Is Raw Milk Safe?
I’ve written about the safety of raw milk before in my Infoletter – Good Health Is Real Wealth, however, this issue came up again when I received an email from reader who read a blog post about Organic Pastures Dairy being sued over an E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak in 2006. The blog post was written by William D. Marler, the lawyer who brought the litigation against Organic Pastures.
Since I had never heard of this particular lawsuit, I started doing some research. I got in contact with Bill Marler himself, Sally Fallon (head of the Weston A. Price Organization and realmilk.com) and the CEO of Organic Pastures Dairy – Mark McAfee. What emerged was probably a representational picture of the raw milk issue in North America.
On the one side of debate, we have raw milk supporters (of which I’m one) saying that raw milk is a healthy superfood and the risk of infection, although present, is much lower than that of pasteurized milk. Indeed, there have been far more E. coli 0157:H7 outbreaks from pasteurized dairy products, than raw dairy.
On the other side of the issue, we have some powerful players who are resolutely opposed to the legalization of raw milk and who use the FDA and other regulatory bodies to harass and raid small raw milk farmers – sometimes with FBI officers with machine guns (believe it or not!) storming their farms. Why?
I suspect it has to do with money. If the mass public started demanding raw milk, the current large factory-farm dairy suppliers would be in a real fix. How could they possibly get their diseased, antibiotic-laced, hormone-enhanced cows to produce healthy milk? They would lose a LOT of money and many would simply go bankrupt. These are pretty strong motivators to maintain the status quo.
In addition, as raw milk gains acceptance and usage increases, who is losing customers? Who is making less money? Again, it’s the large agribusiness dairy corporation.
Then we have Bill Marler (officially, William D. Marler) – a lawyer who specializes in foodborne illness litigation, who is blogging and publishing rather avidly against raw milk. What are his motivators? Is he an FDA-pawn (as some have accused), or is he primarily motivated by the desire to make money from a contentious issue? Or, has he been very negatively affected by his raw milk litigation cases, feeling that someone has to trumpet the dangers?
I had a lot of emails back and forth with Bill, with him sending me documents from the local State and CDC investigations of the Organic Pastures incident in 2006. But I don’t want to get into debating all that here – for one side of the argument, you can go to Bill Marler’s site and download the documents yourself. For the other side of the argument, go to www.realmilk.com (Sally Fallon’s site) and scroll down the homepage – there you can download their rebuttal for each of Marler’s assertions.
For those of you that want the short-version summary of the case: Bill Marler says he built a really strong case against Organic Pastures (OP) and the grocery stores that sold the milk, using data from the State of California investigation and the CDC. He says they sat down with OP, the grocery stores and all the insurance companies and a settlement was reached, so the case never went to court. He is legally prohibited from giving details of the settlement.
Mark McAfee (Organic Pasture’s founder and CEO) says that yes, they all sat down together, however OP refused to settle and their evidence was strong enough that they were happy to go to court. But, the insurance companies didn’t want to go to court and insisted on a settlement instead. The upside was that OP’s insurance company renewed their policy for the next year at a lower rate. Also the State of California presented OP with a letter of retraction and a cheque to cover their expenses. As I said, you can look at the original documents from both sides and draw your own conclusions – I think it’s pretty clear.
But, I’m interested in going beyond all that and telling you what transpired in my phone conversation with Bill Marler. First of all, he is a surprising man to talk to, because I expected to get a lot of lawyerly “I can’t comment on that” statements. Instead, I found a fairly laid-back, open person who was genuinely interested in discussion.
For someone so publicly anti-raw milk, Marler told me that he’s actually quite conflicted about raw milk, since he grew up drinking raw milk on his family’s farm (where his father still lives and now farms bees).
He said there’s no point in banning raw milk – Prohibition didn’t work, and neither would prohibiting raw milk. What he says he’s after is a balanced portrayal of the risks involved with raw milk consumption and other foods he considers risky: like factory farmed meat and agribusiness produce.
His fear is that as raw milk becomes a profitable commodity (i.e. large-scale farming), the likelihood of an outbreak increases. So then I asked him, “Okay, in light of what you’ve seen and experienced, what would you do regarding raw milk – what measures would you put in place?”
Marler said he would like to see raw milk throughout the country follow the Washington state model – with small farmers selling directly to consumers. He would also like to see pathogen-testing at various points along the line, not just of the packaged milk.
He said this is important because it tells you about your milking process and you would be able to pinpoint how and where exactly something is going wrong. For example, it may not be the cow that is the problem, it might be your collection tank, or a certain part of a certain machine, for example.
Marler maintains that he is a big supporter of Michael Pollan – recently footing the bill personally for Pollan to speak at an upcoming symposium at Washington State University. Marler emphasized repeatedly that he is in favour of sustainable farming and eating locally.
So, either Bill Marler is hosing me, presenting himself entirely as someone he’s not. Or, the raw milk-advocate camp and the raw milk-litigation camp are closer on this issue than we imagine.
I mean really, don’t we all want the same things?
- None of us want pathogens (disease-causing microorganisms) in the milk
- We all want to drink milk only from cows that are really healthy
- We all agree that factory farming, big agribusiness and flying food around the world are not healthy, sustainable practices
- We all want to do everything we can to prevent outbreaks of foodborne illnesses
- None of us are claiming that raw milk is never infected with pathogens, we are saying that the risk is minimal; compared to the health benefits, and compared to pasteurized milk
I guess the big questions remaining are:
1. Why just focus on raw milk? In spite of pasteurization, pasteurized milk has caused far more foodborne illness than raw milk. In addition, about 2% of pasteurized milk is infected with Mycobacterium Avium Paratuberculosis (MAP) – a bacterial/fungal hybrid thought to be one of the causes of Crohn’s Disease, since it’s DNA has been found in 92-100% of people with Crohn’s (incidence varies across studies). Pasteurization does not kill MAP, not even ultra-high temperature (UHT) pasteurization can kill it.
2. If we want to keep raw milk pathogen-free, is the solution really more testing and sterilization, or would we be better served by looking at the overall microbial environment? After all, bacteria follow the rule of “competitive exclusion”, i.e. if there are enough good bacteria present, the bad bacteria go away. Perhaps we could all work together to educate each other and ascertain which really are the best procedures for keeping raw milk (and pasteurized milk) pathogen-free.
3. Perhaps we could also collaborate on healthy farming practices and milk-to-consumer channels. None of us wants to see raw milk being factory farmed.
I wonder if Mark McAfee and Sally Fallon are surprised at what came out of my conversation with Bill Marler? Perhaps they feel that actions speak louder than words and his actions to date are adversarial. Perhaps they are wondering if Bill is shifting a little in his stance, and is ready to explore a more collaborative position…
Personally, I buy my raw milk from a small dairy farm in Washington State (the milk is available in a few local stores), where the cows are out on the pasture, in fresh air, and the farmer tests for pathogens in excess of State regulations. So I agree with Marler, it’s a good system.
I’d like to know what Sally Fallon and Mark McAfee think of all this…..