Richard Hebron, the Michigan farmer victimized by a sting operation in 2006, which led to new conclusions about the benefits of raw milk. Did you ever think you’d see this statement endorsed by dairy regulators?

“Milk fresh from the cow is a complete, living, functional food…the full benefits…are only realized when all of these components function as a complex interdependent and balanced process.”

Or how about this:

“Of all the milk constituents, the milk fat globule is the most drastically altered by the combination of pasteurization and homogenization.”

After endless reassurances from scientists and other officials in public health, agriculture, medicine, and government that there’s no difference between pasteurized and unpasteurized milk, we are now being told something entirely different by an organization that includes top dairy regulators and an agriculture university dean (along with a number of raw milk proponents). The organization is the Michigan Fresh Unprocessed Whole Milk Workgroup, which includes among its members the two top dairy officials of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and a dean of the Michigan State University College of Agriculture.

The Michigan Fresh Unprocessed Whole Milk Workgroup, which I described in a previous post, is a committee that grew out of the ashes of the bizarre “string operation” against Michigan farmer Richard Hebron in October 2006. After forcibly confiscating $8,000-plus worth of dairy products the farmer was delivering to members of Ann Arbor’s Family Farms Co-op, Michigan’s Department of Agriculture sought to have Richard indicted on criminal charges. Instead, a county prosecutor refused to go forward with the case, and pushed the department to settle with Richard. As part of the settlement, the department agreed to allow herdshare arrangements. Subsequently, the department’s two top dairy officials, Katherine Fedder, who ordered the investigation and subsequent raid on Richard Hebron; and Susan Esser, agreed to join the Michigan Fresh Unprocessed Whole Milk Workgroup, which is charged with answering the question: Where do we want to be in three to five years on access to fresh unpasteurized whole milk.

The workgroup has moved systematically, some might say tediously, to address ten topics relating to the question of access to raw milk. When it started meeting in early 2007, it expected to get through the topics in 18 months. Now, nearly three years later, it has formally addressed only two of the ten topics.

The statements I quoted from above come from the second topic and was just posted in recent weeks, on the subject of “Benefits and Values.” Part of the challenge facing the workgroup is that each of its eleven members must approve each and every word of each topic discussion. No majority-rules here. That’s the bad news in terms of pace, but it’s also the good news in terms of buy-in and impact. You know that the government and ag people have reviewed and signed off on everything posted.

From that viewpoint, the posting on Benefits and Value is remarkable, coming from the first state in the nation to require pasteurization, and prohibit the sale of raw milk, back in 1947. It provides detailed explanations in response to the questions: “What are the additional benefits of milk fresh from the cow?” and “What is the impact of pasteurization on fresh unpasteurized whole milk’s value?”

The posting never explicitly states what I say in my heading above—that raw milk is superior—but it’s impossible not to draw that conclusion from reading through the list of eleven criteria that are listed as “the additional benefits of milk fresh from the cow.” These include twenty “well characterized intrinsic enzymes”, “immune system enhancers,” and “antibacterial components.”

It comes out positively on four of the most explosive issues in the debate over the nutritional benefits and special properties of raw milk:

  1. Competitive inhibition: It says raw milk contains “microorganisms that suppress pathogens by competitive mechanisms.”
  2. Lactose intolerance: “Many people with professionally diagnosed lactose intolerance do not have the symptoms of this condition, even when consuming large amounts of fresh milk.”
  3. Pregnant moms: There’s “enhancement of mother’s breast milk quality by including fresh milk in her diet.”
  4. Reducing asthma and allergies: “Numerous well-controlled studies have shown the independent effect of drinking fresh milk on reducing asthma and childhood rhinitis in general and specifically in childhood allergic rhinitis.

On and on it goes:

“There are large numbers of different bacteria present in fresh milk. Some of these are included in the Standard Plate Count test; others do not grow under those culture conditions and so are not counted as a part of the test.  Both the total numbers and the diversity of bacterial types (genus and species) are variable.  Most of these bacteria are beneficial.”

“Therefore, milk is inherently a prebiotic since it contains lactose and numerous other components that beneficial bacteria can utilize.”

And I haven’t even addressed the section on “the impact of pasteurization,” but it’s equally devastating for the anti-raw-milk lobby. Here, the strong inference is that pasteurization offsets many of raw milk’s benefits. It concludes that pasteurization adversely affects milk’s proteins, carbohydrates, and enzymes. It also states that pasteurization un-does the immune-building benefits of raw milk: “Cell-mediated immune mechanisms rely on living somatic cells, but pasteurization kills those cells, losing that effect.”

When you think, these findings are part of what came out of the sting operation against Richard Hebron, you realize that life does work in strange ways. Guess I can’t wait for the workgroup to complete the next eight sections of its agenda.


I suspect the Michigan workgroup’s conclusions about the benefits of raw milk will have a wide impact. Initially, they may raise the decibel level of the debate (if that’s possible), especially as regards the farmer-vs-farmer side. I have to admit, I was caught off-guard by the intensity of the debate associated with the upheaval at Organic Valley co-op, as reflected in the comments on my previous post. Thanks to lola granola for the insights into what’s happening at Organic Valley.

The farmer-vs-farmer aspect of this mirrors to some extent the discussions over raw milk’s risks, as noted by Lykke and Sylvia, and the issue of rights, as noted by Bob Hayles and Miguel. But there’s a whole separate dimension related to the role of the farmer in the marketplace. Most farmers been so marginalized, they have nothing to say about pricing and distribution of not only milk, but most other farm products. And if Organic Valley takes the radical step of distributing raw milk, it may, as Milk Farmer suggests, potentially marginalize even the growing cadre of raw dairy producers.

In this debate as well as others, we see divisions among supporters of raw milk, especially between what might be called moderates and strict constructionists–those who are open to compromise with regulators, and those who want the regulators removed from the process and the marketplace. The division is asserting itself in the debate over the role of legislation to loosen the tight regulation of raw milk in Wisconsin.

But this issue isn’t open-and-shut—too much water under the dam to just let the established order of the agriculture marketplace take over. A chaotic time seems to be in store.