Raw milk is back in the limelight in Wisconsin, the nation’s second-largest dairy-producing state. New legislation is being proposed, and already public health and conventional dairy interests are fighting it. But this time, the atmosphere feels different, partly because the notion of legalizing raw milk has received semi-official endorsement via an advisory group, including representatives of the conventional dairy industry, organized by Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

In this analysis, Bill Anderson, a licensed Wisconsin cheesemaker and raw milk activist (and frequent commenter on this blog), provides insights into why the dairy industry’s involvement in setting the parameters for legalized raw milk are problematic.

By Bill Anderson

Bill AndersonIt has been more than a year since farmer and consumer protests against the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP) led to the creation of a “Raw Milk Working Group” in January 2010.  I attended some of the early meetings of this group, which were little more than a debate between raw milk proponents and representatives of dairy processing corporations.  However, the media coverage from the governor’s veto of the raw milk bill in March 2010, and from the subsequent raid on Vernon Hershberger’s farm, publically embarrassed the dairy processing industry (and their puppets at DATCP) sufficiently to convince them that they could no longer hold back the winds of change.

Like many pressing political issues of our day, the fight in Wisconsin has national implications.  America’s Dairyland has long been a laboratory in democracy.  We have more small dairy farms than any other state in the U.S., and are second only to California in total milk production.  Our opponents know this all too well, which is why national and international groups representing corporate dairy processing interests from outside the state got involved in the raw milk fight last year.

DATCP’s raw milk working group has had experimental public meetings and countless hours of discussion (which can be seen here by searching “raw milk”), with most of the input coming from corporate and governmental representatives.  A nearly finished draft is now available to the public.

I believe there are four main problems with this document.

1)  It excludes goat and sheep milk, without giving any reason.  Why discriminate against an entire class of farmers and consumers?  If we have the ability to certify raw cow milk, what is preventing us from certifying raw goat and sheep milk?

2) The recommendation is, in its own words, a “one-size-fits-all” approach.  This is the exact opposite of what we need.  Unlike pasteurization, where food safety is achieved by the destruction of bacteria, raw milk is living food which relies upon the dominance of beneficial lactic-acid producing bacteria to ensure food safety.

3) It would require that farmers sell all milk within 48 hours of harvest, and recommend the consumer to drink it within 48 hours of purchase.  This 96-hour shelf-life may be applicable to most of the raw milk in America that is designed for pasteurization.  However, good quality certified raw milk should last for at least two weeks in the fridge before the flavor begins to deteriorate, and even then, it’s not necessarily dangerous.

4) It prohibits other raw dairy products.  Butter, for example, is less than 20% moisture and is very inhospitable to pathogenic organisms, particularly if it is made with cultured cream.  And while raw butter is more susceptible to rancidity than butter made from heat-treated cream, this is a quality and shelf-life issue, not a food safety issue.  For a small farm selling locally, the butter will not need the shelf-life of commercial butter.  Or take a fermented milk like yogurt, kefir, or clotted cream – they are extremely acidic and will cause the expiration of any pathogenic organisms that might be present.

If made with certified raw milk and pure starter cultures in a sanitary environment, these products would be very safe – safer than the milk they started from.  Yet DATCP recommends prohibiting farmers from processing their own excess raw milk unless it is pasteurized.  No word on whether consumers will be discouraged or prohibited from doing their own processing at home.

Most importantly, the decision to exclude cultured products shatters the claim that food safety concerns are what drive the opponents of raw milk.  For thousands of years, culturing milk has been humanity’s solution to the problem of milk safety.  The combination of acidity, competition for nutrients, and bacteriocins (enzymes which inhibit undesirable competitors) such as nisin, created by lactic acid bacteria, is highly toxic to pathogenic bacteria.  The science on this issue is well-established and widely accepted, even within the pasteurization industry.

Most readers of this blog already agree that the regulations surrounding raw milk have more to do with protectionism of the dairy processing industry than with food safety.  But it runs even deeper than this.

The system is designed to make it as difficult as possible for raw milk producers to deliver a safe product to consumers.

That’s right — the pasteurization industry has intentionally created a regulatory structure which will ensure more illnesses from raw milk.

While the 2009-2010 Wisconsin crackdown didn’t stop raw milk sales, it did alter patterns of distribution.  Prior to the crackdown, most farmers were cleaning and filling jars to ensure cleanliness.  Today, farmers don’t want standing evidence that they are engaged in raw milk sales, and so consumers are now responsible for cleaning their own jars. 

It is essential that we move forward with efforts to establish raw milk standards designed by and for raw milk producers.  The corporate dairy processing interests, whose entire existence relies upon the paradigm of compulsory pasteurization, should not be the ones writing these standards.  We should.

The upcoming raw milk battle will require a more concerted grassroots mobilization than ever.   However, this time, the most important battle may not be legislative.  Instead it will probably be the administrative rule-making process, to ensure that the regulations empower family farmers to provide the widest consumer access to nature’s perfect food.