Commentary: The Raw Milk Revolution

Unpasteurized Milk is Taking Hold, Even among College Kids

On any given Monday morning, there’s an array of abandoned glass jars full of money in the mail room at Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vermont. These jars belong to another, nearly extinct delivery service—milk. Raw milk, in this case.

Johanna Burdet (right) felt invigorated after 14 days on a raw milk diet.© Sterling College

On Mondays, Sterling College senior Johanna "Jo" Burdet wakes up early and drives to school. On her way she picks up two glass jars from a neighboring student. After her first class, she walks to the mail room to collect the rest of the jars and money. The jars belong to students at Sterling who are part of a raw milk co-op started in September of 2007.

Jo loads the jars into her car and drives to one of three farms involved in the co-op. She greets her friend Violet, who runs the farm, just after a milking session. The milk is still warm and—before it separates from the cream—unified in color. Violet begins to filter the milk from a stainless steel bucket while asking Jo questions about the co-op.

Jo gives Violet background on the students and tells her about the two educational raw milk sessions she led for them. Together, they pour milk into each student’s jar. Before Jo leaves she and Violet pause a minute and share a glass of milk. Jo is soon on her way back to school; if it had been a warm day, she would have put the milk in a cooler for the ride back to campus.

Why would Jo go so far out of her way just to bring raw milk to a few students with absolutely nothing in return? For her, the exercise is one step forward on the long road toward legalizing raw milk in Vermont. And why would these students pay $3 a half gallon for raw milk when they can walk to the dining room and get pasteurized milk for free? What is so important about raw milk that makes these students spend extra cash on it?

One student, Nelle, says simply, "it’s healthy." She adds, "Raw milk is less processed and therefore healthier, plus it tastes better, and I know where it comes from." When I ask another student, Sarah, why she drinks raw milk, the response is similar. "I believe in its [raw milk"s] benefits and that it is better than pasteurized milk. I think that pasteurization kills a lot of beneficial bacteria in milk, and I also like to support the simplest process of farm to mouth."

Many surveys have been done on the topic of raw milk. Farm advocacy group Rural Vermont had an intern whose task was to collect consumer surveys on the issue. The surveys were created by Jo and distributed throughout the fall of 2007, and asked questions such as: What made you purchase raw milk? Did you look for anything in particular when choosing a farm to purchase from? How long have you been drinking it? One woman responded to the survey saying she liked milk un-pasteurized because if farmers know they’re going to kill everything during pasteurization they may not care if the milk is a little dirty or has manure in it. She feels that raw milk is a cleaner alternative and says that while pasteurization may destroy bad bacteria in unclean milk it also destroys good antibodies and enzymes.

Another woman has bad asthma and allergies so had not drunk milk in 10 years. After reading an article on raw milk’s effects, she began to drink it and said she feels stronger, "It’s like there is more substance to myself," she says. Most people mention health benefits as the reason they began to drink raw milk. Many claim that "raw milk is more like milk than pasteurized milk." One respondent refers to pasteurized milk as "flavored water."

Well-cared for cows produce healthier milk.© Larga Vista Ranch

Several customers also mention the cream that forms on top of the milk. One man scrapes the cream off for use in other products while other people simply enjoy being able to determine how much fat will be in their milk. One says, "I like the way milk separates, especially when I spill it on the counter and it makes swirls in the drops; it looks like a complex substance, but store milk just looks bland."

Our bodies use amino acids as building blocks for protein and need 20 to 22 for the job. Raw cow’s milk has 20 of the standard amino acids and is a nutritionally complete whole food.

I remember pulling up to the Wild Branch Farm one day this past summer. The sun was high and it was a beautiful hot summer day. Children were swinging on the porch while others were collecting the last of the day’s harvest. Jo bounded to my car full of natural energy, carrying with her a pint of raw milk.

I was just learning about Jo’s research and raw milk advocacy. That day she told me about her 14-day diet of just raw milk. She also told me that she drinks a half gallon of raw milk a day. At first I thought this must be unhealthy, but Jo explained to me the nutritional properties of raw milk and its whole food value. Here she was, standing right in front of me, beaming on day seven of her fast, still full of energy after working all day in the hot sun on the farm.

Jo told me later that after day 14, she never experienced hunger but that she definitely needed her milk. She did miss food, the texture and chewing, just as someone would miss their favorite dessert after a two-week abstention from sweets. The only time she experienced hunger was when she drank colostrums, the first milk from a cow after it has given birth (produced for two weeks after birth). Jo says she experienced hunger only because colostrum does not have as much protein or fat as normal raw milk because it is meant for a newborn calf.

Jo is not the first person to subsist only on raw milk; on rare occasions people have lived for years on it. A man from Iowa, W.F. Kitzele, ingested concentrated lye when he was two, leaving him unable to take in solid food for the rest of his life. Kitzele has been living on three quarts of raw milk a day drinking one quart at each meal. He has been doing this for 42 years and has four healthy children and has never been bedridden with illness and is physically strong.

One of the main reasons people are excited about raw milk is due to its live enzymes, which promote health benefits. All of the enzymes in milk are heat sensitive and some health practitioners claim that 90 percent are destroyed during the process of pasteurization. People who are lactose intolerant, according to common wisdom, can’t drink milk. But the enzyme lactase that is in raw milk digests lactose, the milk sugar that is difficult for people to digest.

Pasteurization kills bacteria, some of which could cause serious harm, particularly to growing fetuses.©

The majority of people with a lactose allergy can drink raw milk without unhealthy side effects. Another enzyme that is very important in milk is phosphatase. Most people drink milk because of its rich nutrient quality, and specifically for calcium. The enzyme phosphatase is needed to release calcium and phosphorous in milk. Advocates say raw milk has a higher amount of digestible calcium and phosphorous than pasteurized milk. And people love raw milk for its anti-microbial agents. The anti-microbial bacteria found in raw milk is said to fight off pathogenic bacteria and serve as a built-in immune system.

Mark McAfee owns a 350-cow dairy, the largest raw dairy in the U.S. It’s in California where raw milk is legal for retail sale. After 24 million servings of his milk there have been absolutely no reported illnesses. That led him to conduct several tests on his milk and on the pasteurized variety. In one test, McAfee in

jected E.coli, listeria, and salmonella in his milk and in pasteurized milk. He says that in the raw milk, none of the added pathogens survived because of the naturally occurring acids and anti-microbial bacteria that fought off these pathogens. The pasteurized milk pathogens were able to grow much larger and spread throughout the milk, he says, because they did not have enzymes to stop their growth.

So if raw milk is much healthier, why do we use pasteurization? The process began after tuberculosis and E.Coli outbreaks in the 19th century. But these outbreaks were due to poor conditions of cattle and unsanitary workers. The problem was not raw milk but unclean raw milk.

Consider this scenario from New York City in 1852: Inside a barn, dairy cows are wallowing in manure, chained and standing side by side. Dust motes drift by the light creeping in through the cracks. Down the road, a domestic liquor distillery creates waste of spent grain called "slop" or "swill."

Slop and swill were commonly fed to cows as an alternative to pasture because it was cheaper and required less manual labor. The slop kept the cows lactating, but they could hardly be called healthy. In 1852, three fourths of the milk sales in New York were from slop milk. Public health began to fail, seen specifically in rising mortality rates among infants. Pasteurization was seen as a godsend; a cheap, easy way to clean up the milk problem.

In simple terms, pasteurization is a method of treating food by heat to bring it to a certain temperature to kill disease-causing organisms. Milk is generally pasteurized by heating it to 161 to 172 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds. During this process many of the vitamins and heat-sensitive enzymes in milk are lost, raw mile advocates say. Once factories began to use pasteurization, the infant mortality rate began to shrink, leading to the conclusion that raw milk was the culprit, rather than the unsanitary conditions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are still quick to warn consumers about the dangers inherent in unpasteurized milk, citing the fact that more than 800 people in the U.S. have gotten sick from drinking raw milk or eating cheese made from raw milk since 1998. The government agency says that the harmful microorganisms that might be present in raw milk—E. Coli, Salmonella and Listeria—can pose a serious health threat, particularly to pregnant women, children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. Warnings are particularly dire for pregnant women, who are strongly urged against ingesting anything unpasteurized—the presence of these harmful bacteria could be potentially fatal to a developing fetus, even if the mother shows no signs of illness.

It is no myth that raw milk from an unsanitary factory farm is unhealthy; however, this does not mean that all raw milk is unsafe. In the 1900s, as the shift from raw milk to pasteurized milk began, there were a number of health and science articles revealing the health benefits of raw milk. Henry Coit, a medical doctor, was the founder of the first medical milk commission and the certified milk movement. In 1929, Dr. J.E. Crew published an article entitled "Raw Milk Cures Many Diseases."

The coals glow dim as Jo and I sit in the kitchen talking about milk. It’s getting on to winter now, and cold floors, wood stoves, and crystal clear nights are becoming more common as the days slide into December and ice forms on surrounding small ponds.

For me, milk used to be just milk and I never gave it a second thought. Now when I look at it I see all the layers beneath, the history behind pasteurization. I see the cows crammed in small barns covered in manure, and I see others grazing in pasture. I hear farmers who talk of their cows like units for production, and I hear those who talk to them as children.

I now look at pasteurized milk as something dead, something we created out of fear of our own actions. And although I may not naturally be a milk lover, I do look at raw milk as full and alive, rich and flourishing, prevailing through regulations and laws supported by people like Jo. It continually amazes me how something as simple as raw milk or local food is so hard to turn into concrete reality. And how crucial people like Jo are in the process of change.

*Some names have been left out or changed to maintain farmer and consumer privacy.

SARAH MORRISON is a student at Sterling College in Vermont.

CONTACTS: The Dangers of Raw Milk; Organic Pastures, 1-877-RAW-MILK; Rural Vermont; Sterling College;