The Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. NOFA/Mass welcomes everyone who cares about food, where it comes from and how it’s grown

Growing Organically Since 1982

Raw Milk and the Survival of Dairy Farming in New England

Raw Milk and the Survival of Dairy Farming in New England

© Brian Shillinglaw 2003

Excerpted from the Spring 2003 issue of The Natural Farmer.

On a cold and drizzling March afternoon in Boston, I met with Jim Hines, Director of Dairy Services at the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture. We were meeting to discuss the existing regulations governing the production and sale of raw, unpasteurized milk in Massachusetts - my job for NOFA/Mass is to help make raw milk a safe, commercial reality in the Bay State. Jim is a kind, soft-spoken man who grew up on a dairy farm in Rhode Island. He has serious eyes, a ruddy face and the thick hands of someone who has milked a few cows in his time. He clearly cares a great deal for the dairy farmers of New England. He also clearly wished we weren't there to discuss raw milk.

Raw milk is unpasteurized and unhomogenized fluid milk: it is not heated to kill potential pathogens, as most commercial milk is, and the milk fat is not removed or blended into the milk. Raw milk advocates point out that it contains the full complement of fats, vitamins, enzymes, and bacteria present in a cow's milk upon milking - all of which may offer specific health benefits and can be partially damaged upon pasteurization or homogenization. Raw milk opponents highlight the health risk of pathogenic bacteria such as salmonella, listeria, campylobacter, and E. coli forming live colonies in contaminated raw milk and infecting raw milk drinkers, causing illness and occasionally death. Only a few states, such as Connecticut, allow retail sale of raw milk in stores, and many ban its sale altogether, even at the farm gate. In most New England states, farm-gate sales are allowed with a permit or an exemption from regulation is given to farms selling a small amount per day. Raw milk is often contraband, and it is certainly controversial among dairy farmers and regulators.

Everyone agrees, however, that there is a demand for raw milk and that people are willing to pay for it. In Massachusetts, some famers can get $6.00 to $7.00 for a gallon of raw milk from grass-fed cows sold retail at the farm gate - even more for organic raw milk. A dairy farmer selling milk wholesale for the commercial pasteurized market currently receives around $1.00 per gallon, which is often below her costs.

Jim knew all of this, and so I quickly got to the point after we introduced ourselves. I noted that many farmers in Massachusetts owned a small number of dairy animals - a few cows, five or ten goats. Often they produce more milk than they can use themselves, but they produce too little to economically pasteurize the milk for sale or to sell to wholesale processors. In the absence of easy avenues for the sale of excess clean, raw milk, such farmers might be losing up to $200 a week in potential revenue. What markets did Jim see for smallholders with a sideline in dairy animals, for whom pasteurization isn't an option?

"None," he said.

Although farm-gate sales of raw milk are legal in Massachusetts with a special license and periodic testing, meeting health code is prohibitively expensive for smallholders. And Jim did not view raw milk as a good option for the average dairy farm due to the health risks. Thus far, most dairies in Massachusetts have avoided disagreeing with him: only two dairies are certified to sell raw milk in Massachusetts, although a number sell raw milk under the table.

This is a problem, for if smallhold dairies are not currently economically viable, neither are the mainstream dairies. Nearly half of Massachusetts' dairies went out of business between 1986 and 2001, and many of the remaining dairies are operating under severe financial stress.1 Two companies, Hood and Suiza/Dean Foods, control the vast majority of the milk processing and distribution market in New England. Prices paid to farmers have dropped in recent years while retail prices have increased to nearly $3.00 per gallon.2 A chart from the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture illustrates the price gap:

Dairy corporations and supermarkets are earning profits approaching $1 per gallon of milk, padding their wallets while family farms fail.3 Commercial dairies in Massachusetts are suffering from what economists call "market power," and dairy farmers know what that power looks like - empty dairy barns and abandoned farm houses.

In a regulatory environment in which smallhold dairies struggle to find a market and mainstream dairies are being squeezed by wholesale processors, clean, safe raw milk could be a healthful and viable niche market for New England dairy farmers. Safely-produced raw milk commands such a high price that it could save family farms, whether they have herds of two or seventy. Jim Hines knows this, and yet he is not promoting safe raw milk production and markets in Massachusetts. Why? On a more fundamental level, how did we arrive in a situation where dairy farmers of any scale have difficulty earning a living?

To understand how the dairy industry got into this mess requires a brief excursion into the history of milk drinking and pasteurization. We will then dive into the murky and contentious realm of milk microbiology and nutrition, hunting for a few hard facts to help us understand why Jim isn't promoting raw milk.

Milk drinking and pasteurization

Pasteurization, invented by French scientist Louis Pasteur in the 1860s, involves heating a fluid to a high temperature for an amount of time calculated to kill potential pathogens. Lower temperatures must be maintained for longer periods of time, while modern "Ultra-High Temperature" (UHT) pasteurization is often maintained for only two seconds. Pasteur developed the process to help wineries deal with improper fermentation in grapes; only decades later was it applied to milk.

Pasteurization, like other industrial technologies, has never been friendly to the small farmer. The institution of pasteurization in American cities and states in the first half of the twentieth century spurred a wave of mergers among dairy processing companies and drove many small dairy farmers out of business. Many health officials and doctors at the time viewed this as rather a good thing - large dairies and a few processors could be inspected and regulated more cheaply. However, a substantial minority of doctors, especially pediatricians, advocated a certified raw milk system instead of mandatory pasteurization, often due to concerns over the impact of pasteurization on the nutritive quality of milk.4 In order to understand why pasteurization won politically over a certified raw milk system, we have to first understand how milk became an industrial commodity in the first place. Why do we drink milk?

A social history of milk drinking

We think of milk as the most natural of foods: it seems a normal transition from the mother's breast to milk from the cow's teat. But mass consumption of fresh, raw milk only developed in the nineteenth century with mass urbanization.5 Prior to that date, fresh milk consumption after childhood was in general confined to nomadic societies like the Maasai in Africa or to regions with extreme climatic conditions like Scandinavia, where populations depended on animal foods to get through the winter.6 As a result, most adults lack the enzyme necessary to digest fresh milk - perhaps two-thirds of humanity is lactose-intolerant after the age of six.7 Adults in colonial America, as in most agrarian societies that consumed dairy products around the world, usually drank fermented or "clabbered" milk and ate cheese, products that contain less lactose and are well-preserved by lactic acid.8 Milk consumption, fresh or clabbered, was also as seasonal as the majority of the dairies. Drinking of fresh milk, such as there was, therefore paled beside the consumption of ale or cider, the most popular drinks after water.9 We were a hard-drinking nation.

Urbanization and industrialization in nineteenth-century America changed our drinking habits. First, urbanization coincided with a cultural shift away from breast feeding infants. Poverty and malnutrition, combined with a breakdown of informal, cooperative breast-feeding networks among rural women, often left urban mothers constitutionally or economically unable to breast feed their children. Second, some of the earliest food corporations, such as Nestle and Borden, literally capitalized upon the situation with mass advertising campaigns for infant formula. An industrial market for fresh milk was born, one that gradually expanded as its first customers grew up. Milk, sold condensed in infant formula or fresh from city dairies, became the promoted alternative to breast feeding.

Fresh milk first came to be supplied in nineteenth-century American cities through "swill dairies," urban dairies with confined cows fed off of waste from breweries. Needless to say, sanitary conditions in such dairies were less than hygienic, contributing to an urban child mortality rate approaching 50 percent in the 1840s.10 Rural children were much more likely to survive until adulthood.11 Early progressive reformers recognized that milk could transmit diseases, and they campaigned for "pure milk" and "country milk" throughout the country. Although "country milk" was made possible by the railroads, the health record of milk transported long distances remained little better than swill milk until refrigeration in the twentieth century.12 Urbanization and industrialization had created a mass demand for fresh milk, but it had also created a problematic supply chain for the product.

The pasteurization debate

Now that there was a demand, how were nineteenth-century entrepreneurs to get safe, raw milk into the cities? Some dairies began offering "certified milk," raw milk certified by health professionals who inspected the dairies and regulated transportation and storage. This solution began to gain ground at the turn of the century, supported by pediatricians who argued that "the sterilization of milk" through pasteurization damaged milk's nutritive value and beneficial bacteria. For example, an "Educational Placard" distributed at the 1911 Philadelphia Milk Show illustrates the vision of the controlled, hygienic, "CLEAN!" milk system in contrast with a dangerous, "DIRTY!" milk supply. Certified milk was too expensive for most consumers, however, and it faced opposition from dairy farmers and processors who feared a drop in demand if they were forced to certify all milk and pass the cost along to the consumer.13

Meanwhile, other dairy distributors invested in pasteurization machines in the 1890s and marketed their milk as a safe and cheaper alternative to certified milk. Gradually, doctors outside the pediatric profession and public health professionals began to agree: in general, certified raw milk was acknowledged to be more healthy, but pasteurization was thought to be the next-best and most cost-effective alternative.14 Without the burden of the professional labor costs of a certification system, pasteurized milk could provide a safer milk supply at a lower cost. New York City became one of the first American cities to mandate pasteurization of its milk in 1912.

Mandating pasteurization had other benefits for reforming public health officials: it removed small farmers from the milk system and lead to a massive wave of mergers among milk processors. Milton Rosenau, medical director of the U.S. Public Health Service's Hygiene Laboratory and Theodore Roosevelt's point man on milk, put it this way in his 1912 book The Milk Question: "One of the real sources of trouble in the milk industry is that the great bulk of the milk comes from the small farm, and is there regarded only as a by-product."15 Small farms were too numerous and expensive to inspect; small processors were too numerous to regulate. Rosenau continued:

The day of the small dairy man is doomed … the production of milk will gradually and inevitably drift into the hands of larger dairies where economic conditions justify competent assistants, skilled supervision, and efficient equipment. In other words, the dairy industry is a special industry requiring technical skill of a high order and must become a specialty like other trades and professions.16

Furthermore, Rosenau argued, the "large contractor … is a power for great good in the milk industry … It is evidently much easier to control, educate, and regulate a few large contractors than hundreds of small independent dealers."17 We hear from Rosenau an early articulation of government advice to farmers throughout the twentieth century: "Get big or get out!"

Pasteurization facilitated this industrial vision because it extended the shelf life of milk by destroying some of the "good" bacteria that sour milk as well as pathogenic bacteria. Pasteurization enabled distributors to collect milk from an extended geographic area, process it, and distribute it over an equally wide area, realizing economies of scale. Rapid market concentration occurred after cities passed mandatory pasteurization laws: for example, the number of milk distributors in the Milwaukee market decreased from 200 to 32 within six years after the pasteurization mandate.18 By the 1930s, two companies purchased over one-third of New England's milk.19 Smallholders who produced a small amount of milk could not get the large dairy corporations to pick up their milk, Larger dairy farmers came to have only a few options for wholesale purchasers of their milk, and increasingly they had to accept what price they were offered.

Sound familiar? It was an easy slide from moderate corporate control in the 1930s to extreme corporate concentration and market power in the dairy industry in 2000. Smallholders continue to have difficulty finding legal markets for their milk, larger dairies continue to go out of business as their profits are stolen by processors, distributors, and retailers, and consumers pay far more for a gallon of milk than they would in a competitive market. In essence, the twenty-first century New England dairy farmer is suffering from a solution to a nineteenth-century problem.

Given modern technology, one wonders if mandatory pasteurization for commercial milk is a solution we still need. Could we have a safe, certified commercial raw milk supply in addition to the pasteurized milk system? Could certified raw milk be an economic life raft for dairy farmers and safe for consumers? It depends on who you ask.

The Murky Debate over Milk Microbiology and Nutrition

Raw milk advocates and opponents tend to polarize the health issues: raw milk is portrayed either as a healthful panacea or an intrinsic public threat. Advocates argue that raw milk has higher levels of available vitamins and minerals, a variety of enzymes that assist in nutrient digestion, and that raw milk drinkers are less likely to experience allergies, asthma, and have a higher resistance to a variety of diseases. They suggest that modern technology allows raw milk to be produced safely, and that avoiding an inherently industrial technology like pasteurization would be an economic blow to dairy corporations and a boon to the farmer. Opponents of raw milk argue that the nutritive losses due to pasteurization are minimal, that raw milk can transmit a variety of foodborne diseases and is more dangerous than pasteurized milk, and that therefore raw milk should be banned or strictly regulated and limited in supply.

Both sides tend to avoid grappling with the difficult problem of what it means for a food or a food system to be "safe" and what they are willing to sacrifice for different definitions of safety. Like most foods, neither raw milk nor pasteurized milk are completely safe. Outbreaks of Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. coli have been traced to "under the table" raw milk and to certified raw milk over the past twenty-five years.20 Pasteurized milk has also been implicated in food poisoning incidents: one of the largest Salmonella outbreaks in United States history was caused by pasteurized, homogenized milk that was either improperly pasteurized or contaminated after pasteurization.21 The question is whether either certified raw milk or pasteurized milk offers an extra margin of safety, and whether that margin outweighs whatever problematic political, economic, and nutritional impacts a particular milk system might have. Needless to say, these are not easy questions to answer. We'll start with an only moderately controversial and complex issue, that of nutrition.

The nutrition debate

Raw milk advocates draw primarily on research conducted when the relative merits of raw and pasteurized milk were last being debated - roughly from 1910-1940.22 They cite studies indicating improved baby growth on raw milk, reduced availability of Vitamin C and other vitamins in pasteurized milk, a significant loss of amino acids and beneficial fatty acids in pasteurization, and a loss of enzymes that help humans to digest vitamins and minerals in milk. They also cite studies indicating increased resistance to allergies and other diseases, as mentioned above.

In general, more recent research has returned a mixed bag of results in evaluating these claims. For example, one 1983 study found that UHT pasteurization led to significant denaturation of whey milk proteins, but another 1983 study in the same journal found that individual amino acids (building blocks of proteins) were only reduced 5% by pasteurization.23 It's safe to say that the nutritive impact of pasteurization on milk isn't well understood, and it's also safe to say that no one is making a priority of studying it. Most of the recent articles are in German and were published in the 1980s.

The case for raw milk reducing allergies recently received support from the British medical journal The Lancet, in which a study found that "Long-term and early-life exposure to stables and farm milk induces a strong protective effect against development of asthma … [and] hay fever."24 A 1999 study in The Lancet similarly found that children drinking raw milk and eating lacto-fermented foods in a Swedish school had half the rate of allergies and asthma as children of similar age at nearby schools.25 Raw milk may not be better than pasteurized milk in helping to prevent other diseases, however: for example, a 1985 study found the antibody for human rotavirus - a virus causing intestinal distress in children - in both raw and pasteurized milk, although not in infant formula.26

In short, the scientific evidence seems mixed. It seems likely that raw milk is more nutritious than pasteurized milk, but how much is open for debate. How about the case for raw milk's safety?

The safety debate

Safety is not necessarily sterility. None of our food is actually sterile, completely free from foodborne pathogens. Escherichia coli is ubiquitous, for example, and many serotypes are found in the intestinal tracts of healthy humans and animals. It becomes pathogenic only if ingested in larger concentrations, or if a toxin-producing variety like 0157:H7 is ingested. We minimize the risk through health regulations in production, processing, distribution, and commercial preparation, as well as through technologies like refrigeration (which slows bacterial growth) and cooking (which can kill bacteria). Ideally, we would also minimize the risk through humane and loving animal care, shorter supply chains, and more localized production and consumption.

Health regulations don't demand complete sterility: regulations for milk slated for pasteurization, for example, allow certain levels of bacteria like E. coli. Certified raw milk (CRM) must exhibit lower levels of bacteria and be subject to stricter handling regulations, but bacteria can still be present in small quantities. Milk destined for pasteurization is allowed to be less clean because it will be substantially sterilized; if there are higher levels of E. coli or Salmonella, the bacteria will be dead before they reach the consumer. Raw milk advocates argue that this system encourages sloppy milk production; farmers take less care with sanitation because their milk will be "cleaned up" by the distributor. Pasteurizing dirty milk is actually more risky than producing clean raw milk, they suggest: if mistakes occur in pasteurization or if post-pasteurization contamination occurs, bacterial contamination may be more extensive, as in the record 1985 salmonella outbreak in Illinois, which infected over 5,500 people.27

Clearly, it is possible to produce milk both for pasteurization and for raw retail sale that is clean and safe. A friend of mine sells raw milk "under the table" and gets his milk tested regularly; his milk is so clean that the laboratory has called his results "unbelievable." Raw milk is not intrinsically dangerous: it is possible to have a safe glass of raw milk, just as it is possible to have a safe plate of sushi or a safe serving of steak tartare.

Statistically, however, it is difficult to determine whether consumers of raw milk face a higher risk of foodborne infection than non-consumers. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has estimated that there are 76 million foodborne illnesses in the United States annually, with 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.28 Pathogens in general can be found throughout the food supply - outbreaks have been traced to fresh vegetables and seafood, fruit and meat. Pathogens can even be common in some foods: a 1998 Consumer Reports investigation, for example, found the bacteria Campylobacter in 63% of market chickens sampled.29 But to determine whether raw milk consumers face a higher risk of foodborne illness, one would have to conduct a controlled study isolating raw milk drinking from other factors - age, race, diet, general health, etc. To my knowledge, such a study has not been conducted. One study, however, focusing on the incidence of a particular variety of virulent Salmonella in California in 1983, estimated that raw milk consumers were 158 times more likely to become ill with the bacteria than those who don't consume raw milk.30 The overall risk remained small: 458.3 estimated Salmonella dublin infections per million raw milk consumers, as compared to 2.9 per million in the general population. The CDC noted that the relative risk may have been so high in part because many of the raw milk drinkers may have already been very ill and susceptible to infection by even a small number of bacteria - the authors did not attempt to control for other factors like general health in their estimate.31

Both advocates and opponents lack conclusive, well-designed and large-scale scientific studies to support all their claims as to the safety or lack thereof of raw milk. The only conclusion that can be reliably drawn from the scientific literature on raw milk safety is that youth, the elderly, and ill people are more likely to contract foodborne illnesses from raw milk than individuals with mature and healthy immune systems.32 Such individuals are therefore strongly advised not to consume raw milk. However, for the healthy adult, it remains unclear whether drinking a pint of raw milk is more dangerous than consuming other raw but widely legal foods.

Raw milk advocates make exactly that point: they note that very few other foods must be cooked before they are sold to the consumer. We can order rare or even raw beef in restaurants; we can eat raw shellfish and seafood. We can buy chickens that are likely to be infected with Campylobacter and not cook them properly at home. We can smoke a few packs of cigarettes a day if we wish, despite the strong correlation between cigarette use and lung cancer. Why is raw milk considered so much greater a danger to public health that it is banned in many states, and the FDA and CDC would like to see it banned in the rest?

One answer, of course, is politics. Meat, poultry, and eggs are regulated by the USDA, which has historically been much more lax in food safety regulation than the Food and Drug Administration, which decides on food safety rules for dairy products.33 The FDA is, after all, the government agency that made a quixotic attempt to regulate tobacco as a drug. When the FDA's strict food-safety culture is bolstered by the interest the dairy industry has in avoiding market competition, the result is a strong regulatory aversion to the risk involved in raw milk.

Another answer is more personal and moral, and it gets to the heart of the matter - how we define a safe food and a safe food system.

The moral dilemma

Pasteurization has historically contributed to the development of a powerful dairy processing industry and to the decline of dairy farming. It may lessen the nutritive value of dairy products and contribute to higher rates of asthma and allergies. These costs are real and affect many people's lives, but they are not as easily understood and addressed as the immediate connection between microbial pathogens and illness or death. For a regulator, the difference between immediate cause and effect and distant cause and effect is a powerful one. As mentioned above, youth, the elderly, and ill people - all populations with depressed or immature immune systems - are particularly vulnerable to salmonella, E. coli, campylobacter and other food-borne pathogens. In any food poisoning incident, most adults simply experience an unpleasant few days of diarrhea and vomiting at most, but immune-depressed individuals can and have died.34 More virulent and antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria have also emerged in recent decades in our industrial food system, such as Salmonella dublin and E. coli 0157:H7, strains that are more difficult to treat and more likely to cause serious illness or death.35

Imagine that you are responsible for regulating the milk industry in your state. Put aside for a minute the money and the politics and the market power, the well-paid lobbyists from the International Dairy Foods Association - we'll return to those soon. Wouldn't you want to try to guarantee 100 percent safety in the milk supply? Would not the possibility of even a few deaths weigh heavily on your mind?

I have no doubt that the specter of a child's death weighs heavily on the mind of Jim Hines where raw milk is concerned. In our March meeting, Jim was adamant: "With any potential disease, raw milk can be a problem," he told me. He explained that his dairy inspectors have found an invasive variety of salmonella, Salmonella newport, "in the best and worst herds in this state." He recounted an outbreak in Western Massachusetts in 2000 in which several Cub Scouts touring a farm contracted salmonellosis. Both the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Center for Disease Control had pressured Massachusetts to ban raw milk entirely, but Jim felt that an outright ban would drive raw milk underground and increase the risk to public health. In a letter in November 2002, Jim wrote that

The Department of Food and Agriculture recognizes the serious risks to the public health of the consumption of raw milk … The Department allows the current sale of raw milk due to individuals who believe raw milk is not a health threat and that, indeed, [it] is beneficial. In general, however, the Department opposes the sale of raw milk and intends to maintain tight sanitary regulations to limit the risk.

For Jim Hines, raw milk offers a ubiquitous, low-level, but potentially lethal health threat. He acknowledged that mandatory pasteurization reduced the nutritive value of milk, but he felt that the added margin of safety justified such costs. I don't think he realized that a corporate-controlled milk market - which he opposed - was also enabled by mandatory pasteurization. Even if he had, weighing complex and diffuse economic effects is not as easy as the immediate cause and effect of microbe and illness, microbe and death. How do you weigh the loss of a livelihood for most dairy farmers against the loss of even one human life? They are different kinds of costs, and the latter is more immediately understandable and addressable - if a microbe can cause illness or death, kill the microbe. Saving dairy farms is a more complex proposition, especially if killing the microbes contributes in a complex fashion to bankrupting dairy farms.

For these reasons, I got the sense that mandatory pasteurization was a choice morally more attractive for Jim. Food-borne illnesses or deaths due to pasteurized milk can be written off as errors in a system that attempts to guarantee perfect safety. Accepting a certain level of risk in a non-sterile food like raw milk, however, feels like accepting a certain level of illness and mortality as a personal responsibility. For a regulator, I imagine it feels like allowing preventable illness and death. By maintaining tight sanitary regulations and not promoting raw milk for retail sale, Jim is doing his best to keep raw milk both from going completely underground and from becoming more widespread.

This is a uniquely modern moral dilemma. Because we understand the proximate causes of many foodborne diseases (bacteria, viruses) and have the technology to destroy most of those pathogens, we do - we attempt to destroy them all. Historically, this choice made sense. One can not fault the cost-effective choice of pasteurization in response to urban public health problems so severe that one historian has called nineteenth-century cities "infant abattoirs." But industrial technological choices like pasteurization can lead to unanticipated costs at increasingly larger scales, not only economic costs of farmers' livelihoods or high retail prices, but costs in public health and safety.

Marion Nestle, a professor of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, discussed in her 2003 book Safe Food the recent emergence in our food supply of more virulent and antibiotic-resistant strains of pathogens, as well as the risk of foodborne illness in an industrial food system. The social changes leading to a concentrated, industrial food system, she argued, have "created conditions that favor the spread of pathogens into more foods consumed by more people. These changes foster the emergence of microbial pathogens that resist heat, cold, acid, and other preservation methods. They also encourage pathogens to develop resistance to treatment with antibiotic drugs."36 A centralized food system also facilitates widespread consequences when contamination occurs: discussing industrial beef production, for example, she noted that "It is difficult to imagine a system better equipped to promote the spread of disease - and to obscure the source of illnesses or outbreaks."37

Attempting to secure complete food safety, we may actually end up with less safety than we would like as natural selection breeds industrial-scale responses to industrial-scale solutions. We may come to depend upon a system in which contamination affects far more people than in would in a more decentralized economy. Part of the temptation of modern technology is exactly this promise of complete safety - the false promise of sterility. The temptation leads us into a bargain with a centralized food system that can create more sanitation problems than it promises to rectify, requiring ever more stringent sanitary measures to prevent threats that become larger and larger in scale. Think of the beef industry lobbying for irradiation ("cold pasteurization" as they call it), a technology that would be patently unnecessary and overly expensive in a food system that did not confine cattle in their own manure, slaughter one a minute in a factory, grind meat from twenty cows into one hamburger patty and transport the meat long distances. Similarly, as mentioned above, it is not trivial that some of the largest Salmonella outbreaks in the United States have been caused by pasteurized milk products - milk from many sources transported long distances, combined, pasteurized, and then transported long distances to many consumers. Which food system is more safe - a decentralized food system of small-scale producers that attempts to minimize pathogens and co-exist with them, or an intensely regulated large-scale industrial food system that attempts to remove all pathogens?

The point here is not to advocate a return to an idealized vision of a Jeffersonian agriculture. Rather, I am highlighting the fact that there are different paths of economic development, that it is possible and desirable to admit a level of decentralized and local production into an industrial food system in order to reap some of the benefits of both and ameliorate the problems associated with a dependence on either option. It is possible and desirable, for example, to have a safe raw milk supply co-existing with a pasteurized milk supply. A mixed food system is not a fantasy: it is being attempted today - in Europe.

Dairy Regulation in the EU and the US

Raw milk and raw milk cheeses that are often banned in the United States can be found legally and commercially in a number of European Union member states, in particular France and Germany. European nations are no less safety conscious than the United States. Indeed, they may be more safety conscious after the recent mad cow scare and other food scandals - contrast the precautionary approach taken in the European Union towards genetically modified foods with the "free market" approach in the United States. And yet, rather than attempt to produce a sterile, microbe-free dairy supply, the European Union has chosen to carefully regulate the production, handling, and distribution process for milk and cheese in a fashion that does not eliminate small-scale, traditional producers. Most milk in the European Union is pasteurized, of course. But the EU has made room for a cleanly, safely produced raw product to be sold commercially. Nearly 10% of the German milk sold commercially is certified raw milk, and a third of all French cheeses are raw milk cheeses, many aged for less than the sixty days required in the United States.

This mixed approach to dairy regulation developed out of an EU food safety debate in the late 1990s, in which the relative merits and safety of raw milk and raw milk products were discussed in much the fashion that we are discussing them now.38 Some members of the EU, notably Denmark, voiced strong opinions in favor of mandatory pasteurization and against the safety of raw milk. Experts from Austria, Germany, and France argued in favor of a process-oriented approach to raw milk safety, in which producers are trained in quality management systems, animal health is a top priority, and consumption occurs soon after production.39 France in particular was concerned to institute process-oriented regulations that could be applied without discrimination at large dairy farms and at small, traditional dairies - regulations should be scale-neutral without sacrificing safety, they argued.

Germany's "Vorzugsmilch" or Certified Raw Milk system served as a model in this debate. Sixty farms in Germany are certified to supply raw milk to retail stores for human consumption. They must meet stricter bacteria standards and follow careful production methods, their raw milk must be constantly refrigerated, and each raw milk bottle is marked "To be consumed by" a date that is no more than 96 hours (4 days) after milking. At-risk individuals (youth, elderly, immune-compromised) are advised not to consume raw milk.

In the end, the raw milk and artisanal cheese proponents won a place for their products at the European table, despite concurrent attempts by the United States to ban raw milk cheeses in international trade through the food standards body of the World Trade Organization. In 1998, new EU guidelines regulating the production, processing, distribution and sale of dairy products came into force, and they allowed the safe production of raw milk and raw milk cheeses.40 Several studies have shown that this process-oriented approach has been successful at reducing bacteriological contamination on European dairy farms.41

Ironically, the heart of the EU's process-oriented approach is based on a technique developed in the United States in the 1970s for ensuring the safety of food for NASA astronauts - Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system (HACCP, pronounced "hassip"). The basic idea is to identify points in food production where contamination is possible, establish preventative measures at those points and procedures for making sure the preventative measures are working. Rather than conducting spot inspections of facilities and random samplings of products to ensure food safety, rather than pasteurizing or irradiating products that may have been produced with varying attention to quality and safety, HACCP programs seek to help producers craft safe, quality food in the first place.

Critics of HACCP regulatory regimes point to the expense - the professional manpower needed to train producers, inspect facilities, and monitor safety procedures. Mandatory pasteurization is a cheaper alternative, they suggest, just as pasteurization advocates suggested ninety years ago. But a milk system entirely dependent upon pasteurization is clearly not as cheap as it first appears when one takes into account the costs of market concentration and market power to the consumer and regulator. Milk consumers in the Boston and Providence area paid an extra $60 million due to price-gouging by the two main dairy processors in New England.42 It appears that we must either pay to regulate dairy farmers while they are producing or pay to regulate large dairy corporations after most dairy farmers have been forced out of business.

In late 2001, the FDA began adopting HACCP procedures for many of the food industries it regulates.43 But the FDA opposes raw milk and raw milk products and has been working for several years to get them banned at the state, national, and international levels; for the FDA, HACCP includes pasteurization. This needn't be the case, however, as the EU regulatory environment demonstrates: with modern technology and scale-neutral, process-oriented regulation, it is possible for numerous small farms to produce safe, high-quality raw milk and raw milk cheeses.

NOFA/Mass is working to make it possible here in New England.

The NOFA/Mass Raw Milk Campaign

Currently, as mentioned above, raw milk is banned from commercial, retail sale in stores in all states in New England except Connecticut. Some states allow farm gate sales with a permit; others give an exemption from regulation to farms selling under 25 quarts a day and not advertising. In Massachusetts, licensed farms may sell raw milk at the farm gate if they meet higher bacteriological standards and more strict handling regulations, but 197 townships out of 351 ban its sale outright.

The NOFA/Mass Raw Milk Campaign is getting ready to kick off this summer. We're working to:

  • assist producers in securing the technical and regulatory help they need to transition to or initiate certified raw milk or raw milk cheese production;
  • convince townships to legalize certified raw milk sales;
  • make sure state regulations for raw milk and raw milk cheeses both assure safety and are friendly to the small producer.

If you live outside Massachusetts but would like to discuss what you can do to work for a safe raw milk supply in your state, don't hesitate to contact us. If you live inside Massachusetts, we'd love for you to get involved! Just visit our web page at, write the Raw Milk Coordinator at, or call me at (978) 355-6475. You can do anything from writing a letter to your local Board of Health to becoming a local organizer for the Raw Milk Campaign. We look forward to hearing from you!



1 See "The Massachusetts Dairy Index." At Last viewed 04/30/03.

2 See Mohl, Bruce. "Economists find high markup of regional milk prices." Boston Globe 11/13/02.

3 Ibid. See also generally Cotterill and Dhar, "Oligopoly Pricing with Differentiated Products: The Boston Fluid Milk Market Channel." Available at

4 Not to mention the impact of pasteurization on pediatricians' bottom-line, many of whom sold specially-formulated infant foods based on raw milk. In general, few doctors, health officials, and progressive reformers expressed any concern for the impact of their actions on the farmer, who were rapidly losing political power in the twenties and thirties.

5 Dupuis, M. Nature's Perfect Food: How Milk Became America's Drink. New York: New York University Press, 2002: 30. Most of this section relies upon Dupuis' work.

6 Carper, S. Milk Is Not For Every Body: Living with Lactose Intolerance. New York: Plume, 1996.

7 Bryant, C et al. The Cultural Feast: An Introduction to Food and Society. St. Paul: Wst Publishing Company, 1985.

8 Lysaght, P (ed). Milk and Milk Products: From Medieval to Modern Times. Edinburgh: Canongate Academic, 1994. Cited in Dupuis op cit. 29.

9 Ibid.

10 Statistic applies to children under five. See Shaftel, Norman. "A History of the Purification of Milk in New York." In Sickness and Health in America: Readings in the History of Medicine and Public Health, ed. Leavitt and Numbers. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978. Cited in Dupuis op cit. ch 2.

11 Preston and Haines. Fatal Years: Child Mortality in Late Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

12 Dupuis op cit. 72.

13 Dupuis op cit. 78. In the first decade of the century, certified milk supplied only 1 percent of the New York City market; in the 1890s it was twice as expensive as uncertified milk.

14 Dupuis op cit. 79.

15 Rosenau, Milton. The Milk Question. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1912. p. 242.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid. 253

18 Dupuis op cit. 82.

19 Ibid.

20 See Headrick et al. "The Epidemiology of Raw Milk-Associated Foodborne Disease Outbreaks Reported in the United States, 1973 Through 1992." Am J Public Health, Volume 88(8).August 1998.1219-1221.

21 CDC. "Milk-borne Salmonellosis - Illinois." MMWR 1985, available at See also Hennessy et al. "A national outbreak of Salmonella enteritidis infections from ice cream." NEJM 334:1281-1286, 1996.

22 See, e.g. "Clinical and experimental evidence of growth factors in raw milk." Certified Milk, 1937; Hess, A. "Recent advances in knowledge of scurvy and the antiscrobutic vitamin." JAMA April 23 1932; "Studies on the nutritive value of milk, II. The effect of pasteurization on some of the nutritive properties of milk." Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin 518, p. 8, January 1933; "The determination of ascorbic acid in commercial milks." Journal of Nutrition 18:6, 619-626, December 1939. Cited in Douglass and Vonderplanitz, Supplemental Report in Favor of Raw Milk. March, 2001.

23 Farrell et al. "Effects of ultra-high-temperature pasteurization on the functional and nutritional properties of milk proteins." Kieler Milchwirtschaftliche Forschungsberichte. 1983. 35:3, 345-356; Kisza and Borawski, "Influence of heat treatment of milk on the essential amino acid decrease." Kieler Milchwirtschaftliche Forschungsberichte. 1983. 35: 3, 323-324. For other recent studies See also Blanc. "Free amino acid pattern of human blood after ingestion of raw versus heat-treated milk proteins." Kieler Milchwirtschaftliche Forschungsberichte. 1983. 35: 3, 371-372; Loo et al. "Effect of UHT processing on vitamins in milk." Deutsche Milchwirtschaft. 1973. 24: 3, 66, 68-70, 72.

24 Riedler et al. "Exposure to farming in early life and development of asthma and allergy: A cross-sectional survey." The Lancet 358:9288, 1129-1133.

25 Cited in "A Campaign for Real Milk," Wise Traditions. Spring 2000, p 51.

26 Yolken et al. "Antibody for human rotavirus in cow's milk." New England Journal of Medicine. 312:10, 605-10. March 7, 1985.

27 CDC (1985) op cit.

28 CDC. "Incidence of foodborne illnesses." FoodNet, 1997. Cited in Nestle op cit. 38.

29 "Chicken: what you don't know can hurt you." Consumer Reports, March 1998: 12-18.

30 CDC. "Salmonella dublin and Raw Milk Consumption - California." MMWR Weekly. April 13, 1984 33(14);196-8.

31 Ibid.

32 See in general Wood et al. "Campylobacter enteritis outbreaks associated with drinking raw milk during youth activities. A 10-year review of outbreaks in the United States." JAMA. 268(22):3228-30 1992 Dec 9.; Headrick et al. op cit.; Potter et al. "Unpasteurized milk: the hazards of a health fetish." JAMA 252:2048-52, 1984. CDC. "Outbreak of Campylobacter jejuni Infections Associated with Drinking Unpasteurized Milk Procured through a Cow-Leasing Program --- Wisconsin, 2001." Available at

33 See Nestle op cit. 56.

34 cites.

35 Virulent strains such as salmonella dublin are not necessarily antibiotic-resistant and vice versa.

36 Nestle op cit. 43.

37 Ibid. 45.

38 See in general "Vermont Cheese Council: Raw Milk Cheese Study." Located at

39 See "The Raw Milk Debate in the European Union." Vermont Cheese Council. Available at

40 Council Directive 92/46/EEC

41 See Hanus et al. "[Importance of] testing the health of cows and raw milk quality for the production of high-quality milk products and the protection of health of consumers. " [Czech]. Vyzkum V Chovu Skotu 42(1): 14-22, 2000. See also Reed et al. "Controlling on-farm inventories of bulk-tank raw milk -- an opportunity to protect public health." Journal of Dairy Science. 83(12): 2988-2991. 2000.

42 Mohl, Bruce. "Economists Find High Markup of Regional Milk Prices." Boston Globe, 11/13/2002. Available at

43 FDA. "HACCP: A State-of-the-art Approach to Food Safety." Available at

Donate to NOFA/Mass

Become a Member

Subcribe to the Newsletter

-A A +A