Monday, October 26, 2009

The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America's Emerging Battle Over Food Rights

There is a revolution going on. At first it was a quiet revolution. The initial skirmishes were fought on the fringes of society. Over the past few years, the revolution has become more vocal, more powerful. It has moved from the fringes to the very center of our culture. People are becoming more conscious of the food they eat. And not just what kinds of food. They also want to know where it came from and how it was produced.

The food issue has become so central that the government, normally oblivious to anything that happens outside of the Beltway, has become aware of and is even co-opting the terms and principles of the movement. Manufacturers are legally required to list the ingredients and nutritional values of the food they sell. The term “organic” is no longer a folksy assurance of goodness. It has been quantified and codified. No one may use the term who has not met the stringent standards set by the government.

Still on the fringes but becoming more common with each passing year are those who not only reject the products resulting from the factory farming model, such as enormous feedlots that are so unsanitary that the cows must be fed a steady diet of antibiotics to keep them healthy enough to produce milk or meat (antibiotics that may actually be contributing to rise of “super bugs”, antibiotic resistant bacteria), these consumers are also rejecting the preparation methods mandated by law: the pasteurization and homogenization of milk.

Aficionados refer to it as raw milk. Raw milk producers and drinkers are not the wild-eyed fanatics or zany non-conformists. They live all over the country including the Midwest and New England, areas not known for radicalism. They are people who value milk for its nutrition. Nutrition that is destroyed by the processes of pasteurization and homogenization.

Louis Pasteur, credited with the discovery of pasteurization and long seen as a hero, lived during the era of the rise of feedlots, the factory farming of cows. Those lots were, and still are, breeding grounds for diseases of both animals and humans. Pasteurization is necessary to make milk safe to drink. Prior to the Industrial Revolution which brought first workers and then feedlots into the cities, cows were raised exclusively on farms, grazing in pastures during the summer and eating hay in the winter. The resulting milk was safe to drink. Disease was not a large concern.

The raw milk revolution is an attempt to reach back to our roots. Raw milk dairies raise and nurture their cows the old-fashioned way. They observe strict sanitary methods. They are subject to and welcome constant inspections. The consumers who buy their milk and milk products claim that this “natural” product is more healthful than the pasteurized, homogenized, antibiotic filled product found at the local grocer. These health claims are explored in depth.

I have to confess that when I first picked up this book, my “fanatic alarms” were going off. But once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. I devoured it in two sittings. The author, David Gumpert, is a journalist who uses his training to give as well-rounded a treatment of the subject of raw milk as possible.

The author admits up front that he is a raw milk drinker. He tries to present as many points of view in the debate as fairly as possible. He interviewed dairy farmers who sell raw milk and raw milk products, consumers who buy raw milk, the parents of children who became ill drinking raw milk and the government agencies, both local and federal, who are doing their best to stop the sale of raw milk. It’s that last group that is not well represented but not through lack of trying on Mr. Gumpert’s part. He was constantly stonewalled by the very bureaucrats to whom he was trying to give a voice.

This is a well-written, eye-opening book. Anyone who is interested in healthy eating should definitely pick a copy. Before I read this book, you couldn’t have paid me to drink raw milk. Now that I am better informed, I am admittedly curious. I’ll be keeping an eye out at farmer’s markets for raw milk.

Review copy courtesy of Chelsea Green Publishing

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