Revered by some as “natures perfect food,” and yet demonized by others as “deadly poison,” milk, one of the most innocuous liquids known to man, is now the subject of possibly the biggest food fight of its kind. Mild mannered farmers coming to words with government agents, food safety attorneys, and irate consumers while “big dairy” farmers manipulate legislators and lobby for legislation that weighs heavily in their favor. So, what’s all the hullaballoo?
Like moonshine in the US Prohibition Era, raw milk is being targeted as unhealthy and dangerous, but unlike moonshine, raw milk that is produced following strict code of cleanliness and correct nutrition for the animals producing it, is safe. Even for babies. In the absence of mother’s milk, raw milk can be combined with other ingredients to make a baby formula that helps babies thrive, and meets the nutritional needs of babies much better than powdered or canned baby formula can. Also, unlike alcohol prohibition, today’s heavy regulation and bans on raw milk seem to be spurred more by big agriculture and the dairy industry to suppress unwanted competition, rather than a genuine desire to protect public health by a nanny state run amok.
Before the prohibition, clean water was scarce, and milk had become dangerous due to the cattle being fed the grain byproduct, or “swill,” left over from alcohol production. By the 1820’s the average American, including children, was drinking an average of 7 gallons of pure alcohol annually or the equivalent of about 2.5 ounces of pure alcohol daily, which translates out to 70 gallons of beer, or 39 gallons of wine, or 15.5 gallons of distilled liquor, per year.
To try to control the use of alcohol, reformers began an educational campaign teaching temperance or the “reduction or elimination of the use of alcoholic beverages.” Reformers experienced a significant amount of success with their educational campaigns, and In the 1830’s the average alcohol intake was down to only 3 gallons of pure alcohol per year, but because of alcohol’s addictive properties, reformers set their sights on ending alcohol consumption completely.
During this time, according to Jeffrey A. Miron at Boston University, “temperance movements waxed and waned in the U.S. from early in the nineteenth century, and these movements produced numerous state prohibitions. Many of these prohibitions were subsequently repealed, however, and those that persisted were widely regarded as ineffective. Amid the atmosphere created by World War I, support for national prohibition reached critical mass, and the country ratified the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in January, 1919. Under this amendment and the Volstead Act, which provided for the enforcement of Prohibition, the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol were prohibited by federal law.”
Aside from the differing reasons for temperance, the parallels are strong. The current “raw milk temperance” being pushed by the big dairy industry has the same goal – to use federal law to end “the manufacture, transportation, and sale of” raw milk intended for direct sale to the consumer – albeit for differing reasons. Raw milk temperance also enjoyed a huge success as the result of its ‘educational’ smear campaign against raw milk in the early to middle 1900’s, and almost completely wiped out small raw dairies who were selling directly to consumers. But that was not good enough. Now in the wake of consumers’ ever increasing interest in local farm fresh foods, the dairy industry has doubled its efforts to eradicate raw dairy altogether using federal regulation and whatever means possible.
Like alcohol consumption, raw milk does have its risks – just as any other food does. However, food borne illness from raw milk is relatively small compared to that of other raw foods, even when compared to pasteurized milk. Supporters of raw milk prohibition claim that the reason those instances are small is due to the fact that less than 10% of the US population consumes raw milk, and that in fact, instances of food borne illness are actually higher per capita. Even if this were true, their comparison does not take into account the diet of the cow producing the milk, or the difference between raw milk that has been properly handled and raw milk that has not. It also does not take into account that there have been no deaths from food borne illness associated with raw milk in many years, but there have been deaths from food borne illnesses linked with other foods, including pasteurized milk and cheese.
The standards of cleanliness and the way that cows producing raw milk for direct sale are fed have improved dramatically since the days of the swill milk dairies. Even if they had not, you would think that the temperance movement would take a lesson from history – prohibition was unsuccessful then, and it won’t work now.