March of the Raw Milk Freedom Fighters

I drink raw milk. I eat young, unpasteurised cheeses. I culture yoghurt and other dairy products with raw milk. I have also been known, on occasion, to eat raw eggs, various uncooked seafood products, and the occasional untoasted piece of bread. Okay, I threw in that last just to have fun with you. The point is, I eat food products that some people consider to be dangerous, and that can be dangerous when handled incorrectly. (Newsflash: Any and all foods have the potential to be dangerous when handled incorrectly, as microorganisms can set up camp just about anywhere.)

As a consumer, I feel it should be my right to make informed choices about what I eat, and to interact with the providers of my food if I want to. I want to be able to buy raw milk, so I find people who supply it and I buy it from them. Yet, those people carry on their business at serious risk, because selling raw milk and dairy products (like those soft cheeses I love so much) is not legal in the United States. It’s been determined that these products are simply too risky to be borne, and they can’t be allowed.

This is a relic of several issues. One is the belief, somewhat erroneous, that raw dairy products are inherently dangerous. There was a time when consuming raw dairy (the only option then available on the market) was actually quite dangerous. With the advent of pasteurisation, that changed. Suddenly, milk wasn’t making people sick, and it was viewed as a wholesome food that people should be consuming for health. The conclusion reached by regulators was that pasteurisation was the solution to the problem, and ergo, milk should be pasteurised for sale to protect consumer safety.

The truth is a bit more complicated than that. At the same time pasteurisation was introduced, sanitation across the board was improving. Dairy animals were milked in cleaner conditions, and their milk was collected in cleaner containers. Shipping times shortened, reducing the amount of time spent in transit (and the corresponding amount of time for bacterial breeding). Living conditions were cleaner. People were more conscientious about hygiene—in part because of the discoveries of people like Pasteur and the development of the germ theory of disease.

A whole confluence of factors were involved. Pasteurisation was one of them and it absolutely helped, but it wasn’t the only one, and it didn’t mean that unpasteurised milk was inherently unsafe. In the modern era, increased awareness and concerns about food safety have made it even safer. Most raw dairy products come from small farms where animals are kept in much cleaner conditions than in commercial environments, which means less risk of infections that could be passed to consumers. Farmers are meticulous about sterilisation and milking procedures to reduce the risk of bacterial contamination, and they’re careful about supply chain controls to keep milk chilled. They are, in other words, trying to make sure their food is handled correctly and safely.

After all, people on farms have been drinking raw milk and eating raw dairy products for hundreds of years without health problems.

Yet, in many states now, raw milk has been driven underground. It’s not legal to provide it, and the agencies cracking down on it have taken harsh measures. ‘I am,’ one of the farmers I source milk from informed me recently, ‘a terrorist.’

This farmer really wasn’t kidding. Numerous cases in recent years involving prosecutions of raw dairy providers have involved terrorism and conspiracy charges. There’s a war on unpasteurised dairy products being waged in the name of consumer safety despite the fact that many consumers do not favour such a war. Individuals who buy raw milk directly (like myself) as well as members of herd shares and dairy clubs have all stated both a clear preference for raw dairy and an understanding of the risks. We are not being deceived or tricked into buying it and we are aware that unpasteurised milk may, and that’s a big may, present more health risks to us than its pasteurised and frequently homogenised counterpart.

Farmers, of course, also oppose the crackdown on raw dairy because they want to sell it and its part of their livelihood. They can also be caught up in expensive court battles over their sales practices, and may experience government seizure of assets and other problems that make it difficult to return to work if they manage to clear their names, or do the time/pay any fines and prepare to move on with their lives.

This is a painful and clear illustration of a stark conflict between expressed consumer desires and policy, and yet the FDA as well as the USDA have not caught up on the issue. Raw milk is out there. People want it, they’re prepared to pay for it, and people are providing it in response to the market demand. It’s time to catch up to the market demand: and to talk about how to keep raw dairy products safe, and to make sure that consumers stay familiar with any potential safety issues so they can continue to make informed choices about what they consume.

While I am a huge advocate for consumer protection, I do not favour campaigns that effectively patronise consumers, assuming the government knows better than we do. And I do not favour campaigns that demonise small businesspeople like farmers attempting to run ethical, humane operations that serve a specific market need. There’s no reason the people I do business with should fear accusations of terrorism, should have to operate on a stealth word of mouth network when it comes to finding clients for fear of getting in contact with the wrong person, should have to constantly watch their backs instead of focusing on what’s important: maintaining a happy, healthy herd.