All Commentary
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Raw Milk and the Sour State

Control of the Milk Supply is a Primary Step toward Government Control of the Larger Food Supply

Take a moment, if you will, to think about the milk you buy from the grocery store. Whether it is an expensive organic brand or simply carries a mega-chain store name, that milk has undergone pasteurization and homogenization. In pasteurization it has been quickly heated to temperatures up to 250 degrees Fahrenheit for a few seconds to kill bacteria. In homogenization the milk has passed through a tiny valve at pressures exceeding 20,000 pounds per square inch, breaking up fat globules so that cream does not rise to the top. In addition to these volatile treatments, your milk may come from cows fed specially designed hormones to help the animals produce at a rate far beyond that which nature intended.

There is a growing subset of consumers who would prefer not to buy their milk this way. They want it unpasteurized, unhomogenized—in a word, “raw.” They would prefer to drink their milk as humans have consumed it for centuries, which is also how every single signer of the U.S. Constitution drank it.

To procure such a basic product, however, these consumers—with some exceptions—are forced to break the law. The basic retail sale of raw milk for human consumption is legal in only eight states—Arizona, California, Connecticut, Maine, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, New Mexico, and Washington. Its sale for human consumption across state lines is illegal nationwide. In some other states raw milk can be sold at the farm site only, sold through “cow share” programs, or legally marketed as “pet food.” Seventeen states completely forbid the sale of raw milk in any way.

How did this happen? We all learned in childhood about Louis Pasteur’s development of pasteurization in the mid-1800s. For mass-produced milk in an age before refrigeration, pasteurization was indeed a godsend. Early in the twentieth century, as people died at alarming rates due to contaminated milk from filthy urban dairy centers, pasteurization caught on as a hot market trend. In a time when milk collection and storage on large-scale farms was unsanitary and unrefrigerated (and when additives as diverse as marigold petals and animal brains were placed in milk to add body), pasteurization helped save lives. Thus people were willing to pay for it. But then one city after another began to mandate the process through legislation. In 1948 Michigan became the first state to ban the sale of unpasteurized milk, and other states soon followed suit. In 1986 a federal judge ordered that interstate shipments of raw milk be banned, further limiting supply for consumers.

Now, despite advances in dairy-production techniques, it doesn’t matter how clean the equipment or how healthy the cow; raw milk is either illegal or highly suspect, and state and federal bureaucracies see it as a threat to the population. Regulation overstepped the free market and did an end run around common sense.

Raw-milk advocates argue that milk in its pure state is quite beneficial to health. According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, a leading natural-foods organization, raw milk reduces the incidence of asthma, eczema, and hay fever in children. Unpasteurized milk also aids the body’s natural digestive system. Pasteurization, the Foundation insists, kills helpful bacteria and breaks down delicate proteins in milk, leading to the dairy intolerance seen in so many individuals in this modern age. Advocates also state that unpasteurized milk strengthens the immune system and provides optimal growth and development for young people.

The opinion of government officials, backed up by the bulk of the medical community, is that every bit of that is hogwash. A joint press release from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control, dated March 1, 2007, reminds consumers “of the dangers of drinking milk that has not been pasteurized.” Among the litany of diseases said to be carried by raw milk are “listeriosis, salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria and brucellosis.” It is enough to make one wonder how Amish communities manage to survive.

The FDA/CDC claims that “There is no meaningful nutritional difference between pasteurized and raw milk.” The Price Foundation retorts that no research is cited by the FDA/CDC to substantiate such claims. The press release also states that “From 1998 to May 2005 CDC identified 45 outbreaks of foodborne illnesses,” accounting for “1,007 illnesses, 107 hospitalizations, and two deaths.” Aside from the fact that these are minuscule numbers for a population of nearly 300 million being tracked over seven years, there seems to be little evidence to back up the figures. Thomas Bartlett, in an article on raw milk (“The Raw Deal,” October 1, 2006), went looking for such cases of illness. In addition to finding no anecdotal evidence whatsoever, he also asked John Sheehan, then-director of the FDA’s dairy and egg safety division, for evidence linking raw milk to deadly disease outbreaks.

Sheehan admitted that he didn’t know of any such cases in the United States in the past 20 years. Nevertheless, the official line on raw milk is so ingrained as to be farcical. In interviewing a Maryland state health official about raw milk sales, Bartlett was told selling raw milk was as bad as selling marijuana, and the official compared such producers to heroin dealers.

Indeed, the question is far more important than, “Is raw milk beneficial?” or even, “Is raw milk safe?” It is this: What right does the state have to outlaw the sale of unpasteurized milk in the first place?

Imagine the case of Mark Nolt of New Line, Pennsylvania. Nolt was arrested—arrested—last May in a sting operation in which undercover officials purchased raw milk from his farm. Nolt, a Mennonite farmer with ten children, was fined $4,040, had his equipment and products seized, and was threatened with jail if he tried to sell raw milk again. His case is not unique. Nolt’s spokesman at his trial, Jonas Stoltzfus, eloquently summed up the situation: “This issue has very little to do with raw milk and health, and everything to do with freedom.”

Controlling the Milk Supply

But why milk? Indeed, as the 2008 pepper scare has proven, harmful bacteria can find their way to many other food sources. However, milk is different from most other food products. It is a staple among staples. To control the milk supply is to control the food supply.

Pasteurization is not a cheap process, and therefore the legal demand for pasteurization favors large producers. A small, independent dairy farm may very well not be able to afford pasteurization equipment (not at government standards, at least), and thus micro-dairies can rarely operate legally on their own. With the dairy industry more centralized, it becomes easier to track and regulate—and control.

Control of the milk supply has been a primary step in the state’s efforts to control the larger food supply. Agriculture continues to fall further and further under the eye of government regulation, as do businesses as diverse as potato-chip manufacturers and fast-food restaurants. The USDA, FDA, and myriad other state and federal agencies make no bones about their goal of controlling every morsel Americans consume—all for our own good, of course.

And where better to start than with milk? Think of the psychological benefits for the state emanating from such regulation. If a product as central and wholesome as milk can only be safe through government control, reliance on the paternalistic state grows. Has it worked? Ask a random acquaintance if he would consider drinking unpasteurized milk. You may very well get a look of horror in return. Why do people feel that way? Simply because they have been indoctrinated to feel that way. Why not be just as accepting of government regulation over their mayonnaise or their chicken or their lettuce? How about their water supply or the cars they drive or how warm they keep their homes in the wintertime? Though not necessarily a conscious progression, control by the state, when left unchecked, simply grows and expands naturally.

As ingrained in our social conscience as pasteurization has become, it is hard for many to step back and realize just how preposterous milk laws happen to be. One must ask if the many citizen-farmers who valiantly fought for liberty two centuries ago could have ever envisioned a “free” state in which one citizen would be legally barred from selling milk from his cow to another citizen. Even King George III would have laughed at that idea.

  • William Pike is interested in non-profit development, planned giving, higher education, and Christian organizations.

    In addition to a full-time planned giving position at DePauw University, he am also the pastor of two small churches and ordained in the Church of the Nazarene.