Once upon a time, I naively expected that if there were new credible scientific evidence that raw milk showed health benefits over pasteurized milk, the health and regulatory communities might relax their negative attitudes.
But a couple years ago, when I gave a talk at Rutgers University in New Jersey and expressed my hopes for a meeting of the minds between opponents and proponents of raw dairy, a psychiatrist warned me about holding such expectations. The psychiatrist, Richard Schwartzman, explained the regulatory opposition this way:
One might expect that honorable people with good intentions, on both sides of the table, could somehow resolve the raw milk issue without battling in court 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.
Why such heavy resistance? “In their minds they must stop ‘dangerous’ activities and behaviors, never realizing their prohibitive actions are not really for the good of others but rather to make themselves feel better by putting an end to the behavior that makes them intensely anxious.
I thought about his observations as I was reviewing an assessment from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration side about recent raw milk research. It came from the nearly invisible head of the FDA’s dairy division, John Sheehan, who only rarely treats us to his pearls of wisdom. But as part of his support of the Maine Department of Agriculture’s anti-food-sovereignty campaign launched last year, Sheehan submitted testimony to oppose state legislation that would have allowed small farms to sell raw milk from their farm sites without a license, and it showed up in the nearly 700 pages of info obtained by lawyers for Maine farmer Dan Brown.
Just as background, we’ve had at least three significant studies in recent years providing data suggesting raw milk likely confers significant immune benefits on children against allergies and asthma. First, there was a 2006 study of nearly 15,000 European school-age children, known as the PARSIFAL study, which concluded, consumption of farm milk may offer protection against asthma and allergy. While half the families said they boiled their farm milk before serving it, the researchers thought that number was likely biased due to the social desirability of responses because raw milk consumption is not recommended for young children.
The first thing I noticed in reading through Sheehan’s testimony assessing this study was his dismissive attitude toward raw milk proponents, hinting at the intensity of the political struggle over raw milk: Raw milk advocates have mischaracterized scientific literature in the past and indeed, where we have seen them do so, we have exposed their errors. Their characterization of the article on the PARSIFAL study (Waser et al) is therefore not at all surprising and, indeed, the journal article on the PARSIFAL study has been mischaracterized by raw milk advocates since it first appeared.
Where were proponents wrong? The study is about farm milk, not raw milk. The authors of the study took great pains to explain as much in their Clinical and Experimental Allergy article. The authors clearly state also in the article that (t)he present study does not allow evaluating the effects of pasteurized vs. raw milk consumption because no objective confirmation of the raw milk status of the farm milk samples was available.
But might not the article be suggestive of enough possible benefits to warrant pursuing the research further, as the authors themselves recommended? No, theres not even a hint by Sheehan of being intrigued. His testimony concluded: The study does not indicate, as some raw milk advocates claim, that raw milk prevents allergies and asthma in children.
Sheehan didnt comment on a followup study in 2011 of more than 8,000 European children, known as the GABRIELA studyperhaps because it was more emphatic than the PARSIFAL study in pointing up raw milks benefits: The results of this large epidemiologic study add to the increasing body of evidence identifying consumption of farm milk (early in life) to be associated with a reduced risk of childhood asthma and allergies independently of concomitant farm exposures. The results indicate that the effect is due to the consumption of unheated farm milk. For the first time, associations between objectively measured milk constituents and asthma and atopy (inclination toward allergies) could be demonstrated. Just to emphasize their point that only the unpasteurized milk produced the asthma and allergy protection, the authors stated, Boiled farm milk did not show a protective effect.
Contrary to what many raw milk advocates assumed at the timethat the good bacteria in raw milk are mainly responsible for its healing properties–the studys authors said the real help came from certain whey proteins. Milk processing, such as heating, does not affect heat stable caseins, whereas whey proteins, accounting for 18% of the total protein in cows milk, are more sensitive to heat treatment and might influence the bioavailability of the proteins.
While Sheehan of the FDA didnt comment on this study, he had made clear his view in the Maine testimony that the GABRIELA researchers couldnt have been correct. Pasteurization does not destroy milk proteins, he claimed. Caseins, the major family of milk proteins, are largely unaffected by pasteurization (Farrell and Douglas). Any changes which might occur with whey proteins are barely perceptible. Yes, he says with such conviction that changes to whey proteins “are barely perceptible.”
There was more to come, this time from the U.S. In spinoff research from the GABRIELA study, published in 2012. Researchers in the U.S. and Europe surveyed 157 American Amish families, along with about 3,000 Swiss farming families, and close to 11,000 Swiss families who did not live on a farm. They also did testing on the Amish children. They wanted to know about allergy and asthma rates in the children ages 6-12.
The Amish children had less than one-third the allergies of the non-farm Swiss children. The researchers found that just five percent of Amish kids had been diagnosed with asthma, compared to 6.8 percent of Swiss farm kids and 11.2 percent of the other Swiss children.
Why the differences? The authors said they didnt know for sure, but speculated that raw milk likely played a role: All the Amish children and the Swiss farm children had exposure to large animals and a significant percentage consumed milk directly from the farm. Recent studies have implicated a protective effect from farm milk.
I’m not always enamored of psychiatrists’ theories of political behavior, but Dr. Schwartzman seems to have been right on target. The “scientists” will never exhibit curiosity about something at odds with their political ideology and personal prejudices.
Readers of this blog have long been aware of the FDA’s willingness to employ the most aggressive spying and surveillance tactics to go after those targeted as dangerous. In investigating food club members obtaining food from farmer Dan Allgyer, the FDA in 2010 and 2011 sent agents into people’s homes to obtain raw milk. Now even Congress has gotten a taste of the agency’s total disregard for privacy, via revelations that the FDA has been spying on its own scientists, and their communications with politicians, journalists, and others.
This interesting reaction from a U.S. Senator: “Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican whose former staff members e-mails were cataloged in the surveillance database, said that ‘the F.D.A. is discouraging whistle-blowers.’ He added that agency officials ‘have absolutely no business reading the private e-mails of their employees. They think they can be the Gestapo and do anything they want.’ ”
Gee, the politicians give the FDA endless budgets and provide no oversight, and then they’re surprised when the agency turns on its own benefactors. They should know better than anyone that hunger for power has no limits.
The Raw Milk Institute has just published its “Common Standards” to help guide raw dairy producers in improving safety. It has all kinds of guidelines for safety planning and goals. And despite the objections from the anti-raw-milk types, it does mention pathogens, even lists examples, in several places. RAWMI is making important progress in establishing models and standards for improving raw milk quality and safety.