Thoughts on raw milk, Part I

Raw milk is one of the touchiest flashpoints of food. Battles are fought all over the country between governments and food safety types who are absolutely convinced it’s a menace to humanity and should be banned with the same force as cocaine, while equally fervent defenders swear it’s all but the fountain of youth. Personally, I don’t see it as anything particularly special, except as a symbol of the disfunctional nature of our food system and culture.

On our farm, we rarely drink raw milk, despite keeping our own dairy goats. Partly this is because we prefer the tastes and uses of yogurt and cheese, which we make from our own milk. Partly this is because we do see the point of food safety concerns with raw milk, and don’t have a problem with home-pasteurizing any milk we do drink (all you have to do is heat it to 165F for a short period). But I don’t think raw milk is inherently dangerous; I think it’s like any other raw food in that its safety comes from its methods of production, handling, and preparation.

There is now a certified Grade A raw milk dairy in Missouri, Greenwood Farms, whose mere legel existence ought to prove that raw milk is not inherently dangerous. After all, the Missouri government seems hell-bent on claiming raw milk is illegal, despite clear wording in the Missouri statues stating otherwise: “an individual may purchase and have delivered to him for his own use raw milk or cream from a farm.” (MRS 196.935) But yet this raw milk dairy managed to get certified to the same standards as any other dairy. Good for them. As is true for virtually any food, the danger is not the food itself but the way it’s handled and prepared.

The best summary of the raw milk situation in Missouri (and the challenges facing small dairies in general) that I’ve found yet comes in this well-written piece from the Columbia Missourian earlier this year. It shows both sides of the argument, from the health officials absolutely convinced that raw milk is dangerous to the small farmers who find it a rational and manageable way to make an income on a small herd. It also clearly demonstrates the dangers well-meaning governments can pose to small farms, as when the State tried to shut down a series of small farms selling raw milk under the above-linked law in the name of consumer safety, only to back off and apologize when challenged with their own statutes.

In Part II of this long post, I’ll explain why, regardless of your opinion of raw milk, attempting to ban it in the name of consumer safety is both hypocritical and pointless.

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