I had my first taste of fresh milk from a Jersey cow at Paicines Ranch earlier this year. Milk isn’t a big part of my diet, but sampling this glass packed with the rich flavor of pure, unadulterated cream was enough for me to rethink my position on milk consumption.
In industry parlance, what I had was a glass of “raw milk,” or milk that hasn’t been pasteurized (wherein milk is heated to a specific temperature for a period of time to kill pathogens). Raw milk, and its derived products – butter, cream, yogurt and cheese – has legions of devoted fans advocating its nutritional benefits, which are said to help to boost the immune system. It’s a product that, by its very nature, is quintessentially local. It’s not made for cross-country treks to grocery aisles; it’s meant to be consumed from farmers whose practices you know and trust.
However, raw dairy has become a battleground in recent years, pitting food safety regulations against a grassroots movement. Regulators want to protect the public from pathogenic bacteria that cause diseases such as tuberculosis, salmonella and listeria. But proponents argue that the pasteurization process kills beneficial proteins and enzymes essential for maintaining digestive health.
Considering that just three percent of California’s population consumes raw milk and that it’s currently illegal to buy or purchase raw milk in all but 25 states, it would be pertinent to question regulators’ interest in this food item, on the pretext of food safety, when factory farms and other farming dangers exist (remember the salmonella egg recall of 2010?). One can’t help but wonder: Is the debate about raw milk really about food safety, or just a guise for market politics?
Leading the charge for the raw milk camp is Mark McAfee, CEO of the Organic Pastures Dairy Company, one of the two raw milk dairies in California (Claravale Farm being the other). A third-generation farmer based in Fresno, Mark took over the family’s dairy business in 1996, after a career as a paramedic. He immediately sought organic certification for the business, which became a full raw milk dairy in 2001. Today the company has a herd of 430 cows grazing on 500 acres of pasture and distributes its products to 400 stores, 17 markets and 15 buyers’ clubs throughout the state.
Organic Pastures’ milk originates in an environment filled with “yogurt-like bacteria,” which makes the raw milk “alive” with beneficial bacteria, in Mark’s words. “80 percent of immune health comes from the biodiversity of bacteria that live in your gut,” he said. “If you don’t have enough diversity, you compromise the strength of your immune system, which leads to a whole host of other problems.”
He added, “Pasteurized milk is an excuse for ‘dopey’ milk. When a dairyman gets rewarded for producing good raw milk, you get a consistently good product, you get sustainability, you get good, organic pastures.”
Because of raw milk’s delicate position on the spectrum of food safety, Organic Pastures has faced a series of lawsuits in connection with E.Coli sickness, subjecting the company to shutdowns, product recalls and numerous tests of their pasture and cows’ manure to detect the offending pathogen, E. Coli 0157:H7. They came out clean.
But they aren’t the only players who’ve had their business disrupted by regulators. Rawesome, a private raw food buying club in Southern California, has seen their share of raids as well, most recently in early August.
Mark said, “Farms without the right farming processes shouldn’t be trusted to produce acceptable raw milk, but at Organic Pastures, we’ve taken exceptional precautions. All our cows are 100 percent grass-fed and we’ve implemented special clean-milking procedures that guard against contamination.”
“We are in an educational war,” he continued. “It’s a battle for the hearts and minds of consumers, a civil rights uprising of nutritional rights. Everyone is fighting for the right to eat food that’s good for them.”
It looks like this battle isn’t going to end anytime soon. Mark, along with a host of experts on family medicine and nutrition, recently launched the Raw Milk Institute, a non-profit geared toward helping individual dairy farmers produce raw milk safely, based on California’s strict standards for milk production.
Regardless of whether you believe in its benefits, the raw milk debate affects all of us. More than an industry spat, it lies at the very core of the quest for a local and sustainable food system. Because raw milk farmers don’t rely on pasteurization to prepare the product for market, all the work goes into tending the land to create the perfect ecosystem for the production of quality milk. The end result is healthy pastures (as a source of nourishment) and sustainable herd sizes — as many cows as the land can take. It’s a mode of production based entirely on a farmer’s integrity and respect for his herd, his land and his customers, with whom he’s built a relationship over time. These are the building blocks for the “local food” movement: one that is talked about often, but practiced far too rarely.
Would you consider drinking raw milk? Where do you get your dairy?
About the author: Danielle Tsi grew up in Singapore, a tiny, food-obsessed island on the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula, where every waking minute was spent thinking about what her next meal was going to be. Landing in the United States with her well-traveled Nikon, she turned her lifelong love affair with food into images and words on her blog, Beyond the Plate. When not behind the lens or at the stove, Danielle can be found on her yoga mat perfecting the headstand.