The Raw Milk Underground

Raw milk has become a fascinating flashpoint of agricultural rebellion in the United States. In some states, it’s explicitly illegal; you cannot buy or sell raw milk, period, end of story. In others, it’s legal and regulated, to varying degrees. And it comes with its own sets of evangelists on both sides, the people who insist raw milk is the greatest thing since sliced bread and those who warn that it’s a public health hazard waiting to cause widespread disease.

This, of course, spills over into related dairy products, because if it’s aged less than 60 days, the government wants to know whether it was made with raw milk. Sour creams and soft cheeses are watched like hawks just in case they carry a secret payload.

And this is done in the name of consumer safety. Oversight of the US food supply is intended to protect people from contaminated foods, and there was a time when milk was a major killer. There’s a reason pasteurisation was a huge development, because it ensured access to milk that was safe to drink, reducing the risk of serious and illness and death across the States, but especially in urban areas where people lacked access to fresh milk and relied on older supplies. Control of the food supply identifies potential pathogens and routes of exposure and shuts them down to prevent or limit outbreaks.

But what happens with raw milk? It occupies a strange place in the food safety landscape because there are some people who actively pursue it and want to drink it despite the known risks of unpasteurised dairy products. Educated consumers want raw milk even though they know it hasn’t been heated to a temperature safe enough to kill bacteria that could be present, and they’re willing to go to great lengths to get their hands on it. Rebel raw milk exchanges, milk shares, stealth smuggling across state borders—these are all things raw milk activists do in order to keep their supply chain steady.

The thing about milk and food safety is that things have changed radically since people started pasteurising milk. Milk is kept in a cold chain throughout the supply process, for one thing, unlike the days when it was often allowed to get quite warm in storage and transit. This warmth created ideal incubation temperatures for bacteria in the milk, which made it much more likely that people would get sick from it. People are also more careful about hygiene with milking; they wipe down udders, equipment, and their hands to reduce the risk of spreading bacteria.

These measures make raw milk much safer to drink, with a caveat: That safety applies specifically to small farms and humane dairies, not large commercial farms. Commercial dairy cows can have active infections, pus-filled lesions, and other sources of infection on or around their udders, which makes their milk unsafe to drink without pasteurisation. Even kept in the cold chain, it could pose a risk to human health.

This is something raw milk activists are also aware of; they attempt to be careful about their sourcing to protect themselves from obvious pathogens. This raises the question of whether the regulations on raw milk continue to make sense, or if it’s time to reevaluate, given the changing landscape of the dairy industry and the obvious demand for it. Since people are going to drink it anyway, sometimes going to personal risk to get it, regulation might make more sense; especially since that would allow for better quality control of the raw milk supply.

In California, raw milk is legal and you can buy it in some stores. The dairies that produce it are very carefully supervised and monitored to confirm that their cattle are healthy, their equipment is clean, and their milk is not contaminated. Occasional scares do happen with contamination, just as they do at conventional dairies, and the regulation of the process ensures that contaminants are promptly identified and addressed so these dairies don’t release dangerous products to consumers. They regularly test their own milk and facilities for safety because they have a vested interest in keeping their customers healthy and happy; there’s no reason to let people get sick from their milk products.

In states where it is not legal, there’s no room for oversight. Inspectors can’t evaluate a raw milk dairy because such a thing isn’t supposed to exist, which means that any government inspection is likely to occur in the wake of an outbreak, when the dairy is being inspected and prepared for closure after people have gotten sick or even died. The safety of the dairy’s products is up to the farmer, which means customers demand on the farmer’s willingness to test, maintain clean conditions, and keep them informed about potential pathogens. An ethical farmer who cares about the livestock and the clients may be a perfectly safe supplier, but a farmer who wants to take advantage of the raw milk market to make a quick buck could be dangerous.

Regulation could eliminate this problem by creating a framework for inspection, testing, and regular evaluations. Farmers can demonstrate their capacity to safety provide raw milk, while consumers can rest assured that the products they buy are safe to drink. Small farmers in particular can run raw milk operations without having to fear being shut down and losing everything; and given the demand for raw milk, it’s a potentially lucrative market that many people actively want to tap. Enabling that seems to be in the spirit of the entrepreneurialism the US is supposed to hold so dear.

Allowing farmers to sell raw milk is not equivalent to selling tainted meat or releasing pharmaceuticals without clinical trials; it’s an adjustment of existing regulations to accommodate a change in farming practices and market conditions. Consumers who want to take on the informed risk of drinking raw milk should be free to do so, just as those who would prefer pasteurised products should be able to access them.