Monday, February 22, 2010

Consuming Raw Milk: Illegal and Toxic, or Healthy and Sustainable Food?

They’re sitting in the corner, whispering about milk. That’s dangerous stuff, milk. It’s raw, it’s off-white, it’s from cows. Is raw milk dangerous, or is it one of the most healthy and sustainable foods to consume?

I must confess to drinking raw milk from time to time. I don’t buy any myself, but friends buy it. Raw milk tastes good, and I haven’t had any health problems. Recently, there was a rally in my city to support a local raw milk dairy that many of my friends frequent. Officially, it is a cow share and not a dairy, since raw milk is not legal where I live. Unofficially, the business provides a steady supply of milk and yogurt to many people who believe in the worth of raw milk, ferried through a network that is underground yet visible if you know where to look and who to ask.

What’s the concern about raw milk? Well, since raw milk has not been pasteurized there are worries that it may contain e. coli bacteria that cause disease. Governments post warnings about the dangers of raw milk. Our local petting farm milks their dairy cows by hand and must toss out the milk that those cows produce. Food-borne illnesses can be nasty things, damaging your liver and your gut and leading to all sorts of public health problems. Health departments prefer to avoid these diseases and have set standards in place to make food safer. However, some people feel that these standards interfere with public choice, in this case the choice to choose a superior and healthy food product.

Those who advocate drinking raw milk say that pasteurization kills off the living milk. Milk has antibodies in it, albeit antibodies for baby cows. Raw milk advocates say that the milk boosts their immune systems. The Weston A. Price Foundation is one of the biggest raw milk advocates, saying that drinking raw milk means that the nutrients in the milk are more available to the human body and can truly build and rebuild bones and teeth, bone structures that may be in a state of disrepair from the standard American diet. Raw milk advocates are willing to bet that healthy cows from a clean farm will produce milk whose health benefits outweigh the possible risks.

Is raw milk a public health hazard, or is it an immensely beneficial substance that we are ignoring out of fear? I have no firm answers. Like all decisions that go against the grain, it’s a matter of weighing the risks in your own mind. I suspect that it could be both, depending on the circumstances. While I happily drink raw milk upon occasion, thoughts about making it a regular part of my diet are swayed by concerns about safety. Mostly, though, the dilemmas in my mind are moved aside by the fact that I am too lazy to head to a milk drop-off point every week to pick up my share. And so it goes: we drink water and eat raw cheese instead, legal and lazy as can be.

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