Regulation

A Raw Deal

Farms selling milk straight from the cow vex food regulators, but the demand isn't diminishing.

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The word "raw" sounds like something exciting and maybe a little dangerous. It makes you think of bloody steaks and wrestlers and untanned hides. "Milk," on the other hand, evokes just the opposite: motherhood, kids with sippy cups, and Oscar-winning movies. Maybe it's the uncomfortable juxtaposition of the two ideas that makes certain people so nervous about raw milk. As demand increases, state legislators, regulators and courts are all reexamining the issue of raw milk. But as some jurisdictions legalize while others crack down, farmers and milk drinkers are stuck in limbo.

Raw milk is simply ordinary milk that hasn't been pasteurized. Pasteurization—the quick heating and cooling of fresh milk—kills bacteria that can cause food-borne illnesses. When Americans first began pasteurizing milk at the turn of the last century, testing was rudimentary and farms were far less hygienic. Milk quality varied tremendously, transit was slow and the milk that made it into cities often veered into unsafe territory. Pasteurization—which eradicated Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria—saved lives.

Today, the situation is different. Testing for the presence of such pathogens is much more precise, and farms are far cleaner. While processing milk remains a good choice for milk shipped to the population as a whole, there are a group of food rebels who would rather drink their milk straight from the cow. Some say they prefer the taste, calling it richer and more robust. Others say that pasteurization kills beneficial enzymes and helpful bacteria along with the baddies. Whatever their reasons for drinking the raw stuff, the proliferation of raw milk devotees willing to take a small risk for better dairy makes regulators unhappy, and they are looking for ways to crack down on milk speakeasies.

Read the rest at ZesterDaily, where this piece by Reason senior editor Katherine Mangu-Ward originally appeared on February 24, 2010.