This jar of raw milk was purchased from a farm in Maine. Photograph by Kristen Taylor
This jar of raw milk was purchased from a farm in Maine. Photograph by Kristen Taylor
The Plate

Black Market Raw Milk—Healthy or Harmful?

My friends who grew up on farms have enviable agrarian memories: jumping in piles of hay, throwing slop buckets to pigs, and sourcing an entire week’s worth of food from only their acres of fields in summer.

But the most romantic stories, the ones that make waking up with the rooster sound worth it, are about drinking milk fresh from the cow. Mythic tales of nutty, warm, sweet nectar drunk from a metal pail, steamy in the cool morning air. Raw milk straight from the cow in its natural state, untouched by homogenization, pasteurization, or even—if you drank it quickly enough—the separation of the thick, fatty cream layer from the thinner milk splashing below. (I’m constantly surprised by how many people say “mom always ate the cream herself,” a vestige of a time when mothers actually put themselves first.)

Raw milk is the rage among millennials, hipsters, Gen-Xers, and Boomers alike, all trying to get a taste of that storied farm-to-table flavor. But the American Food and Drug Administration has banned the sale of raw milk across state lines for more than 25 years, and most individual states have banned its sale entirely or greatly limited it. The cadre of U.S. activists working to change laws and rid their milk of pasteurization (once the most spectacular food technology around) include many who are technology promoters in other venues. There’s a lot more to raw milk than nostalgia, but food has become something of an acceptable repository for many technologists’ low-tech sentiments. If old-time raw milk is the wave of the future, then what is the protocol for determining when a mandated food technology becomes obsolete? (See “Gene Doctors Milk Mice“)

The Problem With Pasteurization

Pasteurization’s problem, raw-milk activists say, is that when the process heats liquid to a temperature that kills most micro-organisms, milk’s beneficial micro-organisms are killed along with any potentially harmful micro-organisms that make their way in during the packaging of milk. Aside from just killing great natural milk flavor, pasteurization, some claim, kills beneficial enzymes that cure a litany of ills, from allergies to eczema. Weigh that against the risk of E.coli, listeria, or salmonella from not pasteurizing milk, and you’ve got the debate. March in the statistics, and lots of them.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the one hand cite the rise of raw-milk related illness and death, and raw milk activists on the other side note the lack of contaminant pathogens from bottling raw milk at well-run farms with hygienic milking procedures.

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Photograph by Kristen Taylor

Want Raw Milk? Here’s How to Get It

Almost half of U.S. state legislatures last year introduced bills to loosen limits on the sale of raw milk in some way. Some states are craftier, creating a “buy the cow, get the milk free” scenario for those who don’t live on farms: Several raw-milk seekers purchase a cow-share with others who live within the state, pay a farmer to care for the cow, and then get the milk for “free,” with no actual financial transaction occurring for the milk. It’s all above board because there’s no law against drinking the raw milk of your own cow. (See “Dinosaur Lactation?”)

As with most outright bans, there are lots of ways around the rules with questionably legality. A high-end pet store in the Washington, D.C. area sells raw cow and goat milk marketed for dogs, but on a recent afternoon it was bought and consumed in plain sight by humans. On the weekends, some farmers trade tractors for delivery trucks and take their milk across state lines for members of “buyers’ clubs” (not technically selling, just delivering, the product) in states that ban the sale of raw milk.

Children Among Those Sickened by Raw Milk

This clever black market creates both interest and aversion. Criminal-mastermind schemes bestow on the raw-milk trade nefariousness once reserved for the now au-courant marijuana industry. Everyone agrees there is some risk with raw milk and the federal government, while not known for its progressive, nimble ways, can footnote its regulation of raw milk with death and illness numbers. Some regulators react particularly strongly because some of those numbers represent children engaged in the iconic, innocent activity of drinking milk.

America can look for guidance to other countries where raw milk is accepted—both industrially developed countries like those in the European Union that allow raw milk sales and industrially developing countries, where the only milk available may be raw milk because pasteurization isn’t accessible. The French particularly would be surprised to read on FDA’s website that brie from unpasteurized milk is flat-out “unsafe to eat.” With all of the studies, statistics, and regulations, food technology’s obsolescence is in the eye of the beholder.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month “Future of Food“ series.