Contradiction in a glass

Raw Milk

by Mollie Doyle

Raw Milk

Elizabeth Cecil

A glass of milk, cream in your coffee, a slice of cheese, a scoop of ice cream, butter on your toast. Milk: There are no easy answers.  

These days there is no such thing as just milk. Real milk, meaning unpasteurized or “raw,” is illegal in 11 states. Fifteen states like Massachusetts allow the “on-farm” sales of raw milk, and only 10 states allow for unpasteurized milk to be sold in stores. The remaining states’ laws are gray when it comes to this dairy beverage.

Unpasteurized milk is a controversial issue because some view it as unsafe and some don’t. John F. Sheehan, Director of Dairy Food Safety for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has testified before Congress saying that, “Raw milk is inherently dangerous,” and has gone so far as to say, “Drinking raw milk or eating raw milk products is like playing Russian roulette with your health.”

Yet I have read many of the hundreds articles and studies that discredit this claim. The Weston A. Price Foundation, which is a “nonprofit, tax-exempt nutrition education foundation” is the most outspoken and credible raw milk advocate. The doctors and studies they referenced argue that raw milk is far more protein and nutrient rich, has invaluable enzymes killed by pasteurization (In their assessment of raw milk, the CDC acknowledges that these enzymes are killed but questions their value.), is loaded with significantly more of the key vitamins in milk—Vitamins A and D, C, B6, and B12—has beneficial bacteria for the gut, protects against asthma and allergies, and helps the body fight infection, diarrhea, rickets, tooth decay, and tuberculosis. The Vineyard’s own Dr. Dardanella Slavin, Doctor of Chiropractic and a huge advocate and drinker of raw milk backs this up, telling me in an interview, “It’s a pure and powerful food. Everything about it nourishes your body.”

What’s the truth? Is raw milk a highly dangerous substance or a fantastic source of nutrients and vitamins?

It depends on the cow and how it’s been treated. In fact, the more I learn about factory farmed milk (and most milk is), the more this healthy milk story becomes about the health of our dairy cows. If you drink milk, use butter, eat cheese, then their well-being is intrinsically linked to yours.

When I first read about the life of an average dairy cow in the US, I was dizzy with upset. Beyond the tragic pollution stories (high nitrate levels from livestock in drinking water has been linked to sudden miscarriages and blue-baby syndrome, which can kill infants), was the story of the average American dairy cow’s life. The Humane Society of the United States 2009 report, The Welfare of Cows in the Dairy Industry, describes dismal conditions for most of the nine million dairy cows in the United States. Cow are crowded into acres of grassless filth (only 9.9% of all US dairy cows in the US ever see grass), where they are tethered with either ropes and or with their necks framed by bars (making it nearly impossible for a cow to lie down), lack bedding, are poorly fed, undergo “astronomical milk production”, live for only five years (life expectancy is 15-20 years).

These stressful living conditions make these cows less inclined to produce milk. More often than not, factory dairy farmers inject their cows with recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), a genetically engineered hormone developed by Monsanto and now sold by Eli Lilly and Company to increase milk production. While the FDA has approved the drug for humans to drink milk from cows given this artificial hormone, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and all European countries have banned its use. One of the most significant side effects of the use of rBGH is mastitis, a painful udder infection. This infection causes a higher somatic cell count in the milk. The number of somatic cells (white blood cells) in a cow’s milk indicates the quality of the milk. Mermaid Farm & Dairy in Chilmark’s Allen Healy believes that a cell count of 160,000 or higher means something is going on and milk with a count of 250,000 or higher is essentially “white pus.” Meanwhile, the legal limit for somatic cell count in all US Dairy is 750,000.

Commercial non-organic milk is troublesome as well. The presence of rBGH in a cow’s blood stimulates production of another hormone called Insulin-Like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1). IGF- 1 has been associated with breast, prostate, and colon cancers. And if you drink one or two percent, the milk you are drinking is even worse, in my opinion. According to Weston Price’s website, realmilk.com, “Powdered skim milk, a source of dangerous oxidized cholesterol and neurotoxic amino acids, is added to 1% and 2% milk.” This is, as the Environmental Justice Activists say on their site, milk that “does nobody good.”

“Okay,” you think, “I’ll take the middle way. I’ll just drink organic pasteurized milk.” Unfortunately, I’m not sure that this is the answer if you do want to do your body good. Yes, organic milk comes from organic-grain-eating-rBGH-free cows, but they still may be living in less than ideal conditions. When I read the label of a carton of Horizon organic milk in my fridge, I learned that I was drinking milk from one of nearly one hundred farms in New England.

And raw milk? “All raw milk is not the same,” says Island dairyman Allen Healy. He describes a strenuous regimen for keeping the Mermaid Farm cows clean and healthy. And he confides that he doesn’t think the regulations, at least here in Massachusetts, are stringent enough. Allen’s health inspector, Alex Macdonald, of the Massachusetts Department Of Agricultural Resources, whom Allen describes as incredibly knowledgeable and helpful, comes once a month to evaluate the farm and the quality of the milk (this is done by measuring the milk’s somatic count, among other things). Allen makes it clear just how vigilant a farmer has to be to produce good and safe raw milk.

Wisconsin raw milk activist Bill Anderson wrote an article on the Wisconsin dairy industry, “The system is designed to make it as difficult as possible for raw milk producers to deliver a safe product to consumers.” Both he and Allen worry that if one farm tips the proverbial milk bucket and someone or several people will drink ”dirty” milk and get sick, then this will cause these states to revoke all farms’ rights to sell raw milk.

In conversation with Allen, it was clear and wonderful to hear how much he cares for his cows–their diet, environment and health. As a result, he sells healthy, nutrient-rich raw milk that is delicious. The Island is lucky to have dairy farmers like Allen. He began selling milk at his farm six years ago to less than 20 Island families. Now, Mermaid farm sells milk to almost 100 families year-round. Dr. Slavin, who feeds her four year-old son the milk, told me, “I trust Allen. I know him.”

I agree with Dr. Slavin. I want to drink milk from a cow and farmer I know. Science aside, it just feels right.

At the young age of two and a half, my daughter doesn’t like any kind of cow’s milk. But I hope that if and when she does decide that she likes milk, she will still have the choice to drink milk from a healthy, well-cared for cow. Unlike my daughter, Allen’s youngest son loves it and has gulped it down since he was one. His oldest child likes skim milk from the store, but Allen doesn’t buy it. He works too hard to make it.