Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Raw


Get ready for the mother of all excuses for burning gas.

Oh the irony. Set goals to cut back on fossil fuels, swear off paper bags, cups and plastic water bottles, then drive 18 miles (hey, it's round-trip) for a half gallon of milk.

BUT -- (So many buts) -- BUT

It's fresh milk, this-morning fresh, with two inches of cream on top. It comes from a farm with three milk cows who are free to wander and eat grass all day, imagine that. The farmer is happy to show you around, describe how she keeps udders clean, and how she can tell when the cows don't feel well. In order to buy from her you have to sign a piece of paper that says this milk will only be fed to your cat. Then she asks -- do you want cold, milked last night, or do you want me to pour you a warm one?

OK, here it comes: Listeria! Salmonella! E Coli!

Yes. Raw milk is risky.

So is peanut butter and spinach (http://www.consumeraffairs.com/news04/2007/03/peanut_butter_recall13.html), (http://www.ny1.com/content/top_stories/106025/salmonella-spurs-spinach-recall/). So is refrigerated cookie dough, ground beef, salsa and chicken pot pie.

A few words to the sputtering on pros and cons:

Pros: According to proponents, grass fed cows produce safer milk than milk from cows that live in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, and never see the light of day; and unpasteurized milk from grass fed cows contains:
*all 8 essential amino acids (a couple are heat sensitive and thus don't make it through pasteurization), making it a "complete" food;
*conjugated linoleic acid;
*lactose-digesting lactobaccilli
*lactoferrin,
*lysozyme and lactoperioxidase, more anti-bad-microbe warriors
*immunoglobulins, aka antibodies, some of which are also heat-sensitive.
Benefits attributed to the above ingredients include assistance with digestion and improved absorption of nutrients, protection from tooth decay, and, you probably guessed these, virus/bacteria/cancer fighting properties.

Cons: The other side, by far and away the Great Majority, includes, naturally, large-scale milk processors, but also vegans, who are opposed to consuming anything from cows, most medical professionals, people who get sick after drinking raw milk (one of my best friends), and the FDA. The dangers noted above (Listeria! E Coli! Salmonella!) are linked to death and permanent maiming. The FDA also states on its website, in bold letters, that pasteurization DOES NOT reduce milk's nutritional value. Hmm.

This is not an anti-pasteurization essay. I feed pasteurized milk to my family. Heat processing makes it possible to distribute reasonably healthy milk to millions at a minimal cost. The FDA's assertion that "Pasteurization DOES save lives" is correct. It does. Their claim that it DOES NOT reduce milk's nutritional value is off, but pasteurized milk is good for a lot of people, especially if you live in a big city and are not lucky enough to live less than ten miles from a dairy.

So, why risk it? Why waste fossil fuels to get it?

1. Because it tastes like ice cream, and one glass will keep you full for a morning; 2. It is healthier than pasteurized milk (sorry FDA); 3. Processed milk doesn't sit well with me, but raw milk does, and I'm tired of taking supplements and drinking faux milk (soy, rice, almond, hemp, tried them all) to get my Required Daily Allowance of calcium; 4. If the claims of anti-bacteria/virus/cancer benefits are true, well then...

It's not just rawness or freshness that is appealing. Just like we pretend it's OK to drive cars that are as big as we like, as far we like, we pretend that it's OK to ignore what happens to cows that produce most of our milk.

Most dairy cows in the United States are treated like car parts that poop. Most live in CAFOs, (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) which confine thousands of animals, inside, year round. Pathogens abound. The animal waste produced from these operations is appalling. The cows are fed hormones to increase milk production, which cause udder infections and leach into our milk and water supplies; antibiotics to quell the rampant infections; and processed food, rather than grass.

It is not a good idea to drink raw milk from this kind of dairy.

How about from a small, clean, three-cow dairy? You have to decide for yourself.

Four things tipped the scale for me:

1. My grandmother's dairy. We used to line up with the barn cats when she milked, and she squirted right into our tin cups (and the cats' mouths). Probably losing a lot of you here. Warm milk from a cow sounds yucky to most of my friends. It was heaven to a five-year-old who didn't know any better. How amazing, that this experience evolved from innocent and commonplace to exotic and weird within a span of 40 years.

2. Johanna Spyri's book Heidi.

3. Madame Colette's cooking class. When my daughter was in middle school she took cooking classes from a French native. Every year the students made chocolate mousse, using raw eggs. One year they sold it in a bake sale. Not one case of food poisoning. Fear of raw milk is 100% legitimate, but it is, perhaps, overblown, just like the fear of raw eggs. This is not to say throw caution to the wind, but precautions lower risk. It's as simple as that.

4. Chris and Walter's farm. These friends run a 40 acre organic farm, including a few chickens and a milk cow or two. Chris recently pointed out that fresh eggs from bug-scratching hens, and raw milk work on a small scale, but only on a small scale. As soon as you start trying to produce in bulk, pathogens become a problem, as well as transportation, liability, and a host of other trip-ups. In our state it is legal to buy raw milk only when you buy it directly from the dairy. Makes sense. How else can you be sure that udders are clean, that cows are grazing, that jars are sterilized? It's a tricky business. The farmer can't be in it for the money, because it takes time to produce, and a fair amount of acreage. There are no economies of scale. And yet, there are a lot of underground people, many without a lot of money, going to the trouble.

This goes against our cultural grain. Progress and Efficiency, gods that so many place faith in, dictate that Small is backwards, primitive, dangerous. Worse: Small is eccentric, socially unacceptable. I don't buy it. It's exciting to have faith in technology, but just in case superbugs get the upper hand, or the CAFO smells get too much for the neighbors, or we have one too many spills of cow sewage into rivers and streams, we might be happy to have a few farmers who know how to pasture and milk cows the old fashioned way.

It is a good thing when cows eat what cows are supposed to eat, and live healthy lives, their waste decomposing benignly in the grass, and with no pus from hormone-engorged udders dripping into their milk. We should all be fighting the fight to improve the lives of cows in big commercial operations.

A word to anyone thinking about trying raw milk yourself. If your intestines have never seen unpasteurized cows' milk before, they may not be able to handle it right away. Prep them with a healthy yogurt for a few days first, and break in slowly.

Yes, raw milk is risky, probably about as risky as bicycle riding in traffic. Yes it takes extra fuel to get to the farm to buy it. BUT --