Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The perils of public health: the case of raw milk

I'm sure many of us have tasted raw milk... years ago as small children or, more recently, fresh from a cow on a farm. Isn't it so much creamier and tastier? Don't you feel healthier after a glass?

Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized. Following the Industrial Revolution, the
Our nearly gone half-gal of raw milk.
swarms of people leaving behind their cows and rural homes for urban life, the discovery of the pasteurization process, and the up-scaling of dairy production on huge industrial farms, raw milk has been harder and harder to find. For all the good the field of public health brings us, it has brought us peril in the case of milk. The turn of the twentieth century saw the spread and dominance of the germ theory, the belief that disease was spread through microorganisms, such as bacteria.* Public health professionals, of course, were correct: many diseases are indeed spread through "germs." However, where we went wrong as a profession was our unfiltered, widespread push for pasteurization. In effect, all farmer's milk is treated as potentially contagious. This gives us peace of mind in an era of not being able to connect our milk bottle to a farmer's or cow's face. But is has also created a culture that assumes all unpasteurized products are dangerous.

These days selling raw milk is illegal in over 20 states. But there is a movement afoot to bring it back into trade, albeit at the small scale. It is sometimes available at farmer's markets, as part of CSA shares or for pick-up on farms. Raw milk proponents believe their unpasteurized version has more nutritive value and health-promoting bacteria than their mass-produced, highly-heated, bland-tasting counterpart. Its producers say that as long as their practices are sanitary (which can be more easily controlled when it is a small operation, for example), their milk is healthy for you. And its fans say it just tastes better.

Too bad I live in New York State, where the sale of raw milk at farmer's markets is illegal. (Luckily, we got one delicious week's installment before the farmer was told to halt sales.)

* Admittedly, a much better theory than the previous generation of public health professionals held onto: the miasma theory, the belief that miasma, a rotten, toxic form of air, caused disease and death.

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