The Local Food Report: elemental, fundamental

Raw—or un-pasteurized—milk is contentious. Milk is elemental, fundamental, and the feelings surrounding it are, too. People talk about believing or not believing in raw milk the way they talk about religious faith, gods.

The history of the debate isn't all that long. Until Louis Pasteur discovered pasteurization in 1864, all milk was raw. His aim was to stop wine and beer from going sour, but before long, Franz von Soxhlet was applying the process to milk.

The idea took in the U.S. in the late 1800s. Huge numbers of Americans were leaving the countryside for the city, and the milk they demanded was either trucked into the city from the countryside—meaning it was transported further and at higher temperatures than ever before—or produced in crowded, unsanitary city lots. Swill milk—milk from cows fed a diet of spent grains from city breweries—was common and dangerous. At the time, the vile, blue-hued liquid was reported by the New York Times to have killed some 8,000 infants a year, and by the end of the century, people were fed up. Milk was a public health threat.

Some people pushed for farm reform and certified milk; others said pasteurization was the only absolute answer. In 1920 the city of Milwaukee took the argument to the Wisconsin Supreme Court: farmers contended that mandatory pasteurization would hurt their business and wasn't a valid answer to public health problems; the court said it was the only responsible answer. By the 1940s, similar regulations across the country made pasteurized milk the norm.

In Massachusetts, raw milk has never been completely outlawed. It can't be sold retail, but it is legal to buy straight from the farm. Farm reform groups and public health officials are still arguing over the regulations, and in recent years, as demand for raw milk has grown, the debate has grown heated.

Advocates of drinking raw milk say that it's healthier, that it has more beneficial enzymes, nutrients, and bacteria, and even that it can cure allergies and auto-immune disorders. The FDA says that it shouldn't be consumed "by any one, at any time, for any purpose," because of its potential to harbor dangerous pathogens like Salmonella, E. Coli, and Listeria. Science and statistics has been manipulated at times on both sides, and it's difficult to boil the issue down to any simple truth.

On the Cape, whether because of alleged health benefits or the popularity of the farm to table movement, demand for raw milk has grown over the past five years. The three closest raw milk dairies are on the Vineyard, in Dartmouth, and in Foxboro, so consumers—myself included—have formed coops to take turns driving to pick up the milk for other families at the farms.

Recently, the state has proposed a series of changes to the regulations governing the sale of raw milk, one of which would make these buying clubs explicitly illegal. The new language is in letter A of section 27.08 of the Department of Agriculture's Standards and Sanitation Requirements for Grade A Raw Milk (click on over here and scroll to the bottom to download the full copy), and the exact wording, to give you an excerpt, reads like this:

"No person shall sell, distribute, provide, or offer for consumption to the public any raw milk elsewhere on a dairy farm where that raw milk was produced."

I called Massachusetts Agricultural Commissioner Scott Soares to ask why the state is changing the regulations, and he said it's not. According to his department, the coops are already illegal, and the proposed language addition is a clarification, not a change.

"It sounds like it was very necessary based on the amount of response we've gotten around raw milk buying clubs and coops that in fact have always been an illegal activity here in Massachusetts," Soares said in a phone conversation last week. "We're hearing now that many folks are in fact engaged in these kinds of activities that are and have always been illegal."

The specific wording in the current regulations that spells out the current legal status of coops is tricky to find. I emailed Soares about this, and he replied that the regulations that make the clubs illegal are spread through a combination of statute, regulation, and policy, and therefore are not all clearly articulated in the regulations. "Therein lies the confusion that the changes to the regulations are trying to clarify," he replied.

Whatever the interpretation of the current law, it's clear based on the contention over its reading that some sort of language change is necessary. But raw milk advocates like Winton Pitcoff, head of the Raw Milk Network at NOFA, wonder why the state should work to constrict consumer access when there hasn't been an illness attributed to raw milk in the state of Massachusetts in over a decade. "I don't think there's any valid public health reason to differentiate between an individual picking up the milk at the farm and asking another individual to pick up the milk for them," Pitcoff said in a phone conversation this week.

Soares says that his department doesn't regulate public health issue, and that for him, it's a marketing issue. "Our primary concern with this is protecting the milk market itself," he said. "Although we're certainly concerned, as anyone would be, with the public becoming ill, our primary charge is protection of the milk market in Massachusetts. With the status of the dairy industry here in Massachusetts, we can't afford to have people stop drinking milk for fear or perception of it being an unhealthy or unsafe product."

Of course, raw milk farmers say that if the addition goes through, they could lose so much of their consumer base that they'll have to shut down their farms down. And for their part, consumers say they simply want the right to choose. Ellen Whalen, who belongs to a raw milk coop in Orleans, puts it like this: "Obviously, if one doesn't believe in raw milk they have the right to choose not to drink it, just like I have the right to drink it. However, the addition to the regulations could mean I won't be able to obtain it, because I won't be able to drive over an hour every week to the farm."

If you have strong feelings on either side of the issue, there will be a chance to voice your concerns this coming Monday, May 1oth. The state is holding a public hearing on the proposed regulations at 10am in Conference Room A on the second floor of 100 Cambridge Street. To find out more, click on over here. Enjoy the weekend, and maybe I'll see you there.


Unknown said...

Elspeth, thanks for contacting Mr. Soares to try and nail down some of this obtuse language surrounding the updated law, which, ironically, is meant to "save" the milk industry. Hmmmm. Cheers to locals making noise for a product worth making noise for!

Elspeth said...


Everything surrounding this issue is obtuse. It is SO hard to tell fact from fiction, manipulated statistics from legit ones. There's always something both sides aren't saying, and it's incredibly difficult to wade through. I agree with you, though, that the idea of saving the "milk industry" is ironic. It's fairly clear which milk industry the state is worried about.

All the best,

Andrea said...

For me, the highlight of the obtuse in his statement: "we can't afford to have people stop drinking milk for fear or perception of it being an unhealthy or unsafe product"

Who is doing this? People at the grocery store? If raw milk consumers were pushing to get raw milk into stores, this might be an issue (i.e., the general public might be confused which milk is pasteurized and which is not). But that is not the case at all. And really, people may stop drinking milk because my neighbors and I essentially have a milk carpool? If anyone is going to stop drinking milk regularly, it will be me if I cannot get regular access to the milk of my choosing!

This attempt to take away a choice from me is getting me steamed!

Elspeth said...


Are you going to the hearing? I hope so. It's an important issue—particularly the choice aspect.

All the best,

Lukaduke said...

Good Luck MA ! Seems like quite the battle brewing down there...I am lucky enough to be able to purchase raw milk here from local independently run grocery stores. Whole Foods dropped all raw milk from their shelves in Maine but I feel very lucky to still have a legitimate access. Are the same laws in place against cheeses and yogurts made with raw dairy ?

Elspeth said...

Hi Luke,

See the update! As for cheeses and yogurts, I'm not sure exactly what the laws are. I believe they may be more lax with cheese, as we definitely have raw milk blue cheese from Great Hill Blue. I've never seen any local yogurt, let alone raw yogurt.

All the best,

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