Raw Milk and Fighting For The Right to be Stupid

There’s a curious issue that comes up with laws like those that ban the sale of raw milk to consumers. Should people be allowed, with full informed consent to buy raw, unpasteurized, unirridiated, possibly bacteria-laden milk? In an intelligent and well informed world, this would not be much of an issue. Why on earth would it matter whether people have the freedom to do something no sane person would do anyway?

For example, if there were a law which made it illegal to stab oneself in the eye with a red hot soldering iron, I’d have a hard time thinking of a circumstance where such a law would cause me, or most others, any trouble. It might be worth opposing as a matter of principle, on the grounds of personal freedom, but it certainly would have no practical problems.

Yet in Wisconsin there are many uniting to fight for their right to be stupid. How dare the government try to stop them from doing something dangerous and with no benefit? Perhaps they have a point. The government has limited abilities to protect an idiot from their own idiocy, and no matter what laws are in place anyway, it’s impossible to idiot proof the world.

Raw milk sales are typically banned (or at least restricted) in most states in the US and indeed in most industrial countries. Although this is begining to change as more states in the US permit the sale of raw, unpasteurized milk. Raw milk is often available from local small time farms, but it is restricted in the larger production operations that are overseen by the US FDA and ADA and ship product across state lines. Indeed the restrictions on unpasteurized milk is part of the larger sanitary and food safety laws that have become ubiquitous in the 20th century. In addition to the requirement to pasteurize milk, food producers are required to use approved food handling equipment, to submit to regular health and sanitation inspections, to maintain date records for food expiration and to cook all pre-cooked meet products to within temperature guidelines. Meat packers are subject to requirements for protective clothing for workers and must also wash down all process areas regularly with disinfectant.

These regulations, which include laws requiring the pasteurization of milk are all part and parcel of legislation aimed at assuring that food supplies are reasonably safe from harmful pathogens. Whether or not any should be allowed to avoid such regulations, with informed consumer consent, is an interesting issue. Would you ever want the freedom to buy product which clearly states “the workers who produced this product did not wash their hands after using the toilet.” or “We never disinfect our processing areas?”

Yet it seems that is exactly what some want to do with milk! Pasteurization was truly one of the biggest steps forward in food safety, especially when it comes to products like milk. By its very nature, milk is an excellent way of transporting bacteria all the way from the farm to the human gut.

It’s no surprise that many of those involved in the pro-raw milk protests are also all over the organic food fad yet are the first to demand that completely safe and hygienic practices like irradiation and genetic engineering of crops be banned. Apparently safety can be compromised when it comes to “natural” dangers.

Milk can (and does) pick up potentially pathogenic bacteria right from the beginning. Even a minor infection without symptoms in a cow can taint the milk, but the bigger issue is the sanitation of the milk ducts, utters and milking equipment. As a standard practice, dairly farmers clean off the utters of cows before milking and milking pumps are generally disinfected at regular intervals. Yet these procedures are far from completely effective. They may usually get rid of most of the biological matter, but they don’t insure all bacteria is removed.

Imagine, for example, you’ve just had your hand covered with fecal matter. You then rinse it off with water and give it a quick wash with a touch of soap. Would you now want to eat with this hand? Probably not. You’d more likely want to spend a good few minutes scrubbing it and using a lot of soap and water. You’d be right to do so, because removing bacteria requires more than just a quick swab-down, but this is generally the extent of the cleaning of a cow’s utters. If they were scrubbed so thoroughly each time the cow is milked, it would take a lot of time and labor and would likely leave them sore and raw from the daily scrubbing.

Even if the milk which is taken from the cow has a low enough bacteria count to make it reasonably safe to drink, this will not necessarily remain the case after it is placed in storage for consumption. Milk is an excellent medium for bacterial growth. An emulsion of fats, water, proteins and sugars, it offers all a colony of bacteria could ever want to grow into a veritable cesspool of disease. Refrigeration can slow this process, but does not completely halt it.

Pasteurization has been standard for most of the 20th century. It exposes the product to a short period of heat to kill bacteria. Other processes like irradiation offer an alternative. The use of pasteurization or other disinfection methods have vastly improved food safety. Still, improper pasteurization or milk which slips through unprocessed continues to occasionally cause illness.

It should be noted that pasteurization is not sterilization and is no substitute for maintaining good standards of sanitation. It inactivates or destroys the majority of bacteria and pathogens but it does not absolutely eliminate all microbes from the product.

And yes, “organic” raw milk has been the source of several major outbreaks of food-borne illness.

Regardless of the law, drinking unpasteurized milk is just not a good idea. And for farmers, I’d highly suggest against selling raw milk. It could open up any farmer or reseller to a huge liability.