The Raw Milk Debate Part 2

April 18, 2012

Curious to know more about raw milk; specifically the pros and cons from two experts? Find out more here

Dr. Heidi Kassenborg (con) vs. Doug Stephan (pro)

Stephan: Raw milk is a ‘complete’ food. It contains components that help prevent potentially dangerous pathogens from growing in the milk, enzymes that help the body digest and use the nutrients in the milk, and many vitamins and minerals that are destroyed or rendered ineffective by pasteurization.

But whether or not raw milk is healthy shouldn’t be the determining factor about whether or not it should be available to consumers. The only consideration should be whether or not raw milk can be produced and distributed safely, and farmers in states around the nation have proven that it can.

Also, opponents of raw milk sales fail to recognize that there are two kinds of raw milk – the milk being processed that is meant to be pasteurized, and the milk being processed that is meant to be served as raw milk. Milk intended for raw milk consumption has extremely low bacteria counts. Mine are the lowest of anybody in the state because the animals are clean, the barn is clean and the system is clean. I have a couple hundred cows, so it is possible to do this. In big dairies there is more bacteria because the conditions are not as clean, but this works for them because that milk is intended for pasteurization. We must acknowledge that these two milk products are entirely different.

Kassenborg: Low bacteria counts do not mean that a producer’s milk is pathogen free. It doesn’t take many bacteria to cause illness; less than 50 bacteria in the case of Escherichia coli O157:H7. Furthermore, a recent study from Wisconsin found no evidence to back up claims that smaller dairy farms have higher quality milk than larger farms. In fact, the group mean values for small farms (>118 cattle) for both the bulk tank standard plate count (commonly referred to as the bacteria count) and somatic cell counts were higher than for large farms (119–713 cattle), and for confined animal feeding operations (?714 cattle)*. Additionally, many small dairies have been the source of raw milk outbreaks. Again, on-farm precautions just aren’t enough to ensure a consistently safe product when it comes to raw milk.

How do raw milk sales restrictions affect the businesses of independent and small farmers?

Kassenborg: Minnesota farmers can sell raw milk on their farms, but most choose not to do so. Civil liability claims for illnesses traced to raw milk can be in the millions of dollars. Insurance policies with premiums and deductibles that are affordable for a raw milk business model may be difficult to obtain. In the absence of adequate, affordable insurance coverage, an important question for a dairy farmer to consider is whether selling raw milk is important enough to them that they are “willing to bet the farm on it?”
Stephan: Allowing farms to sell raw milk to meet the growing consumer demand is a proven tool for saving small family farms. In my state, Massachusetts, we have lost hundreds of conventional dairy farms in the past decade. At the same time, however, the number of farms licensed to sell raw milk has steadily increased, and no farm licensed to sell raw milk has gone out of business.

Farmers who sell raw milk are able to get a fair price for their product, a price that allows them to cover their costs and feed their families. Farmers who sell their milk into the conventional market are at the whim of the federal milk marketing order, a complicated system whereby the federal government sets the price that processors pay for milk. This price is often far less than what it costs to produce the milk, which is why thousands of family operated dairy farms have gone out of business in recent years.

Do you believe that raw milk will be allowed to be sold in all states? By when? What impact, if any, could this have on pasteurized milk sales?

Stephan: I can’t predict what will happen in the future with individual states’ laws. Giving consumers a choice is always a good thing, though, and can ultimately help the competition. There will always be consumers who prefer one product over another, and if conventional milk producers want to compete with the growing interest in raw milk they’ll need to figure out how to make their product as appealing as raw milk.

Kassenborg: It’s hard to make predictions about the future of this business. Whatever ultimately happens, my hope is that consumers will do their homework and make well-informed decisions that weigh the risks and benefits.

What do you think is the future of raw milk sales in the United States?

Stephan: I’d like to see more farmers start offering raw milk for sale to meet the rapidly increasing demand. A growing number of consumers want to know where their food comes from and want the money they spend on their food to go to the farmers who produce it, and that translates into opportunities for dairies. When it comes to raw milk being offered and available everywhere, House bill 1830 addresses that.

Kassenborg: My hope is that producers, consumers, lawmakers and government regulators keep food safety as a primary concern as they consider their views of raw milk. If heat treatment or pasteurization are not acceptable, then what is the acceptable intervention to ensure the safety of our milk? Despite what some may say, regulatory agencies are not in the business of picking winners and losers. We deal with the facts, and let them guide our actions. Our goal is to provide the consumer with reasonable confidence that the food they eat will not make them sick.

Learn more about Doug Stephan’s farm here. Learn more about the public health concerns surrounding raw milk here.

*S. C. Ingham, Y. H. (2011). Comparison of bulk-tank standard plate count and somatic cell. J. Dairy Sci. (94:4237–4241, 4237-4241).

For part 1 click here