An Excerpt from Chapter 5: The Raw Underground
Everything we eat starts out raw. Cooking transmutes the raw products of agriculture into many wonderful forms, but in the application of heat, certain nutrients are diminished. Enzymes critical for digestion and nutrient assimilation are destroyed, as are bacteria that both protect the raw food from pathogenic bacteria and contribute to our intestinal microbial ecologies. Raw food is literally alive with these bacteria and enzymes. I love hot food, and I’m not promoting a raw-only dogma. However, most of us would do better to incorporate more raw foods into our diet. This chapter explores various movements promoting raw foods.
Unfortunately, raw foods are increasingly viewed as dangerous, and laws enacted in the name of public health and safety are requiring more and more foods to be sterilized prior to sale, by pasteurization or irradiation. Pasteurization, named for pioneering French microbiologist Louis Pasteur, involves heating the food to the point at which most bacteria die. Specifically, the food is heated to at least 161.5°F (72° Centigrade) and held at that temperature for at least fifteen seconds. Ultra-high-temperature pasteurization means heating the food to an even higher temperature (at least 280°F/138°C) for at least two seconds, for more thorough sterilization and longer shelf life.
Pasteurization has come to refer to a range of sterilizing processes. In 2002, as part of its massive “farm bill,” the U.S. Congress explicitly granted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the power to approve any technology capable of killing pathogens as a form of “pasteurization,” not requiring special labeling.1 Irradiation, one such process, uses high doses of radiation—“seven million times more irradiation than a single chest X-ray,” according to the Centers for Disease Control2—to kill pathogens and extend shelf life. This technology, developed in the 1970s by the U.S. Department of Energy as part of its Byproduct Utilization Program, uses cobalt 60 and cesium 137, both nuclear industry by-products. Irradiation, sometimes referred to as “cold pasteurization,” is often applied to fruit juices, fruits, vegetables, spices, meats, and seafood. Yet irradiation has been shown to diminish the nutritional value of food. Irradiation also alters the molecular structure of the food and generates free radicals and radiolytic products, including benzene, formaldehyde, and other known mutagens and carcinogens, as well as “unique radiolytic products” for which no rigorous safety testing has ever been performed.3 Nevertheless, Congress has prohibited the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from restricting distribution of irradiated foods through school lunch and child nutrition programs.4
Irradiation has been embraced by global food traders because it acilitates long-distance transport of their products. Irradiation plants are being constructed around the world and are considered an essential element of a food-exporting economy. As more foods are routinely irradiated—without being labeled as such—I wonder whether all commercial food will come to be irradiated over time, required to be devoid of life forces.
Is raw food dangerous? It certainly can be. Food can be a vector for the spread of a host of diseases, including bacterial food poisoning, such as from Salmonella, Listeria
, and E. coli
. But the reasons these pathogens are so prevalent in our food all have to do with the scandalous practices of factory farming and industrial food. Raw food is not inherently dangerous. Most often, food is contaminated in the course of its processing, handling, and storage or as a result of diseased animals. Healthy plants and animals produce safe food. Go outside of the factory-farming system and find (or help create) sources you can trust. If we do not eat raw food, and every food we eat is cooked, pasteurized, or irradiated, then we fail to obtain important nutrients, and our health will
Challenging Milk Dogma
Many different foods are now routinely sterilized, but the food most strongly associated with pasteurization is milk. In most places milk cannot be legally sold unless it is pasteurized. In its raw, unprocessed form this most basic food is widely viewed as a threat to public safety. Nevertheless, a growing movement of people around the world are coming to the conclusion that milk as it is when it comes out of the udders, without being processed by pasteurization, irradiation, or homogenization, is superior to the processed product available legally. Raw-milk enthusiasts are banding together to form distribution networks, and they are finding small-scale dairy farmers willing to join them in circumventing or defying mandatory pasteurization laws. The raw-milk underground is one of the most widespread civil disobedience movements in the United States today.
Milk in its raw state, like any food in its raw state, is alive. It tastes better than pasteurized milk, is more nutritious because its vitamins haven’t been degraded by heat, and is easier to digest because the naturally occurring enzymes and bacteria that break it down inside our bodies haven’t been destroyed. The bacteria found in healthy milk also protect the milk from developing pathogenic bacteria, functioning as a built-in immune system.
Mark McAfee owns Organic Pastures, a 350-cow dairy that is the largest raw dairy in the United States, in California, one of the states where raw milk is legal for retail sales. “Twenty-four million servings and zero reported illnesses,” states the crusading McAfee, describing his company’s safety record. “Eleven thousand tests and no human pathogens!” McAfee has even inoculated pathogenic bacterial contaminants such as E. coli O157:H7, Listeria, and Salmonella into his raw milk and into pasteurized milk. In the raw milk, none of the pathogens were able to survive, because the naturally occurring bacteria and the acids they produce do not allow them to. However, in the pasteurized milk, which is devoid of bacterial and enzyme activity, the introduced pathogens easily proliferated. McAfee is so proud of his milk’s testing record that he posts test results on his Web site.5
In addition to bacteria, milk naturally contains many enzymes, almost all of which are inactivated by pasteurization. One enzyme, lactase, digests lactose, the milk sugar that so many people cannot digest. Pasteurization is what makes milk indigestible for many people; among people who do not drink milk because they cannot tolerate lactose, many find that they can digest and enjoy milk raw, due to the presence of lactase. Another enzyme, phosphatase, is essential for the release and absorption of the minerals phosphorus and calcium. Calcium is a major nutrient people seek in milk, and pasteurization renders it largely unavailable. And still another enzyme, lactoperoxidase, produces hydrogen peroxide, another built-in system for protecting the milk from potentially pathogenic bacteria. Beyond destroying these and other enzymes and bacteria, pasteurization diminishes milk’s content of heat-sensitive vitamins (including B6, B12, and C) and otherwise alters many other of its nutritional qualities. Real milk—from healthy animals and consumed raw—provides important nutrients.
Pasteurization is not the only problem with contemporary milk production. As has been the case in other food industries, control of our milk has been concentrated in a handful of corporations. Dean Foods is the largest milk corporation in the United States, processing more than two billion gallons of milk per year, and it owns many regional milk labels, including Alta Dena, Berkeley Farms, Borden, Brown’s, Mayfield, Meadow Gold, Mountain High Yogurt, Purity, Shenandoah’s Pride, and Horizon Organic Milk, as well as soy processors Silk, Sun Soy, and White Wave. According to the USDA, producers with sales of $800 million or more accounted for 69 percent of U.S. dairy sales in 1998.6 Industry concentration continues to increase.
Much of this milk—nobody knows exactly how much, but then it all gets mixed together in bulk tanks anyway—is produced using the recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), a genetically engineered drug that increases milk production in cows. This hormone is manufactured by Monsanto and is banned all around the world except in the United States, Mexico, and Brazil. Canada banned rBGH after a group of scientists convened by the government reviewed the rBGH studies that were the basis of the U.S. approval; their report concluded that the FDA approval process “was largely a theoretical review taking the manufacturer’s conclusions at face value. No details of the studies nor a critical analysis of the quality of the data was provided.”7
In overstimulating milk production, rBGH also causes udder infections. Milk from infected udders is really a mixture of milk and pus, the polite euphemism being “high somatic cell count.” The drive to maximize production creates disease, and pasteurization makes the diseased product somewhat safer. To try to avoid infection, use of rBGH is usually accompanied by even heavier dosing of cows with antibiotics, leading to heightened risk of antibiotic-resistant diseases in both cows and humans. Milk from cows treated with rBGH also has elevated levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), a compound found in all milk, but at higher concentrations in rBGH milk, that is linked to breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancer in humans.
Beyond all these health implications of contemporary methods of milk mass production, another compelling reason to seek out real milk—local raw milk—is taste. Milk from healthy animals, in its raw state, is much more satisfying and delicious than the processed product you can buy in the supermarket. As is the case with any other food, farm-fresh and unprocessed tastes best. Try some and see for yourself; chances are, there is a real milk distribution network near you.
A Brief History of Mandatory Pasteurization
Perhaps you are wondering how raw milk came to be illegal and associated with disease if all these virtues I’m singing are for real. The reality is that not all milk is created equal. Traditionally, cows have been pastured (not pasteurized), given plenty of space to graze on grass. This is how ruminants thrive. This practice makes for mostly healthy animals and safe, nutritious milk. Ruminants evolved grazing, and milk (as well as meat) from grass-pastured animals is more nutritious than that from animals fed primarily grain, especially in terms of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids8 and a nutrient called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), an important omega-6 fatty acid that is found in milk from grass-fed animals in concentrations up to five times the amount found in milk from grain-fed animals.9
As a result of rapid urbanization, particularly during the nineteenth century, many dairies expanded their herds to meet rising demand for milk, while simultaneously pasture land was getting crowded out. This forced urban dairies to search for more space-intensive methods. Meanwhile a domestic liquor-distilling industry began to develop in the United States, which produced lots of waste in the form of spent grains known as “swill” or “slop.” The urban dairies found in the distilleries’ by-product a cheap alternative to pastures for feeding their cows. The two industries joined together, first in New York City, and slop dairies became widespread around the United States by the 1830s.
Slop diets kept cows lactating, but it made them unhealthy. “The milk was so defective in the properties essential to good milk that it could not be made into butter or cheese,” writes naturopathic doctor and dairy farmer Ron Schmid, author of The Untold Story of Milk
.10 Instead of keeping cows outside grazing in pastures as cows always had been, the new dairy industry confined their cows and fed them slop. Their feces were concentrated rather than dispersed, and they wallowed in it. Nonetheless the milk produced by the slop dairies was popular, because it was cheap. By 1852 three-quarters of milk sales in New York City were of slop milk. Problems were developing as well, specifically rising mortality rates among infants, leading to debates over “the milk problem.”
Two distinct milk reform movements emerged in the 1890s. One, advocated primarily by medical doctors, called for “certified milk.” The “milk cure” was a long-established healing regime prescribed by many medical doctors of the time, and good-quality milk was regarded by the profession as an important factor in maintaining health. Milk certifying commissions were formed by medical associations in many areas. The commissions established hygiene and care standards for farms, performed inspections, and gave their seals of approval to milk from farms meeting the standards.
The other reform movement advocated pasteurization as the most effective means of making the milk supply safe. The two contrasting approaches to safe milk—certification and pasteurization—are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to have a regulatory scheme in which some or most milk is pasteurized (and clearly labeled as such), while other milk that meets some specified standard can be sold raw (and clearly labeled as such). Such is the situation in California and several other states today, and historically, both regulatory schemes overlapped in most places.
Pasteurization is simple, and it dramatically improved infant survival rates. A powerful advocate for pasteurization was New York philanthropist Nathan Straus, a partner in Macy’s department store. Straus funded the establishment of “milk depots” around New York, where slop milk was pasteurized and sold cheaply starting in 1893. Between the milk depots and the new system of chlorinating the New York City water system, the epidemic of infant mortality rapidly receded. The diseased milk from the slop dairies was rendered safer by pasteurization, but still it lacked the nutrients, enzymes, and bacteria found in raw milk from healthy pastured cows. Pasteurization was and is “a quick, technological fix.”11 Nevertheless, quick technological fixes have their appeal. New York’s success with pasteurization spurred its rapid spread. In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt, an old friend of Straus, ordered a study of milk pasteurization, and the Surgeon General declared: “Pasteurization prevents much sickness and saves many lives.”12 A 1911 National Commission on Milk Standards recommended mandatory pasteurization—except for certified milk. By 1917 pasteurization was legally required or officially encouraged in forty-six of the fifty-two largest U.S. cities, and over time, systems of milk certification gradually died out in most places.
The rise of mandatory pasteurization solidified the myth that raw milk is inherently dangerous—regardless of the conditions of the animals it comes from. This has become dogma. The people charged with protecting the public health are so thoroughly indoctrinated with the idea that raw milk is inherently dangerous that raw milk is always the presumed culprit if someone who has drunk it falls ill. “Allowing the sale of raw dairy products goes against everything I ever learned and everything that public health stands for,” said Suzanne Jenkins, head epidemiologist at the Virginia Department of Health, in 2004.13 Public health authorities have a difficult time recognizing that the quality of the milk is determined by how the animals are kept.
As the pasteurization-promoting Straus said, “If it were possible to secure pure, fresh milk direct from absolutely healthy cows, there would be no necessity for pasteurization. If it were possible by legislation to obtain a milk supply from clean stables after a careful process of milking, to have transportation to the city in perfectly clean and closed vessels, then pasteurization would be unnecessary.”14 A hundred years later, we have refrigeration, and it is possible to obtain pure, fresh milk that meets all of Straus’s criteria. When healthy cows are removed from confinement and allowed to graze in pastures, their milk is healthy and safe.
Unfortunately, most places do not permit or regulate the retail sale of raw milk. In most of the United States and much of the rest of the world, it is simply illegal to buy or sell raw milk. As more and more people learn about the benefits of raw milk and want to start drinking it, a grassroots underground has emerged, linking consumers directly to dairy farmers with small, pastured herds.
The Grassroots Raw-Milk Movement
I’ve been astounded by how widespread the raw-milk underground has become. It really is a grassroots movement because obtaining raw milk, in most places, involves community-organized effort bringing people together for a purpose, and generally that purpose involves breaking the law. It’s happening all over. The New Yorker reported in 2004, “In a Hell’s Kitchen basement the other day, Manhattan’s first shipment of raw milk—unpasteurized, unlicensed, unhomogenized, and illegally transported across state lines—was delivered to the grateful, if wary, members of a private raw-milk coven.”15 An Atlanta raw-milk organizer I know is part of a “totally illegal” goat milk co-op: “I split the drive once every five weeks with five other women to a farm that’s one hour away. We buy raw milk, cheese, and yogurt she makes.”
In many places a gray area exists between raw-milk that is specifically illegal and that which is specifically legal. It is in this quasi-legal realm that much raw-milk distribution takes place. For example, in Australia real milk is being distributed and sold as beauty products: “body milk” and “body cream.” There is no law prohibiting this and no way to control what people do with their body milk when they get it home. Where I live, in Tennessee, as in several other states, farms may sell raw milk directly off the farm “for pet consumption only.” A Wisconsin cheesemaker is marketing her raw cheeses as “fish bait.”
The most widespread means of circumventing laws prohibiting the sale of raw milk is to redefine the relationship between the parties so that no sales transaction takes place. Generally the way this works is that a group of consumers will enter into a “cow-share” or “goat-share” contract with a farmer, whereby they technically own the animal and pay the farmer to maintain it on their behalf. In this way the sales transaction is eliminated, and so laws restricting the sale of raw milk are not actually broken. The economic exchange is for a service, which the farmer provides by feeding, caring for, and milking the animals. Rawmilk drinkers from an area often enter into a share together and take turns picking up the milk. This is a great food-consciousness and community-building exercise: shareholders get to know each other, and they all get to experience the farm and the farmer and the animals at regular intervals. And they get good, real, raw milk.
Grassroots raw-milk distribution networks like this are happening all over the United States. The website of the Weston A. Price Foundation’s Campaign for Real Milk lists hundreds of contacts around the United States. Though the details of state laws vary widely and are shifting somewhat, people everywhere want access to better milk.
Interest in raw milk has been growing thanks in large part to a woman named Sally Fallon. Sally has devoted herself to spreading the nutritional teachings of Weston A. Price, an Ohio dentist who in the 1930s traveled the world exploring the relationship between diet and health and wrote the book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (1939). Price’s studies of isolated populations still practicing traditional diets led him to the conclusion that traditional diets—featuring milk and other animal fats with enzymes intact as well as live ferments, and excluding processed foods and refined sugar—held the keys to human health.
Weston Price’s research remained relatively obscure until Sally Fallon began popularizing it in her 1999 book, Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. She formed the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF) with the ambitious mission of “restoring nutrient-dense foods to the human diet through education, research and activism.” The foundation now has more than three hundred local chapters in the United States and more than fifty chapters abroad, mostly in Canada and Australia, but also in Brazil, China, and elsewhere. Sally’s work has galvanized a grassroots movement of people organizing access to real milk and other farm products at the local level.
The first time I met Sally Fallon was at a conference of the Northeast Organic Farming Association in 2003. Sally delivered a keynote address that posed the question, “What kind of economic and political system would we have as a consequence of making food choices that are truly healthy and fundamentally supportive of optimal development and superb well-being, instead of merely convenient?”16 In exploring this question, she made it vividly clear that she is much more than a nutrition guru.
Sally Fallon has a radical analysis, and her dietary ideas are interwoven with an economic and political vision. Her vision of health encompasses not only individual nutrition but community well-being, with milk as the centerpiece of an economic revival. The farmers producing raw milk and dairy products are finding prosperity providing raw milk from pastured cows directly to consumers. The direct-to-consumer raw dairies stand in stark economic contrast to the standard arrangements that are driving small dairy farmers out of business at an alarming rate: purchasing all the inputs (such as grain, rBGH, and antibiotics), then selling the milk to bulk processors, who pasteurize, homogenize, package, and market the milk and receive most of the profits. Providing healthy milk directly to consumers is dramatically more lucrative for the farmers. It takes prosperity back from the mass processors and returns it to the farm and the community.
“The one major impediment to this happy picture,” says Sally, “is the anti-raw-milk agenda—scare-mongering propaganda and compulsory pasteurization laws.” But rather than accepting these laws as prohibiting a raw-milk revival, she sees the possibility that they can actually benefit farmers and appealed to the assembled organic farmers to join the raw-milk underground:
In fact, now that we are rolling back the propaganda and creating more and more customers for raw milk and related products, these pasteurization laws can actually work to the benefit of farmers. If people can’t get raw milk in stores, they will make the effort to come to the farm, or pay you for the service of delivering your products to their doorstep. The farm-share system also allows you to provide other value-added products which health laws prevent you from selling directly—farmbutchered meat, sausage, baked goods, and so forth could be “provided,” not “sold,” to farm-share owners. Like communitysupported agriculture, this is a structural revolution.
The people who are part of this growing market for raw milk defy any easy political categorization. The raw-milk scene is very “family values”—because the people who get most passionate about milk are mothers. “Passionate moms will win!” is Mark McAfee’s raw-milk-movement mantra. Sally Fallon is a passionate mom who became a nutrition crusader as a result of what she learned while trying to feed her kids well. S., the organizer of the Nashville-area raw-milk underground, is another passionate mom. She’s a Christian who homeschools her two kids, and for a while she embellished her e-mails with a quote from George W. Bush: “The proper response to difficulty is not to retreat, it is to prevail.” I’m not accustomed to being allied with people who find inspiration in Bush, but I am never one to demand total ideological agreement.
S. sent an e-mail to Tennessee raw-milk enthusiasts recommending that we support a Republican candidate for governor who had been sympathetic to the legislative effort to legalize on-farm raw-milk sales. “According to my sources, if all the raw milk supporters out there got busy and started supporting her we could see some real progress made for the raw milk bill,” wrote S. “I know some of you are Democrats, but I guess how you vote will depend on how much you want to see raw milk legalized in this state. You may have to hold your nose and vote for the Republican gubernatorial candidate this time, if raw milk is important to you.” Raw milk is important to me, but not more important than environmental protection, or health care, or the rights of queers and immigrants to exist, or of women to control their own bodies, or of workers to organize into unions. Even if I were a single-issue voter, raw milk wouldn’t be that issue.
It’s interesting how an issue such as raw milk, which is a question of freedom from regulations ostensibly designed for consumer protection, challenges peoples’ political ideologies and alignments. Is the state really just trying to protect milk drinkers? How much influence do the The Raw Underground milk processors—the major organized stakeholders—have in blocking legal reforms that would regulate direct farmer-to-consumer raw-milk sales? How much freedom should people have to reject the prevailing public health dogma and assume the risk of drinking raw milk? Is the answer different if they are feeding it to their children? Though we have not explored the differences in our political values, S. and I find common ground to stand upon. Our shared interest in the availability of raw milk—as well as a shared sense of the absurdity of the very concept of the state prohibiting the trade of a food in its unadulterated form—speaks to the broad appeal of issues related to food quality. “How can we buy raw oysters, sushi, and other raw things at restaurants, and not have the freedom to buy fresh milk off the farm?” asks S. “Official health restrictions are discriminating and arbitrary.”
1. “Food Irradiation,” U.S. Centers for Disease Control Division of Bacterial
and Mycotic Diseases, www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dbmd/diseaseinfo/foodirradiation.
2. John E. Peck, “Nuking Food for Profit,” Z Magazine, February 2003,
3. Public Citizen Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program, The Cancer
Prevention Coalition, and Global Resource Action Center for the
Environment, “A Broken Record: How the FDA Legalized – and Continues
to Legalize – Food Irradiation Without Testing It for Safety” (October 2000),
4. Peck, “Nuking Food for Profit.”
6. Don P. Blayney and Alden C. Manchester, “Large Companies Active in
Changing Dairy Industry,” FoodReview, 23, no. 2 (May-August 2000), 9.
7. Shiv Chopra et. al, “Gaps Analysis,” Health Canada, April 21, 1998, cited in
Smith, Seeds of Deception, 84.
8. Union of Concerned Scientists, “Greener Pastures: How Grass-Fed Beef and
Milk Contribute to Healthy Eating,” March 8, 2006, www.ucsusa.org/food_
9. Ron Schmid, The Untold Story of Milk: Green Pastures, Contented Cows, and
Raw Dairy Foods (Washington, DC: New Trends Publishing, 2003), 315.
10. Ibid., 32.
11. Ibid., 54.
12. Ibid., 58.
13. Laura LaFay, “The Milk Maneuvers: Why is Gov. Warner’s Pro-Pasteurization
Stance Causing Such a Commotion?” Style Weekly (Richmond, VA)
December 29, 2004, www.styleweekly.com/article.asp?idarticle=9612.
14. Lina Gutherz Straus, Disease in Milk, The Remedy Pasteurization: The Life
Work of Nathan Straus (New York: Dutton,1917), 214, cited in Schmid, The
Untold Story of Milk, 67.
15. Frederick Kaufman, “Contraband: Psst! Got Milk?,” The New Yorker,
November 29, 2004, 62.
16. Sally Fallon, “The Politics and Economics of Food,” Keynote Address at the
Northeast Organic Farming Association Conference (Ahmerst,
Massachusetts, August, 2003), www.westonaprice.org/farming/polecon