Saturday, October 20, 2007

raw milk

Last weekend Rowan and I took the ferry down to Port Angeles and picked up a couple gallons of raw milk. She's had some constipation issues and I suspected that pasteurized milk had something to do with it, as her issues got worse when we were in Portugal and there was nothing but ultrapasteurized milk (which is milk that's been fully, completely sterilized by having pretty much all the goodness along with all the bacteria boiled out of it... it lasts indefinitely without refrigeration until opened, at which point it goes bad rather quickly. not my idea of food.) I've also been reading a lot about why raw milk is so much healthier for you than pasteurized, not to mention tastier. Basically what it comes down to is that milk - any milk - is a substance that nature intended to be drunk as-is, from the source. Baby cows certainly can't thrive on pasteurized milk, it doesn't make sense that humans would either. Pasteurization kills all the beneficial bacteria and enzymes in milk, which incidentally are the bits that help humans (as well as baby cows) digest it. There is also evidence that without these bacteria and enzymes, the much-vaunted calcium content of milk is just not really very bioavailable, and calcium uptake from pasteurized milk has been the subject of scientific debate - a debate that has never been settled, thanks largely to the lack of funding for research that isn't likely to please the dairy industry.

So if raw milk is healthier, why is milk pasteurized? Well, the historical explanation is that in the mid-late 1800s grain surpluses started to appear in the US. The most profitable way of processing these surpluses was to turn them into booze. Then some bright spark discovered that cows could, if given no choice, live for a time on the spent grains (mash) from the booze-producing process. So they set up dairy feedlots beside breweries and distilleries, and piped the leftovers directly into the cattle pens. Thus was born the first confinement dairy. The milk from these dairies was substandard, but exceptionally cheap, and the working poor in the cities where these dairies were located were forced by economics to buy it. The conditions the cows lived in were appalling, disease was rampant, and naturally many people, mostly children, were sickened or died from drinking the milk, producing a public health crisis. Then pasteurization was developed, which provided a quick "solution". As dairies consolidated and grew bigger and dairy farmers found it cheaper and more convenient to feed cattle grains rather than maintaining pasture, pasteurization provided the "fix" needed to render the milk from the confined, malnourished cows safe. Large dairy producers cuddled up to overworked health officials and universal pasteurization became the norm.

It's not the only solution, though. Even waaaay back there was the concept of a "certified" dairy - a dairy that met health needs for its cows, cleanliness standards for its barns, and kept the cows OUT of the barn for the most part. Cows on grass are far healthier than cows on grain - grain produces an acidic rumen which allows all kinds of nasties (including that really bad e. coli) to thrive, and the excrement from grain-fed cows is a far, far better place for bad bacteria than a grass-fed poop. Moreover, cows who are fed grain are typically confined to a stall, where they hang out ankle-deep in their own poop, which frankly isn't good for *any* organism. Cows in confinement dairies live about 2 years if they're lucky; cows on pasture live for about 12.

But, inspecting these dairies and maintaining two separate standards is WORK and the diaries and health departments have done a fantastic PR job convincing people that pasteurized milk is just as good as raw milk, and the pasteurization is in their own best interests. The thing is, they're partly right. Nobody in their right minds would drink raw milk from most dairies in operation in North America today. But milk from a clean, grass-fed dairy herd is an entirely different story. And that's where our milk came from: the Dungeness Valley Creamery.

Washington State is one of the few jurisdictions that recognize that a lot of people want raw milk, and it's in the State's interests to make sure that they can get it and that it's safe. (It's a great way for small family dairies to thrive, for one thing.) Raw milk producers are pretty much forced to have their cows on pasture to maintain the cow health standards, and the milk must meet bacteriological and coliform standards that are waaaaay higher than those of pasteurized milk. California has similar standards, raw milk has been available there for a long time (since the early 90's I believe) and not one single case of food-borne illness has ever been proved to have originated at a raw dairy in California, although the health department has certainly *tried* to prove various outbreaks were linked, they failed in every case to actually detect any pathogens in the milk or bottling equipment. (In fact, many more people have been made ill by salmonella-tainted produce and by contaminated *pasteurized* milk than by raw milk.)

Canada is not nearly so enlightened - raw milk is basically more illegal than pot here (to sell, at any rate - you can bring it over the border for your own consumption.) It's sad, because some places (like Vancouver Island) are geographically ideal for raw milk dairies. We have a mild climate that enables cows to be outside almost all year long, plenty of rainfall for good grazing, and a host of little wee cheesemakers to take up any excess. People would pay double the price of organic pasteurized milk for raw - dairies could actually MAKE MONEY!!! - and if the government wanted to stay out of it, a handful of independent contractors could make some money doing regular milk testing.

However, legalizing raw milk might make people take a harder look at conventional dairies. It might make people realize that cows don't HAVE to stand in shit to produce milk, that cows really don't need or want grain (yikes, what to do with all that surplus crap-quality grain that comes off the more soil-depleted areas of the prairies?), and that dairy doesn't have to be one of those things that's only good for you if all of the fat is taken out. (That's another triumph for the dairy lobby, with more people clamouring for the "healthy" low-fat dairy products, they're able to take much more cream out of the milk and use it in much higher value-added products like ice-cream, compensating for the lower milk-fat yield from their overbred, high-yield Holsteins.) A harder look is something that the dairy industry would like to avoid, since it might cut into profits that are already tenuous thanks to government fixes on milk prices. So, dairy lobbyists work darned hard to make sure that the government keeps telling you that unpasteurized milk is like drinking straight salmonella with a dash of e. coli, and the government is quite happy to do so, because frankly pasteurizing everything is darned easy and means that the government can cheap out on ag-school drop-outs for their inspection staff. (<- ok I don't actually *know* they do this.)

Anyway, that's enough ranting for one night. I should add, however, that raw milk tastes WAY better than pasteurized, but the jury is still out on whether it's helping Rowan with her poop.


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