, perhaps because many believe that it degrades taste and nutritional value. Pasteurized milk did not become common in the United States until the twentieth century. Some states began to mandate pasteurization starting in 1947 and the national requirement for interstate shipments began in 1973. All, allegedly, to “keep you safe.” Sound familiar?
Consuming raw milk is indeed more dangerous than consuming pasteurized milk but, like eating raw fish, it isn’t terribly dangerous if proper sanitary and cooling procedures are followed. Instead of simply mandating accurate labeling and allowing consumers to decide if they think the added taste and nutritional benefits of raw milk are worth the added risk, paternalistic governments banned raw milk, as if it was a really dangerous substance, like cigarette tobacco.
Of course all the ban did was to force raw milk production and consumption underground, where market forces like branding cannot work as effectively to promote safety as in a lawful market. Dairy producers haven’t started shooting at each other because the market for short shelf-life contraband works differently from markets for hard drugs (and alcohol when it is banned). Moreover, a dozen states again allow the retail sale of raw milk and another 14 allow direct purchase from the producer.
But according to the Raw Milk Institute, a trade association, the overall size of the market remains truncated because some people who would like to purchase raw milk cannot or will not do so because of the legal restrictions, particularly the federal ban on interstate sales.
The ironic part of all this is that raw milk is safer than ever before thanks to inexpensive modern refrigeration and rapid transportation networks. In the early nineteenth century in rapidly growing urban centers like Manhattan, the big distinction was between “country” milk, raw milk shipped in at considerable expense from dairy farms on Long Island, and “swill” milk produced by urban cows fed a steady diet of brewery and distillery waste slop.
Straight from the cow, swill milk was blue tinged and smelled like beer. Consumers knew producers adulterated it with non-toxic plaster of paris to reduce the smell and make it white but they drank it anyway because it was about half the price of wholesome country milk. [For the deets, see Michael Egan, “Organizing Protest in the Changing City: Swill Milk and Social Activism in New York City, 1842-1864,” New York History 86, 3 (Summer 2005): 205-25.]
If the fact that poor urbanites drank swill milk because it was cheaper sounds awful to you, check out the FDA’s current milk production guidelines. While it is an exaggeration to call today’s standard pasteurized Grade A milk “pus milk,” as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) labeled it, the FDA does allow milk to contain up to 750,000 somatic cells (mostly dead white blood cells) per milliliter. All milk contains some dead white blood cells but modern industrially-raised milk cows, the ones that produce America’s cheap milk, produce far more pus than their grass-fed, free range competitors do because cows raised in cramped conditions on grain meal are highly susceptible to mastitis, or udder inflammation.
PETA’s pus milk campaign was an attempt to induce people to stop drinking milk. But the root problem isn’t milk, it is industrial farm practices that make it necessary to inject cows with antibiotics and to pasteurize milk, pus and all. Without government interference with raw milk production, larger numbers of consumers might have already moved back to more expensive but less pus-filled raw milk from cows raised in the old school country style. We’ll never know, just like we will never know how consumers in locked down states would have reacted to Covid if they had received full and accurate information instead of dubious death figures and exaggerated risk assessments.
Americans don’t need government officials telling them what to do and what not to do. They do need clear, honest data and risk assessments unbiased by profit or ideological motives. The government, however, increasingly appears incapable of providing even that, even when it comes to foundational needs like nutrition.