“The much-anticipated Raw Milk Institute has gone live.
Simply put, the goal of the institute is to use science-based food-safety principles to shore up a strong foundation for the growing raw-milk movement.
Raw milk is milk that hasn’t been pasteurized to kill bacteria, some of which can make people sick or even kill them. These harmful organisms can be in milk from healthy animals as the result of contamination from fecal matter or unclean milking equipment.
“Raw milk isn’t going to go away even though the federal government would like it to,” said McAfee, who owns the largest raw-milk dairy in the nation.
He knows the strength of the raw-milk movement first hand. Demand for his dairy’s raw milk is so strong that he hasn’t been able to make any raw-milk butter or cheese — products that his customers often request. He thought he’d solve that problem by bringing 80 new cows into his herd, boosting the total number to 420, but demand keeps rising, so much so that he still doesn’t have enough milk to make butter or cheese.
A Holstein milk cow, the breed that McAfee has on his farm, typically produces from about 5 to 10 gallons each day, which means those 80 additional cows are giving McAfee a great deal more milk each day.
“I’d love to see another raw-milk producer in California,” he said. “There’s just not enough raw milk to meet demand.”
All across America, thousands of consumers are seeking out raw milk, in many cases because of perceived health benefits such as curing asthma or helping build strong immune systems. Others buy it because they remember drinking raw milk as a child and they see it as a good way to support local farmers. And just about all raw-milk drinkers say it tastes better than pasteurized milk.
Although precise data about how many people drink raw milk is not available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that less than 1 percent of milk sold to consumers in the United States has not been pasteurized. But with the United States’s population at 311 million, according to 2011 figures, “less than 1 percent” hints of a large volume of raw milk being consumed.
The CDC warns against drinking raw milk from cows, goats, sheep or other ruminants, saying that there’s no evidence of any health benefits, and that the risk of being infected by a harmful or even deadly foodborne disease is too high, especially for infants and young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems.
Yet the demand for raw milk keeps going up.
McAfee said what surprised him the most about setting up the Raw Milk Institute is the conflict it triggered among raw-milk producers. Even though there are many farmers who support the ideas behind the institute because they believe it will help lower the risks associated with raw milk and therefore benefit consumers and the industry overall, there are others who don’t want anything to do with it.
“I thought — and I was wrong — that farmers would be interested in uniting around a common standard,” McAfee said. “But that’s not been the case. Some farmers won’t take food safety seriously, but they will always take their freedoms seriously.”
He sees that as a conflict within the raw-milk movement — one that’s “in conflict with itself.”
“We’ve got to work together and create safe food,” he said. “It’s usurping the cause if you’re only thinking about your freedom. Freedom and food safety are connected. I’m free as long as I produce safe milk.”
As a California dairyman, McAfee must meet strict state standards for his raw milk, which include the same very low bacterial counts as required for pasteurized milk — no more than 10 coliform bacteria per milliliter. (There are 946.4 milliliters in a quart of milk.) Eight other states — Arizona, Maine, New Hampshire, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington — have the same standard.
Outbreaks not a ‘fluke’
McAfee was quick to point out that any time there’s a foodborne disease outbreak linked to raw milk, there’s a reason.
“Outbreaks are not a fluke,” he said. “They’re a result of things not being done according to food-safety practices. Food safety is about the conditions you have anywhere that food moves through a system, whether it’s the pasture a cow grazes on or the pipes and hoses in the processing facility. You have to be diligent about this. It takes a lot of hard work and commitment to do it right.”
With that in mind, the institute will set nationally recognized standards for raw milk, accompanied by farmer training and mentoring. (The standards have not yet been agreed upon but will be posted on the site when they are.) It will be a voluntary program with no connection to government, although the hope is that legislators will “come to the table” as the institute proceeds. But they will in no way be connected with the operation of the institute, itself….”
The bottom line for this author, and no doubt for Bill Marler as well, is that raw milk isn’t worth the risk of illness, and can’t be produced safely on a sufficiently consistent basis, to make it worthwhile. But if that’s the case, you’ve got to wonder what they’re doing different in Europe, where raw milk seems to generate very little controversy, aside from in Britain where the controversy is around efforts to try to ban it altogether. I’d like to think we all agree that efforts such as Mark McAfee’s are to be commended for encouraging safe standards of production, happy customers, and a boring regulatory climate.
Of course the same can be said of Cow Share Canada. But in view of yesterday’s appeal decision in the Michael Schmidt case, it seems the status of raw milk in Canada is once again relegated to legal limbo. But hopefully there will be another appeal next year or the year after, that will reverse that ruling, and recognize farmers’ right to provide people with the foods that they have the right to choose for themselves.