About once a week, I read an article with a headline similar to the one in the Saturday edition of a suburban Chicago newspaper: “State Warns of Bad Milk”. It’s a report from the Illinois Department of Public Health that a batch of raw milk from a particular farm tested positive for salmonella. Mind you, no one got sick.
How is it that these reports prompt special newspaper articles, while nothing is ever mentioned about the fact that nearly 80% of ground beef contains fecal matter, with between 7 and 12% having salmonella and listeria bacteria?
According to “The Untold Story of Milk”, “Raw milk…produced by a literal handful of small farmers, is an easy and historically vulnerable target. Thus we have the rather odd situation of scores of local, state, and federal public health workers investigating ‘outbreaks’ of generally mild gastrointestinal illness in often only a handful of individuals who may have become ill because they drank raw milk…(and) the public…continues to consume feces in most of their hamburgers…”
Though “The Untold Story of Milk” by Ron Schmid, a naturopathic physician, was published four years ago, it seems almost more relevant today than it was then. I’ve been reading through it over the last several weeks (at the suggestion of several readers), and have found it very helpful in explaining a number of things we’ve been discussing on this blog. Having said that, I’d especially recommend it to Melissa Herzog and Mary McGonigle-Martin.
While the author makes a strong case for both the health benefits of raw milk along with our individual right to choose to consume raw milk, he does so in a non-strident way, using well documented historical and research data to make his case.
Unlike some raw milk advocates, Schmid admits that people occasionally do get sick from raw milk, though he points out that the problem of food-borne illness is much more vast for other products like meat and eggs. The problem is this: “The current double standard—that calls for unreasonably strict standards for raw milk and more lenient standards for other foods—is neither rational nor just.” Problems in our beef, eggs, and even in pasteurized milk make people sick as well.
What I found most fascinating was his careful examination of the history of milk in the U.S., and how different the milk situation looks today than it did 100 years ago. Then, pasteurization was just taking hold in New York City and other major cities around the country. As pasteurization efforts, led by Nathan Strauss, one of the founders of Macy’s, became popular, raw milk still held an esteemed place in the eyes of most prominent medical and public health experts for its health benefits and curative powers. Many seemed to favor pasteurization because it reduced the risk of disease in children at a time when sanitation and refrigeration were still big problems.
In fact, for many years during the early twentieth century, there were two categories of milk: pasteurized and “certified”—the certified label being applied to raw milk that was produced under sanitary conditions and subject to regular inspection.
As the pasteurization movement gained momentum in the 1920s and 1930s, public health officials, prodded by the rapidly growing dairy industry, pushed for elimination of the certitified category. It wasn’t until the end of World War II, though, that major media like Ladies Home Journal published scare articles about the “dangers” of raw milk, and began the effort that led to raw milk being pushed off the table, so to speak, and made illegal or highly restricted in most states.
Also intriguing in this historical examination was the assumption in the early 1900s that infant mortality rates were significantly reduced by the ever more widespread pasteurization of milk. Other disease-reducing development that were taking place simultaneously, such as construction of sewerage systems; introduction of automobiles, which eliminated widespread horse excrement; refrigeration; and increasing awareness of the importance of sanitation, were ignored.
Schmid also examines the issue that has predominated on this blog at various times: “the new virulent form of E.coli…which have received considerable attention because of the particularly severe or fatal complications sometimes produced by the organisms.” He notes that an article in Applied Dairy Microbiology reported on 60 cases of E.coli 0157:H7 illness related to raw milk and more than 500 hamburger-related cases, causing the deaths of four children in 1993. He points to a paper reporting that “E.colio 0157:H7 is in 10 percent of raw milk bulk tank samples collected from 69 different Wisconsin farms. Apparently this pathogen can find its way into raw milk by fecal contamination, and clearly it can lead to serious illness. A reasonable assumption is that it is not found in healthy animals fed on green grass or hay.” So while Schmid doesn’t have an answer for how it showed up in the California milk that has been blamed for sickening the five children, he suggests that the problem is much worse in other foods and, once again, raw milk takes an inordinate amount of blame.
Schmid’s larger point, though, is that the absence of raw milk and other such vital foods from Americans’ diets has weakened their immune systems and made them more vulnerable to both chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes, and to food poisoning. Back to the Salmonella-in-raw-milk report I opened with. Schmit says that “Salmonella is literally everywere (so) there is no point in sanitizing the food supply because contamination with Salmonella and other organisms can just as easily occur after pasteurization, irradiation, or whatever other process is used to sanitize. (Also) the individuals who become ill as a result of exposure do so because their immune systems are functioning abnormally.” He concludes that "studies confirm the fact that raw milk drinkers develop prowerful immunity and resistance to pathogenic organisms."
There is much more to this informative book than I can capture here. It’s excellent reading for anyone interested in the role of raw milk as symbolic of much that is wrong with our food and health system today.