Raw Milk: An Idea Gone Sour

The idea of drinking raw milk for taste, health benefits, and going green took off around the year 2000. There was a parallel surge in E. coli and other bacterial illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that from 1972 until 2000, there were 58 cases of illness from raw milk. Once the raw milk idea took hold, the CDC reported that in just one 12-month period – 2001 to 2002 – there were 500 documented incidences of illness from raw milk. Many more probably went undiagnosed.

Raw milk E. coli illness is no 24-hour bug. The littlest victims can wind up on kidney dialysis. I know. Their parents contact me to sue to cover medical bills. I write this in hopes I can put myself out of the raw milk litigation business.

The philosophy of raw milk enthusiasts is that the technology of pasteurization is unnecessary and possibly downright destructive. With so many unsolved medical puzzles like autism and the clinical depression epidemic, there’s a hypothesis that pasteurizing kills off healthy bacteria. There might be something to this. We don’t know. What we do know is that this raw milk movement went sour as it became popular.

Raw milk used to be a mom-and-pop industry, and that was how most people got their milk before mass production that led to pasteurization. At the end of the 19th century, the lion’s share of us lived in rural areas and knew those we bought food products from. It was in the diary farmers’ economic self-interest to keep their cows and customers healthy. One sick cow meant a possible outbreak of gut-wrenching disease, and that would damage—or end—their business.

With industrialization came urban migration. The government stepped in with regulations and pasteurization, which saved a lot of lives. Laws left it up to the states to decide whether or not to continue to allow raw milk. Today 29 states do, and the regulatory and health agencies in those states are very, very busy.

What happened to raw milk? To meet demand, the processes of production and sales had to change. The supply chain lengthened enormously and every degree of separation from that small dairy operation introduced life and death risk.

Large operations often outsource production, and the original producer has become anonymous. When we buy raw milk, we have no information on if the cows were raised in a healthy environment, or bulk-raised to maximize profits, just as in the beef industry. How was the milk handled, shipped and stored? Most of the process is completely unregulated, and contamination can come at any point in the supply chain.

What precautions can consumers take? Common sense is a good start. To begin, research if the supposed benefits outweigh the risk and justify the premium price; the Internet makes that digging easy. Raw milk sells at eight or nine dollars a gallon. What does that buy? Not an assurance of health, as often promised. And if the milk is contaminated, what is lost is a lot more than money.

Secondly, the state has to be in the loop. Consumers can find out if raw milk is legal in their state, what regulations are on the books, and what businesses have not been in compliance.

Third, it’s wise to err on the side of caution. If people insist on buying raw milk, buying only from small, local dairy farms where there is no degree of separation.

Fourth—and this is from a lawyer—it makes sense to re-consider our current adversarial we-them value system. As I argue raw milk cases I wonder this: would these children have consumed this milk had their parents felt not in conflict with aspects of mainstream society, from government to the medical profession? The raw milk movement might be delivering the message that our institutions and the people they are supposed to serve aren’t aligned. Let’s channel the counterculture spirit into reform. With better regulation and supervision, there could possibly be safe raw milk. There would definitely be a drastically reduced market for unregulated products that carry so much risk. It would also mean fewer phone calls to my office from terrified parents of sick children. And in the raw milk area of my business, fewer phone calls are exactly what I hope for.