Joseph Heckman, left, with Blaine and Mark McAfee, at a California organic agriculture conference in 2014 at which they passed out raw milk and cookies to attendees.

In what may be the most extensive academic article about the modern raw milk movement, Rutger University professor Joseph Heckman provides what he describes as “an historical account of the raw milk movement and its long association with the organic farming movement.” In the paper, published in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, he describes a number of important similarities, but eventually concludes that public health safety objections make it unlikely that raw milk will ever blossom the way organic farming has, as a mainstay of commercial food in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world.

Heckman says in the paper that conflict around raw milk’s safety became apparent to him on his home turf at Rutgers, beginning with a seminar series he inaugurated in 2008 to bring in raw milk experts guest lecturers. While he refrains from providing the gory details of the conflict, his simple reference to a “surrounding storm of controversy and numerous questions” gets the message across. (Here is a post I did a few years back on his academia challenges.)

To capture his key points, I have excerpted from the paper, which can be found online (and accessed in its entirety by clicking on one of the options below the preface).

“One of the myths about organic farming (Heckman, 2010) is that before the widespread use of synthetic chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides, the farming that was being practiced was organic without the banner of the name. While this was partly true in some places in the world, such as that described by F. H. King (1911) in Farmers of Forty Centuries or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea, and Japan, it was clearly not so in many places where soils were being destroyed on a massive scale by erosion. Along with the soil erosion, there was also concern over loss of native soil fertility and soil organic matter content (Heckman, 2013). These problems were described in detail in the opening chapters of The Living Soil (Balfour, 1976) and in Look to the Land (Northbourne, 1940). In these and other pioneering works, organic farming systems were proposed as a viable ecological solution to the crisis of soil destruction. In contrast, modern conventional agriculture chooses technological approaches to address soil erosion by promoting genetic engineering and chemical herbicide-no-till farming systems.”

“For the last several decades public health officials and food safety scientists have almost exclusively focused on warning and educating people against consuming fresh milk by highlighting safety concerns. Documentary films Farmageddon, Organic Hero or Bioterrorist and Milk War have provided graphic illustration of clashes over raw milk between government agencies on one side and dairy farmers and consumers on the other.”

“A psychiatric physician attending one of the raw milk seminars at the Rutgers University (Schwartzman, 2010) and well-versed in the dynamics of mass psychology spoke up about how the battle over legal access to raw milk was about much more than just food safety. In his blog (Government vs Raw Milk) he defines and explains a social phenomenon called the emotional plague as originally outlined by Dr Wilhelm Reich. Schwartzman explained: ‘I contend no matter how much proof of safety is presented or what additional information is provided, the government authorities will never relent in their efforts to end sales of unpasteurized milk…The safety of unpasteurized milk and the best interest of the public are not the sole or even primary reason for the government’s attack… In their minds they must stop ‘dangerous’ activities and behaviors, never realizing their prohibitive actions are not really for good of others but rather to make themselves feel better by putting an end to the behavior that makes them intensely anxious. Controlling others makes plague-ridden indivi- duals feel better, at least temporarily.’ “

“Educational campaigns against access to raw milk may be seen as a failure given that demand for pasteurized fluid milk has been steadily declining (Berry and Gee, 2012), whereas the growth in demand for permits to sell raw milk has been described as ‘explosive’. “

“Any evidence for health outcomes uniquely associated with consuming fresh unpasteurized milk is typically dismissed with blanket pronouncements. For example, the CDC (Raw Milk Question and Answers, 2017): ‘There are no health benefits from drinking raw milk that cannot be obtained from drinking pasteurized milk that is free of disease-causing bacteria.’

“The US FDA similarly plays up the risks and dismisses the benefits. How some public health organizations, community of health professionals and food scientists can ignore the accumulated published evidence on health benefits appears biased or a willful failure of scholarship.”

“People concerned with making food choices have several options: (1) place their trust in the pronouncements of the ‘experts’, (2) ask a trusted health care professional, (3) read and review published literature and arrive at their own interpretation and assessment, or (4) become knowledgeable about their food choices from real-world experience.

“The fourth option is not unlike what farmers and gardeners experience when they decide to implement organic practices on their land. When a farmer transitions away from commercial chemicals to the organic system, they observe the unique qualitative changes in soil properties that result from switching to a biologically based soil fertility system. The special soil properties achieved and the benefits to plants of feeding the soil with complex organic nutrient sources are now well documented and cannot be dismissed as simply anecdotal (Rodale Farming System Trial, 2016).”

“The body of scientific literature comparing fresh milk vs heat- processed milk suggests that health outcomes are often different (Table 2). The evidence is based on animal as well as human feeding trials using cow milk or human breast milk. It generally shows that when milk is heated, some of the nutritive qualities are diminished; weight gains and growth are often less with heat- treated milk. The more recent studies indicate that consuming fresh milk helps protect children from allergies, asthma and respiratory infections.”

Heckman’s article is also a treasure trove of historical and other resources related to raw milk–it’s well worth a close read.