Several years ago when the signs for the tours of Fair Oaks Farms, a local dairy producer, showed up along the highway, I couldn't wait until the kids were big enough to go. How cool is it to go behind the scenes of a real dairy producer, see a calf being born, eat the ice cream from the milk produced on site? As the kids grew, and I continued to pass the signs, one of the things that I noticed was that you don't see any cows when you pass the farm. You drive right by on I-65, and not a cow to be seen. But you do see all of the outbuilding constructed for the sake of those taking the tour. Then a road and exit off of the Interstate was constructed and I remember thinking that this is one big, fancy milking operation. They get their very own exit ramp!
Last summer we finally took our tour. To be fair, I should state that by then I had become very disillusioned with the industrial food system. Most of what I consumed was organic and locally produced (by myself or farmers that I know by name). Milk was not one of those things, so I went on the tour with two questions in mind: just what does industrial milk production look like? And would milk from this dairy fill my need/desire to find a local milk producer I was comfortable with? The kids just wanted to eat ice cream and climb the giant milk bottle.
What an impressive system. They do a tremendous job educating you on the industrial system. They tell you why it is so important to feed the cows the scientifically derived food mix (Me: Uh, don't cows live perfectly well on grass?). They tell you that the cows LOVE the merry-go-round style milking machine so much they sometimes try to stay on to ride it again (Me: If you only had a cramped sand-lot to stand in, why not stay on the milking-go-round?). They tell you to notice the happy cows lounging around chewing their cud in the holding pens (Me: If there is nowhere to go, why not just lay down?) I think the most interesting thing was noticed by my 4-year-old. Sitting next to me in the tour bus (which is completely sealed for "bio security purposes" (note: you can't smell the farm if the bus is sealed), she noticed the large concrete retention ponds filled with brown water. I knew that it was the manure retention system common in industrial animal production (you gotta do something with what comes out the back end). She asked me if it was where they gave the cows a bath. I told her no and described what it was for. She started to cry. No, she insisted, they surely let the cows out of their pens and give them a bath. And that can't be a big poo pond. Then she asked when they let the cows out to eat grass (I admit to telling the kids that cows are supposed to eat grass). I told her they do not.
We returned to the fun-land part of the facility...far from the barns/sheds, filled with games, fun, and food. She was completely distraced by all of the fun and didn't bring up the poo ponds again. But I remembered her distress. She knew, deep down, that something was not quite right. What she saw did not fit the idylic farm scene you see in books, movies, and on grocery store products.
Fast forward to today. We have moved to a more rural environment and personally know a small, traditional dairy farmer. This is a completely different experience. The kids say "hi" to the cows. The cows all have names. I know the farmer and his mother. We wished each other "Happy Thanksgiving" and "Merry Christmas". I can see the milking shed.
Another farmer I know has gone to great lengths to set up his very own pasteurization plant for his pastured raised dairy herd. And another farmer I know was raided by authorities for producing the raw (unpasteurized, un-homogenized) milk that got two people sick (http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/content/oct2006/sb20061019_952010.htm). The source of the contamination was actually found to be from pasteurized milk...but that was after the farm was raided, thousands of dollars of product confiscated (including product that was NOT milk), homes searched, records seized, and reputations ruined.
The great debate over raw vs pasteurized milk is raging. It has been going on for over 100 years. It is worth noting that the filth of the milk supply was understood to be a result of the unsanitary conditions of an industrial production system way back in the late 1800's when pasteurization was discovered and employed. Back then there were two types of milk. City milk (produced by dairies located next to distilleries. The cows were fed the hot distillery mash) which was very contaminated and resulted in many illnesses and deaths, and farm fresh milk that was considered wholesome and even healing. Today there is no distinction in the eyes of regulatory officials. As soon as someone who drinks raw milk reports an illness (regardless of where the actual source of contamination comes from), down goes the dairy...until they can prove otherwise. Guilty until proven innocent. Unfortuanately, a small farm cannot often recover from the damage done to reputation and finances that result from unsubstantiated accusations and ends up closing. Chalk it up to another statistic - another small farm bites the dust.
I'm not going to say one way or another what anyone should be drinking. I just want to point out some points I find interesting in light of this war over local food production and our right to chose what we eat:
- In 1985 16,000 people were sickened by sallonella contaminated pasturized milk (http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1370/is_v20/ai_4119044/). These were the cases that sought out medical intervention. The Journal of the American Medical Association authors that wrote about the outbreak stated that the number sickened was probably 10 times that amount.
- In 1994, 224,000 people were sickened from Schwan's Icecream (as reported in the New England Journal of Medicine http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199605163342001)
- Industrially-produced milk is known throughout the industry to be highly contaminated. Farmers don't need to keep it clean because they know it is going to be pasturized. (http://www.thecompletepatient.com/journal/2011/1/13/heads-i-win-tails-you-losein-new-twist-fda-says-illnesses-fr.html) Infact, it has been found that if the contamination of the raw milk destined for pasturization is too great, pasturization may not kill all of the contaminates (http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM198502143120704).
- The CDC reports that thousands of people have been sicked by raw milk consumption and site a chart of milk outbreaks. When you follow the links to the outbreak reports most of them are only suspected cases. Follow the suspected cases even further and you find that the farms were often never proven as the source. In some cases it was determined that there was a different source. I would post this list here, but the link is no longer available. Hmmm... I can tell you that I now know at least one farmer who was nearly shut down from an outbreak that was later found not to have originated from his farm. This is real.
- The CDC reported in 2007 that Poultry was the most common cause for foodborne illness accounting for 17%, followed by beef (16%) and leafy vegetables (14%).
- The FDA, CDC, and all major medical associations post dire warnings against consuming raw milk. They state it is inherently dangerous, and tantamount to playing Russian Roulette with your health (http://articles.sfgate.com/2007-10-26/news/17265175_1_raw-milk-farm-milk-pasteurized). No such warning exist for consuming chicken, vegetables, or beef. None of these products are sterilized before hitting the grocery shelves (however, there are proponents of irradiating most of our food due to the dirtiness of the industrial production system and likeliness that food can be contaminated).
- From 1997-200, the CDC estimates 438,000 premature deaths occur each year as a result of smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke. There are warnings that smoking is dangerous to your health. Smoking is not illegal. Smoking around your children is not illegal.
- Cronic illness and disease is on the rise due to the Western diet of highly processed, sugar-laden foods. (http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-01-obesity-children-life-short.html) Our children are expected to have a shorter life-expectancy than us. There is a fast food joint on nearly every corner, certainly at every rest stop, and the food in our kids' schools is the same highly processed stuff found in fast food chains. It is generally recongnized that it is our right to choose whether or not to eat the highly processed stuff.
- Eggs, are another raw product that can, and have sickened people. The distibution of eggs is not illegal.
Since moving out to a rural area, I have met many people who drink raw milk, and know food co-ops and cow share programs that provide hundreds of people with raw milk (I know two people personally that run thesescow share programs), and not a single person has been sickened in the 10 plus years they have been doing this. So, I gotta scratch my head. What's the big deal?
There are many parts of this big deal over raw milk. One being that it CAN be contaminated, especially if a farmer is not diligent in keeping the collection and distribution process clean. There are certainly farms that produce raw milk that have been linked to disease outbreaks. And some of these farms have been cited numerous times and probably need to have their sanitation and collection practices evaluated. Many raw milk advocates believe that we need to have a raw milk certification process so the actual distributors of contaminated raw milk can be stoped, and the farmers producing a clean product can stop being harrassed(and tax payer dollars no longer wasted on sting opperations of raw milk facilities).
The establishment of a certification system to evaluate raw milk is an entirely different issue. In states where raw milk permits are issued, numerous farms have been shut down due to the finding of listeria in their milk. Mind you, this finding was after all of the milk had been distributed and no one sickened. David Gumpert, author of "The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America's Emerging Battle Over Food Rights" notes that listeria is understood to be found EVERYWHERE, and a common source of illness is lunch meat and blue cheese. When I was pregnant, I was warned not to consume those products (I did anyway). The production and distribution of those products is not outlawed. And while listeria is known to be found everywhere, illness from it is actually pretty rare. For public health officials, it's all or nothing when it comes to listeria in the milk. If it's found, you're gone. It doesn't matter that the detected contamination could have been a result of faulty sampling practices. It doesn't matter that it is likely the level of contamination that causes illness. And it does not matter that the lunch meat in your refrigerator probably contains the pathogen and you are still eating it (and not getting sick). For raw milk, it is all or nothing.
So, I keep coming back to the head-scratching. Raw milk: illegal. Cancer-causing agents in our processed food, beauty products, and cleaning products: legal. A factory-farming system that causes immense environmental and public health hazards (e. coli 0157H7 likely originated from factory farming. Certain strains of MRSA originate from factory farming): legal. I have decided that it is all probably more political than anything...and that always seems to lead to more head-scratching.