You can get garden variety health advice from the daily newspaper, the "health" section of most book stores, and of course thousands of web sites. I'm hoping to present thought provoking and maybe change provoking thoughts about individual and community health. This blog is not just what to do about health, but how to think about it. I'm looking forward to an exchange of ideas with readers. July, 2010


Monday, July 19, 2010

Raw Milk Rag

Recently I’ve been reading reports about people promoting the virtues of raw (unpasteurized) milk and demanding the right to sell or consume it. As someone who is steeped in conventional public health concepts, I scratch my head and say, “Didn’t we settle that issue 50 years ago?” Apparently not. Within the green movement, which I generally applaud, there is the view that local and small scale is better, and that eating food as close to natural is the ideal. This perspective is reflected in the movie “Avatar” – Western technology is destroying our planet while indigenous simplicity will be our salvation. Coming from a $300 million movie, the premise is simple minded and manipulative, but it resonates with the raw milkers. This is as idiotic as the birthers, who want to contest Obama’s citizenship.

The first recent time I saw this issue discussed was in Michael Feldman’s essay in the NY Times. He was discussing political agitation against Wisconsin state bans on selling raw milk, and coined the phrase “teat party,” because the advocates are chafing against state and federal raw milk rules which impinge on local prerogatives. The question is “Why not let people decide for themselves, rather than government bureaucrats dictating?” This is part of what TEA Partiers mean when they say “Let’s take our government back.” The response is that adults have a right to choose, but the heaviest consumers of milk are children, and they cannot make an informed choice, and therefore should be protected by the state. Note that children are also more vulnerable because their immune systems are less able to fight microbes carried in contaminated milk.

Some people believe that pasteurized milk loses nutritional value, and that the pasteurization process makes milk a kind of “Frankenfood” in the same category as foods irradiated for the same purpose – to stop food borne infectious disease. About half the states prohibit raw milk sale, and the federal government prohibits transport of raw milk across state lines, except for the purpose of pasteurizing the milk in another state or shipping it to a cheese production site. Because of this, raw milk production and sale can only be a small scale operation. It has a smaller environmental impact, and of course, uses less electrical power when the heating process of pasteurization is eliminated.

In our history, milk has been one of the most common sources of food carried illness. We get milk from cows, goats, sheep, and various other mammalian animals. Those animals also have bowel functions, and they are not “barn broken.” We don’t control when and where they drop manure. It might be theoretically possible to assure no exposure of milk with manure, but this would require a small ratio of animals per dairy worker and intense use of technology. This would not be economically viable for most diary farms. It is unlikely that farmers can sustain production conditions to prevent the deaths and serious illnesses we have seen linked to raw milk.

There is also the claim that raw milk has protective factors against a number of illnesses, such as allergies. Not true, or at least no evidence.

In addition, raw milk advocates say it tastes better. This is a subjective point, that is not right or wrong, but taste differences may have more to do with homogenization, which is also usually not done with raw milk.

So here is the stalemate with our values. We value independence and personal liberties, and this is a precious quality of our life in the U.S. At the same time we value life and health promotion. Everyone in a sense is “prolife,” in spite of our differences over abortion or end of life decision-making. The libertarian view seems to be gaining strength in 2010. I just wish it was guided by facts, not just whimsy.

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