(This is a joint report I did with Liz Reitzig of Nourishing Liberty.)

Nearly a year ago, Maryland’s House of Representatives heard from proponents and opponents of legislation to legalize raw milk herd shares. As enthusiastic and well organized as the proponents were, success seemed a long shot. Based as it is in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s back yard, Maryland has been one of the most hostile places in the country to raw milk, and even a slight opening of the door to raw milk would have been a huge deal. 


When the hearings were over, the committee overseeing the legislation took a predictable step—while it didn’t kill the legislation outright (that would have appeared too arbitrary, given all the enthusiasm for the legislation), it did the next best thing: it asked for a committee of public health experts at Johns Hopkins University to provide its opinion on raw milk. 


At the time, the referral to Johns Hopkins seemed a clever way to dispose of the legislation. After all, there was no reason to believe public health professionals at Johns Hopkins wouldn’t just parrot the FDA line on raw milk being inherently dangerous. 


Surprise! The sure thing didn’t quite work out as opponents might have expected. In their report to the Maryland House of Delegates’ Health and Government Operations Committee earlier this month,  a group of prominent public health scientists from Johns Hopkins University is suggesting, for the first time, that both raw milk opponents and advocates, “would gain much by being willing to discuss and compromise on their positions.” 


Now, don’t get us wrong, this university report isn’t a ringing endorsement of raw milk. At the start of the report, billed as a literature review of research on raw and pasteurized milk, the authors state: “Overall, our review identified no evidence that the potential benefits of consuming raw milk outweigh the known health risks. Based on our findings, we discourage the consumption of raw milk. The risks of consuming raw milk instead of pasteurized milk are well established in the scientific literature, and in some cases can have severe or even fatal consequences.” 


The authors, in their literature analysis, seemed not inclined to allow inclusion of studies and reports favorable to raw milk; notably, they refused to include a six-year analysis out of Michigan by a joint committee including regulators, farmers, and academics that encouraged the state to make raw milk available. The authors noted as well: “We should like to note that the research on the microbiome and its effects on human health is in its infancy and that there is no direct evidence to suggest that microbial exposures have a net benefit to human health.”  


By the end of the report, however, the authors were much more sympathetic to raw milk, per this comparison of pasteurized and raw milk: “It is important to reiterate the systematic differences between most raw and pasteurized milk production in the U.S. and how they complicate the public health argument for one or the other (Mendelson 2011). Today most pasteurized milk is produced at an industrial scale, with farms containing thousands of cows fed corn and soy predicts, and milk sent to dairy processing plants in bulk tanks. Dairy farmers at these industrial farms have the opportunity to be more lax about hygienic practices. Further, the potential for cross-contamination of milk before or after pasteurization is substantial due to these potential factors: a large number of workers, biofilms in distribution pipes, and unsterilized equipment (Mendelson 2011; Oliver et al. 2005). 


“On the other hand, milk that is intentionally sold unpasteurized is often produced on small farms with grass-fed cows and sold to local consumers (Baars 2013). While hygienic practices are not ensured in this setting, these farmers may be more concerned for each individual animal’s health and the health of their customers. They thus may strive to prevent microbial or other contamination. We believe in the benefit of consuming milk and other food products on a local scale, as it is both environmentally sustainable and can support the local economy.” 


In their conclusion, the Johns Hopkins scientists seemed to be recommending a compromise approach in Maryland, based on strict labeling of raw milk. “In conclusion, given the scientific evidence, we do not recommend the consumption of raw milk. If raw milk sales became legal in Maryland, we would strongly recommend that a labeling system be implemented and that farm safety and hygienic practices be required. We would also recommend restricting pregnant women and children from drinking raw milk due to their increased susceptibility to microbial hazards.”


The pro-raw-milk contingent is pushing for re-introduction of the herd share legislation. The battle may well not be over whether there is legislation passed, but what kind of legislation. Will it be herd share legislation that allows open entry to dairy farmers? Or legislation with so many restrictions that only a few well-heeled dairy farmers can comply? One thing is for sure—the Johns Hopkins report, with its emphasis on “compromise,” will likely change the political atmosphere in Maryland, and possibly beyond.