Land of milk and money

food freedom demonstration

Milk isn’t just for kids anymore, at least if it’s raw. And adults are ready to fight the government for the right to drink it. Photo: cheeseslave/flickr.

Fewer than 5% of all Americans drink raw milk. Yet, the question of whether Americans should be allowed to drink it at all is one of the hottest controversies between foodies and public health officials these days.

As demand for milk that is neither pasteurized nor homogenized booms and more families try to acquire the stuff for the health benefits they believe that raw milk confers, government regulators seem to get more and more strident about shutting down the dairies who try to sell or distribute it.

Drink of life or cesspool of disease?

Advocates see raw milk as a nearly magic elixir with a variety of benefits over pasteurized milk: it’s more nutritious, it can be drunk by people who are normally lactose intolerant and it can treat or even prevent health conditions from allergies to asthma, especially in children.

About six months ago, my wife and I opened the first jug of our raw milk share from a local dairy run by a twentysomething couple who had interned at Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm. My experience then was similar to that described in The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights by author David Gumpert when he drank his first glass: “The milk was as creamy and rich tasting as it looked, with a slight sweetness I didn’t recall from my childhood milk.”

But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that overhanging the experience was an anxiety-laden question provoked by American history classes highlighting the importance of pasteurization in saving lives: Might this wonderful milk kill me? I actually went to sleep wondering if I’d wake up.

Like Gumpert, I also turned out to be fine. And like him, I’ve also become a big fan of raw milk. This month, our household is taking in four gallons a week and my wife Lindsay is making it into butter, mozzarella cheese, Yogurt and kefir. We then use the whey that results in pickling projects and to add nutrition to smoothies. Sometimes, by the end of the week, there’s barely enough of the creamy stuff left for me to have a glass or two in the afternoon.

Raw Milk Revolution book cover

The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights by David Gumpert, foreword by Joel Salatin, Chelsea Green, 254pp, $19.95. Win a copy through our giveaway with Chelsea Green!

But some of our friends don’t share our enthusiasm. For instance, one business acquaintance recently explained to me that I was taking my life into my hands by drinking raw milk. After all, her college-age daughter had gotten sick from E. coli. Since then, she had recovered enough to become active with a lobby group called STOP Foodborne Illness which calls for stricter food safety regulations.

I never got to ask if her daughter had drunk raw milk, but that’s almost beside the point. For many people, just the mention of E. coli in the same sentence as raw milk is enough to finish the topic. And it’s no wonder. Federal and state health officials, along with their allies in the industrial dairy industry, are uncompromising in their opposition to raw milk.

“Raw milk should not be consumed by anyone, at any time, for any reason,” warned the FDA’s milk czar John Sheehan. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains raw milk caused 1,614 illnesses and two deaths between 1998 and 2008. A raft of authorities from the American Medical Association to the National Milk Producers Federation concur that the only safe milk is pasteurized enough to kill germs including E. coli O157:H7 that can damage the kidneys and other organs.

Put your hands up and drop the milk

Accordingly, over the last few years, as the popularity of raw milk has grown, federal and state health officials have gotten increasingly aggressive in trying to keep raw milk out of the hands of consumers.

Working in consort with the Food and Drug Administration, state and local health departments have demanded recalls of raw milk sold legally in retail outlets in California, have mounted a raid on an Amish dairy in Pennsylvania and have challenged the legality of a herd-share arrangement in Washington State. Gumpert’s book focuses on several of these cases, and he deftly moves the reader along their details with a sense of legal drama.

An extreme response of health officials appears to be armed raids on retail outlets or small family dairies where SWAT team members demand at gunpoint that thousands of dollars of raw milk and raw dairy products be poured down drains or doused with bleach.

Gumpert compassionately discusses several cases where drinking raw milk may have made someone ill. But he also documents numerous enforcement cases where nobody claimed to have gotten sick from drinking the milk produced at a particular dairy and no dangerous levels of contaminants were found in tests but where overzealous government agents appear to have acted precipitously and illegally on the basis of prejudice, rumor or misinformation.

Yet, raw milk is hardly a major threat to public health. Out of 76 million estimated cases of food-borne illnesses each year, dairy products of all kinds, including both pasteurized and raw milk, account for only about four percent. “Produce is four times more likely to and seafood thirty times more likely to get you sick than dairy,” concluded an official of the Center for Science in the Public Interest quoted by Gumpert.

Killing the food to save it

Given that raw milk is less dangerous than spinach, what accounts for regulators’ zealousness in stamping out raw milk?

On Gumpert’s blog The Complete Patient a dairy farmer named Miguel posted a compelling theory that government regulators are colluding with the dairy industry to crush small raw milk dairies:

Today, we live in a global economy. To be profitable food has to have a long shelf life. It has to travel hundreds of miles to get to your plate. To ensure long shelf life, the bacteria have to go…If the food production industry tried to sell us on pasteurization as a way to enable the industry to consolidate and operate on a global scale, would you buy that? That is why they have to explain it as a way to make the food safe. And that is why they teach people to fear bacteria. Fear is a great motivator.

Gumpert himself doesn’t put much stock in conspiracy theories. Rather than intentionally trying to please big food companies, Gumpert thinks that government food regulators are simply acting out of their own biases, informed by the germ theory of disease, that the fewer bacteria food contains, the safer that food will be.

Coming from a more holistic view of health that recognizes the health benefits of probiotic bacteria found in raw and fermented foods, Gumpert sees the government campaign against raw milk as a war on all living food: “If secretive government regulators are successful in their efforts to deprive consumers of unpasteurized dairy products, they will be emboldened to push us farther toward their version of reliance on sterile factory food.”

But the victory of sterile food is not a foregone conclusion for Gumpert. He hopes that Americans’ natural independence and openness to new ideas could defeat the bureaucrats in the long run.

Earlier this year, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced legislation to reverse the FDA’s ban on selling raw milk across state lines. This would allow consumers in states that don’t allow raw milk sales to purchase milk from dairies in states that do.

Meantime, raw milk advocates can take heart that their issue is one of the few that unites both left and right, inspiring small-government Tea Partiers and liberal urban homesteaders alike to stand up for food freedom.

Win a copy of Raw Milk Revolution through our limited-time giveaway with publisher Chelsea Green. Click here to enter.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. Auntiegrav says

    “Efficiency is the straightest road to Hell.” James Howard Kunstler
    The real story behind milk is the story of efficiency creating a Hell on Earth. It’s about cheap food. In order for Raw Milk to be safe, it must be a time-consuming and low productivity process, where cows are not stressed, the land is not stressed, and the dairyperson is not stressed. They all must have the time and resources to be fully engaged in the process of producing milk as nature intended it to be produced and used: from grass and immediately.
    Large scale production requires minimizing costs per cow, per bale of hay, per pound of corn, and even feeding grain to cows at very high levels (cows will eat grain naturally because it is sweet to them, but only rarely is it available in their natural environment). Production means stressing the farmers to do things they would not otherwise do (separate calves early, use antibiotics and growth hormones, use machines that are nearly impossible to get clean without toxic acid cleansers).
    I grew up drinking raw milk from the cows my father nurtured. He drank that same milk daily for 60 some years. When my brother took over the family dairy and increased the efficiency (fed more grain, etc), my father nearly died from drinking the milk, and now only drinks pasteurized milk.
    The System of systems does not accept inefficient methods of production. It cannot abide for children to even conceive that they might not go to college and “maximize their potential”.
    There is no place for Joel Salatin’s proof of concept for local economies in this bastardization of humanity that we call “modern life”, which is simply robotic consumerism and decay by money. This battle over raw milk is a distraction from the battle of Peak Imagination which was only made possible by cheap energy.
    We replaced the usefulness of people to the land and to their own physical being by replacing human engagement with cheap energy and other technical “advances”. Instead of evaluating each advance and applying it moderately, we allowed the corporations to sell us every idea, every new efficiency, and then use that money which we extracted from our own futures to buy our government.
    There is no solution which does not involve a collapse of one type or another at this point. The ‘tipping’ point was back when New York allowed breweries to cheaply supply school children with deadly milk from nearly dead cows. Ever since then, we have been teaching farmers to compete with each other for the opportunity to milk cows to death.

  2. Deborah Frye says

    I wouldn’t drink raw milk from cows that were treated the way a typical dairy cow is treated in the U.S….so for me, the issue is about legalizing, humanizing and localizing the production of food and especially animal products. The globalization of food and the chemicalization of food has changed the face of our health and community in thousands of ways. We all see the popularity of farmer’s markets and fresh, organic foods rising. The next wave will be the crumbling of the inhumane market for food that barely resembles food, which is coming. Then, raw milk for all!

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