Karen Gay’s Alternative Table
Earlier this year, I attended an agriculture subcommittee meeting in the Virginia General Assembly. I was astounded by the vehemence with which the Virginia Farm Bureau and a pediatrician with an undisclosed background in nutrition attacked the idea of allowing raw milk sales at our neighboring farms. I am learning that trotting out supposed experts to government committees is typical for those who oppose direct access to foods. Members of these committees, even if they do not receive contributions from large agricultural interests, are probably terrified of being blamed for any fallout from lightening regulations.
Fallout can and does occur which regulations are loosened. Anyone who has eaten a bad shrimp can attest that the results are really unpleasant and if one is immune-compromised death can be the result. Should we outlaw shrimp because some people will die? I know that many of my readers believe that more regulation will help save lives, but it also tends to stifle individual initiative and creativity having long-lasting impacts on our economy.
Writer’s Note: This article was written for the October, 2015 newsletter of the Virginia Independent Consumers and Farmers Association (vicfa.org). VICFA was started in 2001 by a small group of citizens in central Virginia who were concerned about the over-regulation of small farm sales to direct consumers. Consumers were, in fact, being denied their right to have fresh, wholesome foods from farmers whom they knew and trusted. Their mission is “To promote and preserve unregulated direct farmer-to-consumer trade that fosters availability of locally-grown or home-produced food products.”
In our beloved Eastern Shore, I believe that we can rejuvenate our economy with small farms producing such higher-value, sustainable farm products as raw milk and artisanal cheeses, pasture-fed meats, and vegetables grown without pesticides. We have the beginnings of this type of industry in the small farms I’ve written about in the Cape Charles Wave. We need to develop demand for these products and also lighten up on the regulations.
Below is my article on raw milk.
Those of you fortunate enough to own a dairy cow or herd share are aware of the benefits and pleasures of fresh milk straight from the cow. The milk is unbelievably rich and coats the inside of one’s mouth with a sweet, satisfying, and spiritual layer of cream. Compare this to the experience of drinking low fat or nonfat milk which is blue, watery, and metallic tasting. Why would anyone want the latter?
A Brief History
For thousands of years families depended on cows, goats, camels and sheep to supplement their traditional diets. Primitive dairy-loving people like the Masai and the Swiss developed preservation techniques like fermentation that increased the nutritive value of milk and reduced the chance of spoilage. As a matter of fact, raw milk from a healthy cow, collected under sanitary conditions, can sit out for days, weeks, and months without refrigeration1. As it sours it is transformed by means of lactic-acid bacteria into a fermented product which is still safe to eat for a long period of time. On the other hand, pasteurized and homogenized milk putrefies after a short period of time2.
In this country, as farm people began to move to the cities the problem of how to sustain a cow in crowded conditions and how to preserve the milk safely became important to solve. In the nineteenth century cows were confined next to distilleries and fed spent grain from the liquor making process3. This unnatural diet lead to sick animals that produced foul milk. In addition, there was little knowledge of sanitation so cows lived in filthy pens and were milked by people who never washed their hands. The result was so disastrous that later in the century infant mortality grew to 20 percent.
A medical doctor called Henry Coit enlisted dairy farmers to improve hygiene standards to create certified milk. This certified milk caused less harm but resulted in a four-fold increase in the cost of milk. Pasteurization of milk seemed to be the solution to provide a lower-cost product that did not require the strictest sanitary guidelines. Pasteurization evolved at the same time that water became chlorinated and cars were replacing horse-drawn carriages and the resulting manure so it is difficult to determine which improvement had the most impact on improved infant mortality rates.
Is pasteurization really necessary today? Certainly the U.S. Government believes so. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guide Keeping Kids Safe, A Guide for Safe Food Handling, states “Unpasteurized milk is not safe for children. It can be a source of E. coli O157:H7, as well as other potentially harmful bacteria4.” The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) even has a webpage entitled Real Stories of the Dangers of Raw Milk. How could traditional societies have survived centuries without current sanitation methods, stainless steel tanks, refrigerators, and CDC warnings if raw milk is inherently unsafe? Certainly they had their share of deaths from poorly handled milk and sick cows, but by and large, their societies thrived without modern conveniences. A better question to ask is what do we do differently from these traditional societies?
The Modern Milk Industry
Our country’s farming model has evolved from small family dairies into one that treats its cows like machinery in a factory. Today’s average dairy herd contains 135 cows whereas in past times herds were limited by the ability of a family and employees to manually milk the cows5. Crowded conditions and the proximity to manure create perfect conditions for unhealthy bacteria. A typical cow produces 148 pounds (about 18 gallons) of waste a day. 135 cows produce 19,980 pounds or about 2,430 gallons of manure daily6. If one cow gets sick, the chance of spreading the illness is very high.
Today’s factory farm tries to achieve efficiencies wherever possible. One obvious choice is to attempt to reduce the cost of feed. A cow’s normal diet is grass in the warmer months and hay during the cooler months. The diet for a cow in a conventional dairy is also supplemented with low cost byproducts from human food production such as soybean meal, candy waste, bakery waste, and the same product that wreaked such devastation in the nineteenth century, distillers grains from ethanol production7,8. The industrial model does create economies of scale putting smaller scale dairies out of business. According to Advocacy for Animals “Between 1991 and 2004, the number of U.S. dairies dropped by almost half, and the number of dairies with 100 or more cows grew by 94 percent9. At the same time breeding programs, genetically engineered growth hormones, feeding changes, and the inhumane practice of separating mothers from their calves early drastically increased milk yields so that “Between 1950 and 2000, the number of dairy cows in the United States fell by more than half, yet during that same period, the average annual milk yield more than tripled.” These factory cows only live four years when their normal life expectancy is twenty years.
The Milk Controvery Continues
All of these changes to dairy cow feed, environment, and genetics along with pasteurization has an impact on the quality and nutrition of conventional milk. Several recent studies note a relationship between ingestion of raw milk and allergy reduction. (Lancet. 2001 Oct 6;358(9288):1129-33 and Clinical & Experimental Allergy. 2007 May; 35(5) 627-630). The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in their online August 29, 2011 issue said that children drinking raw milk had 41 percent less asthma and half the rate of hay fever. Pasteurizing the milk removed the protective effect. The U.S. Government has different ideas though. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states in an article entitled Raw Milk May Pose Health Risk “Although the heating process slightly affects a few of the vitamins—thiamine, vitamin B6 and folic acid within the B-complex, and vitamin C, the changes are not significant.” (http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm232980.htm) Shown below is a chart which first appeared in The Lancet, a weekly, peer-reviewed medical journal, in 1984 which contradicts the FDA statement.
Milk falls prey to several types of bacteria. The USDA document “Foodborne Illness: What Consumers Need to Know” mentions the following bacteria in conjunction with unpasteurized milk: Campylobacter jejuni, Escherichia coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes, and Salmonella. Only Staphylococcus aureus is listed as multiplying in contaminated cheeses which may be pasteurized or unpasteurized. These bacteria have the ability to cause intense discomfort and even death in infants and those whose immune systems are compromised10. How accurate is the information that USDA reports? It turns out that even pasteurized milk can acquire these bacteria. An example is the listeria outbreak earlier this year at Blue Bell Creameries in which contaminated pasteurized ice cream caused ten hospitalizations and three deaths11. More recently, Karoun Dairies recalled several of its cheeses due to listeria. In this case there were twenty two hospitalizations and one death12. One questions why the USDA is not more precise in its description of which products attract listeria.
Pasteurization in the early 20th Century was a very controversial solution when it took effect. The medical establishment railed against pasteurization and the Mayo Clinic even had a protocol called the “Milk Cure” which successfully treated cancer, allergies, kidney disease and other chronic problems13. The “Milk Cure” required the patient to rest and ingest five to ten quarts of raw milk in small quantities during the day. In addition, hot baths and enemas were given. In his book, “The Milk Cure”, J.R. Crewe noted “Striking results are seen in diseases of the heart and kidneys and high blood pressure. In cases in which there is marked edema, the results obtained are surprisingly marked. This is especially striking because so-called dropsy has never been treated with large quantities of fluid. With all medication withdrawn, one case lost twenty-six pounds in six days, huge edema disappearing from the abdomen and legs, with great relief to the patient. No cathartics or diuretics were given. This property of milk in edema has been noted in both cardiac and renal cases.” Today, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states “Raw milk can carry harmful germs that can make you very sick or kill you. If you’re thinking about drinking raw milk because you believe it has health benefits, consider other options.” Turns out that pasteurized products can kill too.
Clearly it’s not just milk that can kill. Shown below is a chart compiled by the Weston A. Price Foundation from U.S. Government sources.
One wonders why there is such stigma associated with raw milk products when compared to seafood, poultry, eggs, beef, pork, and produce, dairy, pasteurized and unpasteurized, causes relatively few health problems.
Follow The Money
There are three key companies involved in the industrial dairy business: Land O’Lakes, Dean Foods, and Dairy Farmers of America. These companies have powerful lobbying groups that work with Congress and state governments to eliminate the competition from raw milk. Raw milk producers can earn more for their product than conventional dairy farms, which are going out of business at alarming rates. There is big money at stake, not for the farmers themselves, but for the corporate executives. While the average income for a dairy farmer was between $24,000 and $60,000 in 2011, these corporate executives are in charge of multi-billion dollar revenues and compensate themselves well14. I have seen the lobbying effort myself first hand in Richmond where pediatricians with little nutrition training appear before Agriculture subcommittees in their white lab coats and declare raw milk to be a dangerous product.
VICFA is working hard to allow all Virginians the right to choose the milk of their choice. We believe that consumers have the God-given right to drink milk straight from a cow and artisanal cheese lovingly prepared by the neighbor down the road. State and Federal governments have no business interfering with the right of citizens to visit a farm and purchase any product they desire.
1.Weston A. Price Foundation
2.Raw Milk Institute
13.Crewe, JR. “The Milk Cure,” http://www.realmilk.com/milkcure.html
15.The Untold Story of Milk
16.The Raw Milk Answer Book