This two-part post on raw milk (Part I here) was prompted by a recent article on The Ethicurean, discussing an upcoming raw milk symposium and requesting users to take part in a Raw Milk User Survey. I posted a long comment which brought together many of my thoughts on the raw milk issue, about which I’ve been planning to write for some time. An adapted version of the comment appears below, and addresses one of my core complaints about the entire raw food debate.
We keep dairy goats for ourselves, and I also work part-time at a nearby goat dairy. We do not drink the milk raw, though I believe it is clean. We use it mostly to make yogurt and various cheeses, which we like better than straight milk in any form. Many other consumers who might not drink raw milk can use it to make completely safe yogurt or dairy products, and I suspect many people who do drink raw milk also make dairy products.
It drives me absolutely crazy that nowhere in the discussions/arguments about raw milk does anyone seem to realize or care that drinking it is only one way to use raw milk. Even if you think it’s dangerous, making most cheeses and yogurts raises the milk past the safe pasteuerization temperature, rendering it safe. Heck, ban drinking raw milk if you want, but allow the sale of the product for use in the kitchen.
To me, selling raw milk is no different than selling raw meat. It’s potentially dangerous if produced or handled improperly, but perfectly safe if (a) from a clean source and/or (b) is prepared in normal ways. Just look at the meat lobby’s insistence on safe cooking methods as a solution to contamination. I think eating rare steak is crazy, but we’re not forbidden from doing that (even in restaurants), and sales of raw meat are happily labelled with all sorts of government warnings about cooking the meat fully to temperature. Apparently the government is comfortable selling dangerous raw meat to consumers with a warning label and letting them take their own chances, why not milk? What’s so inherently terrible about letting me buy raw milk to make into yogurt or cheese, which is as safe as cooking the meat thoroughly?
Moreover, given that USDA regs allow the butchering and sale of poultry on-farm with no inspections, it is apparently safe for consumers to buy raw chicken from an unlicensed farm to take home and cook/eat as they see fit, but it’s terribly dangerous to milk an animal and take THAT product home and drink/prepare it as they see fit. The production, handling, storage, and transport needs of raw chicken are no more or less than for raw milk, so what’s the problem?
Raw milk is an ingredient just like meat, and our policies should account for customers’ abilities to make rational choices about the preparation of that ingredient as they are allowed to do for meat and almost any other ingredient. Allowing small farms to sell raw milk direct to willing customers does not in any way create a food safety hazard beyond the customer’s home. I’d love to see some stats on the per capita illness rate among raw milk users as compared to, say, potato salad or deviled egg eaters at summer picnics. How much of the total food-related illnesses in the US come from the product itself versus the method of preperation?
Food safety regulations rightly exist when the customer is too far removed from the production of the food to accurately judge its quality; they exist to fill a gap. Food safety regulations are wrongly implemented when they seek to stand between a willing customer and producer, filling a gap which didn’t exist. Thus sales of raw milk, or any other agricultural product, ought to be beyond the purview of food safety regulations if the sale is conducted between knowledgable and consenting adults; we currently have more freedom to sign a contract with a skydiving agency than with a local dairy. And people wonder why farms are vanishing and the food system is broken…