I like to think that some day in the not-too-distant future people will look back on the official hysteria surrounding raw milk and shake their heads in wonderment. One prime example of the hysteria would be found in a just-completed Public Broadcasting System (PBS) documentary about raw milk.


Even in the present, the raw milk fear mongers may have shot themselves in the foot in their efforts to sabotage the first serious television assessment of raw milk safety standards and health benefits.


At least that’s how I interpret the clumsy intrusions of factory-food ideology into what is otherwise a serious, probing, and enlightening PBS documentary segment, “Modern Milk”; about half of the 25-minute show (beginning at about the eight-minute mark) is dedicated to raw milk. “Modern Milk” is one of 13 segments on sustainable food produced by filmmaker Greg Roden for PBS—other segments are about fishing, urban farming, soil, and seeds are to be found on the same PBS page. 


All the segments are highly professional and informative explorations of their subjects, using profiles of energetic food producers to engage viewers. Only “Modern Milk”, though, starts off with an amateurish-looking placard (pictured above), stating: “Raw milk consumption can lead to illness and even death in extreme cases, especially in individuals with weakened immune systems including children and the elderly. Center for Disease Control.”


A viewer sees that at the opening and wonders: What was that all about? Indeed, that placard is one of three such intrusions into this seriously probing, and at times touchingly introspective, consideration of raw milk safety by two raw milk producers (Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures Dairy Co. and Charlotte Smith of Champoeg Creamery in Oregon), along with explanations of raw milk’s health benefits by a scientist (Bruce German of the University of California, Davis). 


A second placard of CDC wisdom, saying that pasteurized milk and raw milk have the same nutritional value, is inserted as German is lucidly explaining compelling research into raw milk’s health benefits. It has the effect of a high school kid waving bunny ear fingers behind another student trying to explain something serious to a friend or teacher.  A third placard of CDC propaganda says that “Good hygienic practices can reduce but not eliminate the risk of contamination” from raw milk (as if good hygienic practices can eliminate the risk from any food). 


My sense is that the placards merely reenforce the integrity of the rest of the production, which includes a number of public revelations I’ve never seen presented in mainstream media: 

  1. Mark McAfee, in discussing the dangers of raw milk, admits, “Some of the (past) illnesses have come from Organic Pastures Dairy.” This startling admission from McAfee comes in between his expressions of confidence that raw milk can be produced safely (“You start clean and you end clean”) and his belief in the superiority of raw milk’s appeal to consumers.
  2. Charlotte Smith puts to rest the fear-mongerers’ propaganda that raw milk producers don’t care about safety, or about individuals who may have become sick from raw milk. Smith describes the terrible outbreak of illness at Foundation Farm in Oregon in 2012, which left young Kylee Young with long-term neurological and kidney problems. Says Smith: “I have a picture of this girl in our milk room, because if we do our job, we never have to be responsible for something like that.” 
  3. Prof. German clearly captures the tantalizing prospect of raw milk’s health benefits. While he allows that pasteurization kills pathogens, he notes: “Unfortunately, we don’t know yet all the properties of milk that are inactivated” by “cooking it,” as he puts it. “Raw milk is not in and of itself unsafe.” Then comes the kicker: Raw milk “seems to have properties that confer an immunological benefit. The children who are consuming raw milk  have dramatically fewer allergies…We have this protection from allergies and we don’t know how it happens.” Of course, if it is up to the CDC and FDA, we will never know how it happens. 

According to Roden, PBS executives “required me to put all three of those cards in” the film segment. “I thought they went overboard.”  


While the statements from German about raw milk’s “immunological” benefits is startling in its frankness on prime time TV, Roden indicated there was more about about raw milk’s health benefits that was left on the cutting room floor. “The data (on health benefits) is very conclusive,” he told me. 


He expressed sympathy for PBS’ predicament. “PBS wanted to make real sure” it was expressing the safety viewpoint completely enough. It walks a fine line in such matters, according to Roden, because there are many politicians who object to PBS receiving public funding and “would like to see PBS go away.” This isn’t even allowing for the additional presence of Big Ag and Big Pharma interests among PBS sponsors and foundation support. 

Despite the fear-mongering intrusions, I highly recommend this segment (along with the entire series). As you view the one on milk, see if you agree that the forces of fear wound up shooting themselves in the foot, and losing out to an artistically successful documentary production.