Attendees at the Second Annual Raw Milk Symposium Saturday in Madison, WI.As I was departing the Raw Milk Symposium in Madison last evening, a member of the production crew recording the sessions, a middle-aged man, approached me to say he had never realized how important raw milk can be in one’s diet, and he had decided he wanted to begin drinking it. He said he understood the sale of raw milk was illegal in Wisconsin, but wondered if there was a way, some way, he might obtain it. I gave him the names of a couple farmers I thought sell it, and he said he’d discretely follow up.

This man had clearly been convinced by the researchers who spoke about raw milk’s nutritional benefits, and moved by the dairy farmers and legal experts who spoke about the growing consumer trend to defy regulators at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, and elsewhere, who seek to deprive consumers of access to raw milk. 

It was a high-energy day at the Raw Milk Symposium, put on by the Farm-to-Consumer Foundation and attended by more than 250 people—a day to become informed about new research on raw milk, and to become more aware of the high stakes battle that continues in many places over access to raw milk—a “war,” as several speakers put it. Here are some of the highlights from the researcher and scientist presenters: (I’ll be writing separate posts about the legal and resistance sides.)

–Europe, for the most part, continues to be much more accepting of raw milk than this country. “Citizens in Europe would not accept what is happening in the U.S.,” said Sylvia Onusic, a public health researcher from Slovenia, now living in the U.S. The big thing in Europe is vending machines that dispense raw milk from stainless steel vats placed inside the machines by farmers who own or rent the machines. Consumers either bring their own containers, or purchase a glass bottle from the machine. She said Slovenia has 25 such machines, and Italy has 1,300 (pictured below). Austria has seen them begin to appear at farmers markets. Among the advantages of such machines, she said, are that they are available 24/7, and that they keep the milk at a constant temperature. Why the different approaches in Europe versus the U.S.? “Farmers still have a certain status in Europe,” she said. “It’s not like the U.S.” Moreover, “People in government like the traditional foods, and want to keep them.” Regulators who like real food, what a concept!

–Despite the general acceptance in Europe of raw milk, a few countries have moved to limit availability. Scotland doesn’t allow sales. And Germany, while technically allowing retail sales, requires that farmers stamp an expiration date four days after milking, which sharply limits retail sales, according to Ton Baars, a researcher from Kassel University in Germany. Regular raw milk drinkers understand the meaninglessness of the date stamps, and buy the milk anyway, but others who might consider buying raw milk are put off by the expiration dates.

— Sylvia Onusic provided an intriguing table correlating rates of obesity with acceptance of raw milk. Generally, countries with the highest rates of obesity (the United States and Australia) seek to prohibit raw milk, while countries that are accepting of raw milk (France, Austria, Italy, and Switzerland) have significantly lower rates of obesity.

–Ironically, America’s obsession with banning or limiting raw milk availability makes research on its risks nearly impossible, argued Ted Beals, a retired pathologist, who has testified widely in court cases and legislative hearings on raw milk. “What are the risks of drinking raw milk for the first time?” he asked. He listed things like allergic reactions, lactose intolerance (at much lower rates than with pasteurized milk), stomach upset from introduction of large amounts of butterfat, and “rare foodborne illnesses.” On the last point, he said, “No one has studied this.” Studies can’t take place in the U.S. because “it’s policy that raw milk is hazardous…so it’s a dead end in this country.”  

–Ton Baars, the researcher from Germany, analyzed a number of studies that have been carried out in Europe showing that children raised on farms with raw milk have significantly lower rates of allergies, asthma, and eczema. He attributed the benefits to the combination of bacteria from dirt and dust, along with the good bacteria of milk—all of which help build immunity. He said he’s involved in a double-blind research study of children who have been diagnosed with allergies, with some being given raw milk and others being given pasteurized milk, and that initial results of twenty children show similar benefits of raw milk drinkers as the previous European studies. “There is really something going on with this raw milk effect.”

–Finally, Canadian raw dairy farmer Michael Schmidt reported informally that he’s been comparing the growth of two calves born at the same time born several months ago by feeding one raw milk and the other pasteurized milk. Within the next couple months, he’s going to have them slaughtered, and have the organs analyzed by a pathologist, and the meat taste-test-compared in a Toronto restaurant. So far, he said, the calf raised on pasteurized milk has a dull lustre to its coat, and clumps of fur can easily be pulled out; the one raised on raw milk has a lustrous coat and doesn’t easily lose fur.

I’ve tended not to focus heavily on the health benefits of raw milk, since research results remain sketchy. But it’s difficult not to envy the European permissiveness on raw milk, as well as the fact that food-borne illness blamed on raw milk seems not to be a major issue there. There you have vending machines dispensing raw milk at all hours of the day and night, and people aren’t keeling over and dying. Instead, they seem to be getting healthier. Why can’t we get foods like that.