Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Great Raw Milk Debate

The great joy of owning a family cow or two (or three) is the ability to produce your own, fresh, raw milk. Raw milk is milk that has been neither pasteurized nor homogenized, existing in the state that (pick one: God, Natural Selection) made it. Pasteurization is the heat process that destroys pathogens. Homogenization is the process of mechanically breaking the fats into small particles so that the cream no longer rises to the top. While homogenization is simply a stabilizing process, whether pasteurization is necessary has been the subject of heated debate and some questionable public policy.

The arguments “For” pasteurization are as follows: Milk carries dangerous pathogens that can injure or kill, and these must be destroyed in order to make the milk safe to drink. Pasteurization does not affect the nutritional quality of the milk.

The arguments “Against:” Pasteurization affects the nutritional quality of the milk, altering colloidal minerals and destroying beneficial enzymes like lactase. It makes it taste different, or “cooked.” Clean cows and hygienic handling processes minimize the potential for pathogen contamination, making pasteurization unnecessary. Requiring pasteurization is an unfair burden on small farmers.

Reviewing all of the positions “For” and “Against” that have ever been written is guaranteed to make your head explode. Claims range from “drinking raw milk is dangerous dietary Russian roulette” to “it is nature’s perfect food just as it is.” Raw milk has been credited with causing terminal diseases, or curing them. Arguers on both sides are passionate, convinced they are right, and they present equally flawed arguments.

Public policy in Virginia is based largely on the public health arguments for pasteurization and also reflects the interests of the struggling and fiercely regulated dairy industry, which operates on a slim margin even in good years. These are definitely not good years and the industry does not welcome competition, even from small family farms. The Code of Virginia prohibits the sale of unpasteurized milk in any amount. So, if we sell Rosebud’s milk to our neighbor Earl, we are subject to prosecution, even if Earl is standing under the cow collecting it. This is because, in the eyes of the Commonwealth, neither we, nor Earl, are competent to make this decision for ourselves.

After sifting through enough literature to make even the most enthusiastic researcher yearn for a People Magazine, I offer the following synopsis of what I've found:

Milk that comes from healthy cows and that is handled properly is safe to drink. If it is not stored or handled properly, it can become contaminated with pathogens. Let’s face it. If you’ve ever been to a commercial dairy, even a really good one, you really wouldn’t want to drink that milk unpasteurized. Cows are large animals and the manure of healthy cows is soupy and prone to wide…uh… distribution. Put a hundred of these animals together in one place and it isn’t the spot you'd choose to have a picnic with your grandchildren. Once the milk is collected, it is then transported and any number of factors can cause contamination between cow and consumer. However: of the many studies that I have reviewed that analyzed bacterial content in raw milk, none examined samples taken directly from very small family farms (single or dual cow operations) under typical conditions. This is a serious, if not fatal, defect in such studies, as the milking and handling environments are very different from commercial dairies. Until contamination levels at these small family farms are adequately studied, comparing results from the two operations is like comparing apples to lawn chairs.

Raw milk tastes fresh and the high butterfat content in Jersey milk gives it a silkiness unlike grocery store products. Is it nutritionally healthier for you? I still don’t know, as there is surprisingly little peer-reviewed research on this question. And of course, there are entire organizations on either side that will cheerfully serve as "peers," so I am referring to peer review by the scientific community, rather than an interest group. But chemically, there is no question that heat will permanently alter the tertiary structure of a protein. Think of a raw vs. boiled egg. They are different, certainly. Is one better for you than the other? That depends on whom you ask. But there is little scientific support for the idea that drinking milk from your clean, healthy family cow will make you and your neighbors succumb on the spot, gasping like bruised bass after a long struggle. And despite the growing homestead/locally grown food movement, it isn’t likely that family cows will supplant the role of commercial dairies in American society. Industry has little to fear from Rosebud, Bessie and Priscilla.

This month, the State of Arkansas appears poised to pass legislation to allow limited sales (100 gal/per month) of raw milk from small farms. This amount equates to the high end of Miniature Jersey production for one cow. In these times of economic hardship, this is exactly the right thinking.

Photo of Tom, Jorg and Bessie from: "Old Picture of the Day" at:, Just kidding about the Jorg and Bessie part.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"Where are the snows of yesteryear?"

The "Ballade des dames du temps jadis" ("Ballad of the Ladies of Times Past") is a poem by the fifteenth-century French poet Fran├žois Villon which celebrates famous women in history and mythology, and from which came the line "Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan". In French they have the expression "triste" which is a wistful sadness rather than outright depression, and Villon is commenting that, like the snow, life fades away almost without us noticing.

Well that was a long segue into the fact that snow, in depth, finally came to Triskelion Farm last night - all quarter of an inch of it! But worth sharing, as it was real springlike snow, pretty without being a nuisance (or worse) and it too will fade quickly. In the meantime the ravages of rain and cold are hidden for a few brief hours and we can believe that spring is around the corner (even if Punxsutawney Phil says otherwise, and the weather forecast is for 16 degrees tomorrow night!)

Most of the menagerie were tucked up in stalls, just the youngsters braving the flurries. When dawn broke they were happily munching the hay I had put out, and take the snow along with most weather conditions with equal equanimity. They too have comfy stalls when it gets cold and when ice storms are likely; but their preference is for wide open spaces, as evidenced by the rodeo that went on last evening that caused my neighbor to phone and ask if everything was OK. The thunder of hooves across the paddock could be heard half a mile away, but it was all play. The call was appreciated, however, as accidents do happen. Another neighbor, a few miles away, just earlier in the week, had gone through the floorboards of a barn and broken his thigh bone. Unfortunately, he had left his cell phone in his truck and it took him over an hour to get out and call for help. I guess we have all heard of similar stories in rural communities so a watchful neighbor is always welcome.

Well, I for one won't be sorry to see winter bow out, and perhaps the longer days and brighter weather will cheer us all up, and instill some optimistic thoughts. Let's dwell on the good things ahead rather than feeling sad about the past. In that spirit , White Bird is holding its first volunteer orientation of the year on Sunday, having put out "come and volunteer" notices on line and locally. We have had a great response so far and it will be a fun day with the promise of warm weather, as well as refreshments. See the notice on the sidebar.