The Debate Over Raw Dairy Milk

article image Freeman
The raw milk debate rages on throughout rural America.

One side urges freedom of choice. The other side argues that health is the top concern. And the debate over raw milk continues.

Nearly 300 people from around the world recently attended the Second Annual International Raw Milk Symposium in Madison, Wisconsin. The event was organized by the Farm to Consumer Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on increasing education about food issues. The foundation is the primary source of income for the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which states as its mission, “Defending the rights and broadening the freedoms of family farms, and protecting consumer access to raw milk and nutrient dense foods.”

The first symposium was held in Toronto to facilitate an international discussion regarding raw milk. In the year that followed, a flurry of activity occurred for both producers and consumers, including a victory by Canadian raw milk producer Michael Schmidt after a long and costly court battle, as well as a coordinated crackdown on raw milk producers in Wisconsin.

Raw milk advocates say the main issue concerning the product is freedom of choice. They cite claims that raw milk has helped people with health concerns such as asthma and immune issues, and that pasteurizing milk not only destroys harmful bacteria, it destroys good enzymes and proteins in the milk. Many supporters line up on the side of people knowing where their food comes from, and they advocate that consumers meet the dairy farmer and inspect a local farm’s facilities on a regular basis.

On the opposite side of the argument are government health officials who say pasteurized milk (milk that has been heated to up to 161°F for up to 20 seconds) is the only safe product for consumers, particularly the young, elderly or those with weakened immune systems. Citing several health outbreaks attributed to raw milk, officials say their one and only concern is the safety of the public. Officials at the Food and Drug Administration say consumption of unpasteurized milk caused at least 187 hospitalizations, 1,614 illnesses and two deaths from 1998 to 2008.

This year, the symposium focused on the health benefits of raw milk, and how this issue fits into the larger issue of consumer rights concerning food. The event took place even as debate continues regarding the legalities of selling and the safety of consuming raw milk. In Wisconsin, as this issue went to press, a recently forwarded bill – allowing limited sales of unpasteurized milk directly off the farm – had been vetoed by the governor.

The aim of the symposium was to educate people about milk and to help counter the anti-fresh milk outlook that pervades many state dairy-regulating bodies. Symposium participants concluded that the real issue is not whether raw milk is perfectly safe; it is that, as citizens, we have the right to choose whether we feed our families with fresh product directly from the farmer or a burger from a fast-food restaurant.