Raw Milk: A Healthier Alternative?
from Vancouver Magazine October 2010
Alice Jongerden wanted to give her family a healthy start, so she bought a cow. Then another, and another. Now she finds herself at the centre of a court battle over public health
The day after I visited Alice Jongerden at her Chilliwack dairy, I found myself rushing into hospital. A few hours before, my daughter had turned pale and started vomiting. No one—not the nurses, not the paramedics—could explain what was obviously a violent reaction to her 18-month vaccinations. “She’s still breathing!” the nurse said, as if this were the only concrete reassurance she could give. Driving the winding highway into the emergency department—we’d insisted on the ambulance and this trip—I found my mind wandering back to Jongerden. Blame it on anxiety.
A happily married mother of five and devout Christian, Jongerden has the laugh of a woman who doesn’t care if you’re laughing with her. With the help of two full-time workers, some part-time staff, and her husband Bert, she spends between 70 and 80 hours a week tending a 22-strong herd on 40 leased acres in the heart of Chilliwack dairy country. In exchange for feeding and milking the cows, and bottling and distributing their milk, Jongerden—or, more properly, her Home on the Range Dairy—receives $18.50 per gallon from each member of the cow share that owns them, on top of money for whatever extras (butter, yogurt) she makes from the leftovers. Profits have been slim, with upfront expenses for equipment and maintenance fees and cows (a new cow goes for between $1,500 and $2,000), but member contributions allowed Bert to quit his job two years ago to take care of maintenance, deliveries, and quality control and for the Jongerdens to focus on the cow share and on home-schooling their two oldest full-time.
It may seem that the family is living out a perfectly scripted Fraser Valley farming story, but the reality is something different. Home on the Range Dairy distributes milk that hasn’t been pasteurized, and Jongerden—its lead farmer—has become the face of a small but growing movement of British Columbians preparing for an all-out battle with the provincial government over their right to consume their milk raw.
Across North America, there are dozens—if not hundreds—of similar cow shares, most set up to get around the prohibition of raw-milk sales in their region. In B.C., there are at least two others that Alice knows of—smaller, but growing fast. Jongerden grew up on a dairy farm north of London, Ontario, and even though their milk was sent for pasteurization, her family drank its own milk raw. About four years ago, in her mid 30s, she decided she wanted her family to drink raw milk also. She wanted her children to have the same strong bones and good health she had growing up. It was a mother’s wish, but with sales prohibited across the country, she couldn’t find raw milk. So she bought a cow. Any excess milk, she shared with friends. Soon other families wanted in. She used the proceeds to buy more cows. In three years, she was delivering raw milk to over 400 families from Chilliwack to Whistler.
“I didn’t set out to take on the government,” she said, standing outside her milking parlour in overalls and gumboots. “It’s just been one decision after another.”
On December 12, 2009, health authorities showed up at Home on the Range’s raw-milk depots in Kitsilano, North Vancouver, East Vancouver, Burnaby, Abbotsford, and Langley. They dumped most of the milk down the drain, and confiscated the rest, along with butter and yogurt, for laboratory testing. Without waiting for results, Fraser Health showed up on Jongerden’s doorstep with a cease-and-desist order, threatening legal action that would shut Home on the Range down if she continued to distribute raw milk in the Lower Mainland. Jongerden refused to listen. As far as she saw it, the government had oversight only over milk that was for sale; she was simply providing raw milk from cows that her membership already owned.
A few weeks later, Fraser Health sent out a press release claiming a child from a family with a Home on the Range membership had come down with Campylobacter, a food-borne illness that could be linked to bacteria coliforms detected in the test samples taken from the Home on the Range milk depots. A high bacteria coliform count could mean one of two things: cow feces somehow got in the milk, or the milk was mishandled during processing or testing. The press jumped all over the story—and who could resist: modern technology tracks a food-borne illness back to a dairy farmer with a herd of 22!—and the public was warned again and again in articles, radio shows, and TV spots about the dangerous coliform bacteria lurking within raw milk. Vancouver Coastal Health went so far as to warn of “bloody diarrhea, kidney failure and death.” The Fraser Health Authority took Jongerden to court. Despite an Ontario ruling in favour of a raw-milk dairy farmer running a similar cow share out East that same month, the B.C. Supreme Court’s Madam Justice Miriam Gropper ordered Home on the Range to stop operations. Gropper rested her March 18 verdict on the argument that Jongerden was “willingly causing a health hazard” by supplying her members with unpasteurized milk.
Jongerden kept on milking, kept on bottling, and kept on delivering raw milk to her members. More surprisingly—considering the dire warnings from public-health officials about the results of the tests—her members kept on drinking it. Or did they? The day I visited, a few weeks after the court order, Jongerden swung open her cooling fridge to show her latest batch, dozens of rows of full one-litre Mason jars—cream line and all—each with an openly tongue-in-cheek label warning: “Not for Human Consumption.”
“I complied,” Jongerden said, barely suppressing a smile. “I gave my membership a list of 20 other things they could do with their property.”
“But what about the child who got sick?” I asked, knowing this “property” was going to families to be drunk, not to polish their silver or clean the leaves on their rubber plants. Drunk by children who could potentially end up in the hospital with bloody diarrhea or kidney failure or… Surely no parent wants their child to get sick. If raw milk can make a child sick, it’s an open-and-shut case. Isn’t it?
She looked at me with raised eyebrows. “What child?”
My child, I thought on my way to the hospital the next day. What have I done to my child?
Jongerden’s raw-milk crusade and my daughter’s vaccinations are linked in more ways than you might think. Both trace their lineage back to the same man. The inventor of pasteurization, Louis Pasteur, is also one of the scientific minds behind our modern practice of vaccination. The French microbiologist and chemist, along with German physician Robert Koch, convinced a skeptical Europe through multiple experiments and papers that micro-organisms were the cause of many diseases. Pasteur’s “germ theory” is now a cornerstone of public health around the world. Vaccinations ensure that our immune systems can resist a specific germ in the event we encounter it. And pasteurization—in the case of milk, this involves heating it to between 61º and 63º Celsius for at least 30 minutes—kills these germs before we meet them.
More than anything, it’s the statistical success of Pasteur’s discoveries that has secured his position atop the public-health pyramid. “Pasteurization of raw milk has prevented thousands of illnesses and deaths,” the BC Centre for Disease Control claims. “It is one of the greatest advances in public health of the 20th century.” Who can argue? The 20th century was a scary time for public health—especially when it came to milk. City populations exploded and farmlands shrank. Dairy farmers had to team up with industry to meet the growing demand. Before this, milkmen went door to door with milk from farmers they knew personally. If there was a bad batch, you could be sure the farmer found out about it. But with increased urbanization, companies began collecting raw milk from dozens of farmers and distributing it through their own networks. Typhoid, scarlet fever, and tuberculosis epidemics in cities across North America and Europe were invariably linked back to these shady operations. “Pasteurization, if properly carried out,” a 1953 World Health Organization book on milk pasteurization reads, “can virtually abolish the danger of infectious or epidemic diseases whose causative organisms are conveyed by raw milk.”
Pasteurization worked—as, it could be argued, did vaccinations—for public health. But what about personal health? Lost in our mainstream obsession with Pasteur’s germ theory (think of today’s ubiquitous antibiotics, from antibacterial soap to household bleach, and you get the picture) is another theory that emerged at the same time: the “milieu intérior theory.”
Claude Bernard, a French microbiologist and colleague of Pasteur’s, argued that it wasn’t the germ’s fault that we humans got sick, but the state of our “internal environment.” In other words, if our immune system is strong, the bad germs don’t matter. Sparks flew in the microbiology community, prompting endless debates with no real resolution. Except this: “germ theory” worked better on a large scale; and by the mid 20th century, milk was large scale. Where there was a typhoid epidemic, health officials weren’t thinking about how to strengthen immune systems; they were thinking about how to stop the epidemics. Bernard’s theory got buried—at least in the public-health sphere—only to re-emerge years later in the guise of holistic nutrition, Cold F/X, and, here in the Lower Mainland at least, Alice Jongerden’s raw milk.
releases, websites, and medical journals—preferred haunt of the public-health official—are filled with studies, statistics, and undisguised pleas from medical health officers proving the indisputable fact that pasteurized milk is much safer to drink than raw. “It is important that all British Columbians be aware of the serious health risks associated with consuming unpasteurized milk,” Dr. Perry Kendall, B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer, wrote in an open letter to Victoria’s Times Colonist in the wake of the Home on the Range story. “Any perceived health benefits are most certainly offset by the serious risks of illness, disease or even death that can result.” Robin Smith, executive director of the B.C. Dairy Foundation, goes one step further. “If someone drinks raw milk and gets sick,” he says, “they shouldn’t use the public health care system—if you want to take risks, maybe you shouldn’t ask the public system to take care of you.”
At the same time, the blogosphere—preferred haunt of the raw-milk advocate—is stuffed with anecdotes and opinions reporting the health benefits, even miraculous cures, of switching their asthmatic child, their allergic friend, their lactose-intolerant self from pasteurized to raw milk. “Raw milk literally saved my life,” writes a Michigan woman after hearing that her local raw milk farmer might be shut down. “Four years ago I was deathly ill with a chronic digestive disorder that threatened to end my career and my life. I was able to rebuild my health to a vibrant state.” Dona Bradley, a registered holistic nutritionist from the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition, doesn’t find this hard to believe. “Pasteurized milk is a dead food,” she claims. “There are no enzymes, no probiotics—or beneficial bacteria. Raw milk is a live whole food. Raw milk tends to help build the immune system.” There are bacteria in the raw milk that our immune system needs, she explains; pasteurization kills these bacteria, leaving us vulnerable to our modern disease epidemics (such as asthma, allergies, and lactose intolerance).
Somehow Jongerden’s voice rises above the din of these raw-milk wars playing out on blogs, in newspapers, and in courtrooms across North America. Jongerden with her 22 cows and two steer she’s helping her children raise. Jongerden with her half a ramshackle red barn she shares with her landlord, and her milking room the size of a suburban ensuite. Once you spend an hour or so with her—as she takes a call every 15 minutes from her children, one needing attention, another wondering what’s for dinner (“There’s a roast in the crock-pot, it’s falling off the bone”)—she turns from raw-milk-bacteria-wielding rebel to the kind of mother you’d trust with your child in a heartbeat; the kind of parent you hope you can be
My own personal long-term dream?” Jongerden asked, unprompted, leaning against her truck in the driveway. “I’d love to teach people how to take care of one or two cows; for people to go back to a simpler time.”
Later, I’m home with my daughter (who flies around the house like a wasp; amazing creatures, these 18-month-olds) and I’m no closer to understanding her violent reaction to the vaccine. Faced with the enormity of the stakes, I can’t help but admire Jongerden’s certainty. She is certain that feeding her children raw milk is the right thing, the healthy choice. What’s more: she’s the one doing it. Most of the disease-causing bacteria found in raw milk, she insists, are the result of industrial farming practices where the farmer isn’t even in the room when the cows get milked. She and her helpers milk each cow themselves, ensuring the cows aren’t diseased and the milk is kept clean.
“No one should be able to tell me how to consume my food,” she said. “If I go to McDonald’s three times a day, no one’s going to tell me it’s a health hazard.” Or refuse her access to a hospital. There’s a simplicity to this reasoning—an irony, too, that is pleasantly reassuring after my head-first dive into the paranoia-inducing world of vaccinations gone wrong. This doesn’t mean I’m planning on switching to raw milk or that we’re going to stop vaccinating our daughter. Jongerden just lays out the dilemma in cold hard terms: what might be a health hazard on a public scale (raw milk) might just be the remedy we’re searching for personally; what might be a hazard to my daughter’s personal health (vaccinations) could be necessary for the health of society as a whole.
Jongerden and Home on the Range await the next move from the Fraser Health Authority. She believes she’s obeying the judge’s decision by informing her members that raw milk is a health hazard and labelling their jars “Not for Human Consumption.” It’s up to the FHA to decide whether to follow this up with more court action. In the meantime, she’ll keep on taking care of her herd and providing members and her family with their weekly dividends. What she does with it, as far as she’s concerned, is her own business. VM
Additional Images click to enlarge
from Harper's magazine
Inside the raw-milk underground By Nathanael Johnson
The agents arrived before dawn.
They concealed the squad car and police van behind trees, and there, on the road that runs past Michael Schmidt’s farm in Durham, Ontario, they waited for the dairyman to make his move. A team from the Ministry of Natural Resources had been watching Schmidt for months, shadowing him on his weekly runs to Toronto. Two officers had even infiltrated the farmer’s inner circle, obtaining for themselves samples of his product. Lab tests confirmed their suspicions. It was raw milk. The unpasteurized stuff. Now the time had come to take him down.
Schmidt had risen that morning at 4 A.M. He milked his cows and ate breakfast. He loaded up a delivery, then fired up the bus. But as he reached the end of the driveway, two cars moved in to block his path. A police officer stepped into the road and raised his hand. Another ran to the bus and banged on the door. Others were close behind. Eventually twenty-four officers from five different agencies would search the farm. Many of them carried guns.
“The farm basically flooded, from everywhere came these people,” Schmidt later told me in his lilting German accent. “It looked like the Russian army coming, all these men with earflap hats. ” The process of heating milk to kill bacteria has been common for nearly a century, and selling unpasteurized milk for human consumption is currently illegal in Canada and in half the U.S. states. Yet thousands of people in North America still seek raw milk.
Some say milk in its natural state keeps them healthy; others just crave its taste. Schmidt operates one of the many blackmarket networks that supply these raw-milk enthusiasts. Schmidt showed men in biohazard suits around his barn, both annoyed and amused by the absurdity of the situation. The government had known that he was producing raw milk for at least a dozen years, yet an officer was now informing him that they would be seizing all the “unpasteurized product” and shuttling it to the University of Guelph for testing.
In recent years, raids of this sort have not been unusual. In October 2006, Michigan officials destroyed a truckload of Richard Hebron’s unpasteurized dairy. The previous month, the Ohio Department of Agriculture shut down Carol Schmitmeyer’s farm for selling raw milk. Cincinnati cops also swooped in to stop Gary Oaks in March 2006 as he unloaded raw milk in the parking lot of a local church. When bewildered residents gathered around, an officer told them to step away from “the white liquid substance.”
The previous September an undercover agent in Ohio asked Amish dairyman Arlie Stutzman for a jug of unpasteurized milk. Stutzman refused payment, but when the agent offered to leave a donation instead, the farmer said he could give whatever he thought was fair. Busted.
If the police actions against Schmidt and other farmers have been overzealous, they are nevertheless motivated by a real threat. The requirement for pasteurization— heating milk to at least 161 degrees Fahrenheit for fifteen seconds— neutralizes such deadly bacteria as Campylobacter jejuni, Listeria monocytogenes, Escherichia coli, and salmonella.
Between 1919, when only a third of the milk in Massachusetts was pasteurized, and 1939, when almost all of it was, the number of outbreaks of milk-borne disease fell by nearly 90 percent. Indeed, pasteurization is part of a much broader security cordon set up in the past century to protect people from germs. Although milk has a special place on the watch list (it’s not washable and comes out of apertures that sit just below the orifice of excretion), all foods are subject to scrutiny. The thing that makes our defense against raw milk so interesting, however, is the mounting evidence that these health measures also could be doing us great harm.
Over the past fifty years, people in developed countries began showing up in doctors’ offices with autoimmune disorders in far greater numbers. In many places, the rates of such conditions as multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, and Crohn’s disease have doubled and even tripled. Almost half the people living in First World nations now suffer from allergies. It turns out that people who grow up on farms are much less likely to have these problems.
Perhaps, scientists hypothesized, we’ve become too clean and aren’t being exposed to the bacteria we need to prime our immune systems. What we pour over our cereal has become the physical analogue of this larger ideological struggle over microbial security. The very thing that makes raw milk dangerous, its dirtiness, may make people healthier, and pasteurization could be cleansing beneficial bacteria from milk.
The recent wave of raw-milk busts comes at a time when new evidence is invigorating those who threaten to throw open our borders to bacterial incursion. Public-health officials are infuriated by the raw milkers’ sheer wrongheadedness and inability to correctly interpret the facts, and the raw milkers feel the same way about them. Milk as it emerges from the teat, it seems, is both panacea and poison.
Schmidt responded to the raid on his farm by immediately going on a hunger strike. For a month he consumed nothing but a glass of raw milk a day. He milked a cow on the lawn outside Ontario’s provincial parliament. This was a battle, he said, for which he was prepared to lose his farm. He was ready to go to jail. Actually, he’d been awaiting arrest for more than a decade. For all that time, he told me, he’d carried a camera with him so that he could take pictures when the authorities finally came to shut him down. “And I upgraded. You know, first it was still, then video, then digital came along.”
The fifty-three-year-old Schmidt doesn’t have the demeanor of a rabblerouser. His temperament, in fact, is not unlike that of the cows he tends. A large man, he moves deliberately, reacts placidly to provocation. He has thin blond hair, light-blue eyes, and pockmarked cheeks. On the farm he invariably wears black jeans, a white shirt, and a black vest. In the summer he dons a broad-brimmed straw hat; in the winter, a black newsboy’s cap.
When Schmidt emigrated from Germany in 1983, he wanted to start a farm that would operate in a manner fundamentally different from that of the average industrial dairy. Instead of lodging his cows in a manure-filled lot, he would give them abundant pastures. Instead of feeding them corn and silage, he’d give them grass. And instead of managing hundreds of anonymous animals to maximize the return on his investment, he would care for about fifty cows and maximize health and ecological harmony. If he kept the grasses and cows and pigs and all the components of the farm’s ecosystem healthy, he believed the bacterial ecosystem in the milk would be healthy, too.
Schmidt bought 600 acres three hours northwest of Toronto. There he built up a herd of Canadiennes, handsome brown-and-black animals with black-tipped horns. Most cattle farmers burn off the horn buds— a guarantee against being gored —but Schmidt believes it’s better to leave things in their natural state whenever possible.
The dangers posed by the horns (like the dangers of drinking unpasteurized milk) weighed less heavily on him than the risk of disrupting some unknown element of nature’s design. The farm flourished under his hand. Schmidt set up a cow-share system whereby, instead of purchasing raw dairy, customers leased a portion of a cow and paid a “boarding fee” when they picked up milk. People were technically drinking milk from their own cows. The animals were, for all practical purposes, still Schmidt’s property, but the scheme made the defiance of the law less flagrant, and health officials could look the other way. Then, in 1994, the Canadian Broadcasting Company aired a documentary about Schmidt and his unpasteurized product.
A few months later he was charged with endangering the public health.
Because Schmidt believed that his style of biodynamic farming actually secured the public health, he decided to fight the charges. Newspapers began quoting him on the salubrious powers of raw milk and the detriments of industrial dairy. At this time, strange things started happening around the farm. Vandals broke into his barn. Schmidt found two of his cows lying dead in the yard, apparently poisoned. Then an unmarked van ran his cousin’s car off the road. Men jumped out of the van’s back and forced him inside, holding him there for two hours.
Schmidt hadn’t been prepared for the struggle to take this turn. He sent his cousin back to Germany, agreed to plead guilty in court, and sold all but 100 acres of his farm to pay the government fines and cover his lost income.
Schmidt is a man of Teutonic certainty, but as he walked into the field soon after he’d sold the land, he was filled with doubt. The morning sun had turned the sky red, and mist hung around the legs of the cattle. While he twitched a stick at his bull, Xamos, to turn him away from the cows, Schmidt wondered whether it was even possible to run a farm in the manner he wanted. If he started selling his milk at industrial prices it would erode his meticulous style of farming. He would lose the direct connection to his customers. He’d have to push his cows to produce more milk. He’d be compelled to adopt the newest feed management strategies and modernize his equipment.
Schmidt didn’t see Xamos coming, just felt the explosion as the bull struck him. Even as he hit the ground, the animal was on him, bellowing. It stabbed with one horn and then the other, tearing up the earth and ripping off Schmidt’s clothes. One horn sank into Schmidt’s belly, another ripped into his chest and shoulder, grazing a lung. Only when his wife charged into the field, flanked by the couple’s snarling dogs, did Xamos retreat. Another man might have taken this attack as a sure sign, a demonstration of the folly of seeking harmony with nature. As Schmidt lay there bleeding into the earth, however, he felt only humility. “Nature is dangerous, yes,” he would tell me later. “But I can’t control it, and I can’t escape from it. I can only learn the best way to live with it.”
By the time Schmidt could walk again, almost six weeks later, he’d decided to continue farming on his own terms. He announced his intentions publicly, but the regulators must have felt that they’d made their point. For years he continued farming quietly, as an outlaw, until the morning that government agents descended on his dairy. After the hunger strike and the other public acts of protest, Schmidt settled in for the long fight. He hired a top defense lawyer in hopes of overturning Ontario’s raw-milk ban.
In the twenty-five years that Schmidt has operated the dairy, no one has ever reported falling sick after drinking his milk. Yet raw-milk illnesses do crop up.
the Centers for Disease Control, the
United States averages seventy cases
of raw-dairy food poisoning each
year. In the fall of 2006, for instance,
California officials announced that
raw milk tainted with E. coli was responsible
for a rash of illnesses. It is
legal to sell unpasteurized dairy in
California, and the tainted milk
came from Organic Pastures, in Fresno,
the largest of several farms that
supply the state’s health-food stores.
Tony Martin had agonized over buying
the raw milk. He’d never brought it
home before. He knew that milk was
pasteurized for a reason, but he’d also
heard that the raw stuff might help his
son’s allergies. “There was a lot of picking
it up off the shelf and putting it
back,” he said. Chris, his seven-yearold,
drank the Organic Pastures milk
three days in a row over a Labor Day
weekend. On Wednesday, Chris woke
up pale and lethargic. On Thursday he
had diarrhea and was vomiting. That
night he had blood in his stool, and the
Martins rushed him to the hospital.
Shortly afterward, several other children
checked into southern California
hospitals. All of them had drunk Organic
Pastures raw-milk products, and
they all were diagnosed as being infected
with a virulent strain of E. coli
known as O157:H7. Some of the children
recovered rapidly, but two, Chris
Martin and Lauren Herzog, got progressively
worse. The O157:H7 strain
releases a jet of toxins when it comes
into contact with antibiotics, so doctors
face the difficult decision of allowing
nature to take its course or intervening
and risking further damage. Chris’s
doctors administered antibiotics, Lauren’s
did not, yet both children’s kidneys
shut down. While Chris was on dialysis,
his body became so swollen that his
father said he wouldn’t have recognized
him if he passed him on the street. Chris
was in the hospital fifty-five days. Lauren
went home after a month but then
relapsed and had to return. Both children
eventually recovered but may have
suffered permanent kidney damage.
The illnesses didn’t stop raw-milk
sales. Even as the state ordered store
managers to destroy the milk on their
shelves, customers rushed in to buy whatever they could. Several Organic Pastures customers said regulators had simply pinned unrelated illnesses on the milk. They pointed out that siblings and friends of the sick children had drunk the same milk from the same
bottles and didn’t get so much as diarrhea.
Tests for E. coli in one of the milk
bottles in question had also turned up
negative. Although it seemed implausible
that the state would frame Mark
McAfee, the owner of Organic Pastures,
it certainly was possible that regulators
were predisposed to declare raw
milk guilty. When state veterinarians
came to search Organic Pastures for E.
coli, they were surprised to see that the
manure they pulled from the cows’ rectums
was watery and contained less
bacteria than usual. Patrick Kennelly,
chief of the food-safety section at the
California Department of Health Services,
confronted McAfee with these
facts in an email, writing, “Not only is
this unnatural, but it is consistent with
the type of reactions that an animal
might have after being treated with
high doses of antibiotics. . . . Why were
your cows in this condition, Mark?”
McAfee does not use antibiotics on
his organic farm. The state tests all
shipments of his milk for antibiotics
residue and has never found any. Allan
Nation, a grazing expert, offered another
explanation: the cows had been
eating grass. Grass-fed cows carry a lower
number of pathogens, he said. And
for a few days in the spring and fall,
when the weather changes and new
grass sprouts, the cows “tend to squirt,”
as Nation put it. But grass-eating cows
have become so rare that, to California
health officials, they seemed unnatural.
The norms of industrial dairying
had become so deeply ingrained that a
regulator could jump to the conclusion
that all milk is dirty until
pasteurized. Around the time that Chicago
passed the first pasteurization law in
the United States, in 1908, many of
the dairies supplying cities had themselves
become urban. They were crowded,
grassless, and filthy. Unscrupulous
proprietors added chalk and plaster of
paris to extend the milk. Consumptive
workers coughed into their pails,
spreading tuberculosis; children contracted
diseases like scarlet fever from
milk. Pasteurization was an easy solution.
But pasteurization also gave farmers
license to be unsanitary. They knew
that if fecal bacteria got in the milk, the
heating process would eventually take
care of it. Customers didn’t notice, or
pay less, when they drank the corpses
of a few thousand pathogens. As a result,
farmers who emphasized animal
health and cleanliness were at a disadvantage
to those who simply pushed
for greater production.
After a century of pasteurization,
modern dairies, to put it bluntly, are
covered in shit. Most have a viscous
lagoon full of it. Cows lie in it.
Wastewater is recycled to flush out
their stalls. Farmers do dip cows’
teats in iodine, but standards mandate
only that the number of germs
swimming around their bulk tanks
be below 100,000 per milliliter.
When I was working as a newspaper
reporter in Cassia County, Idaho, a local
dairyman, Brent Stoker, had wanted
to raise thousands of calves on his
farm and sell them to dairies as replacements
for their worn-out cows.
Stoker’s neighbors, incensed by the
idea of all that manure near their houses,
stopped the project. Stoker wasn’t
an especially dirty farmer—dairy associations
showed off his farm on
tours—but, to survive, dairies must
produce a lot of milk, which means
producing a lot of feces. I called Stoker
recently, to talk dairy and catch up.
He was in the middle of another fight
with the neighbors. This time he wanted
to build a large organic dairy. I said
I hadn’t taken him for the organic type.
“Pay me enough and I am,” he said.
Organic may mean no antibiotics and
no pesticides, but it doesn’t necessarily
mean grass-fed. When it comes to
making milk, grass-fed cows simply can’t
compete. Stoker’s current herd of nonorganic
cows produce a prodigious
eighty pounds of milk per day. That’s
mostly because they are fed like
Olympic athletes. They eat a carefully
formulated mix of roughage and highenergy
grains. “If you were to try to pasture
them, you’d lose production down
to about forty pounds,” Stoker said. “Of
course, the cow would last a lot longer.”
Cows are designed to eat grass, not
grain. Unlike mammals that can’t digest
the cellulose in grass, ruminants
are able to access the solar energy
locked in a green pasture by enlisting
the aid of microbes. These bacteria are
cellulose specialists and turn grass into
the nutrient building blocks that cudchewing
animals need. In return, cows
provide a place for bacteria to live—
the rumen—and a steady supply of
food. This relationship shifts when a
cow begins eating grain. The cellulose
specialists lose their place to bacteria
better suited to the new food supply but
not necessarily so well suited to the
cow. The new bacteria give off acids,
which in extreme conditions can send
the animal into shock. Pushing too
much high-energy feed through a cow
can twist part of its stomach around
other organs. This kink backs up the
digestive flow to a trickle. The cow
will stop eating, and sometimes you
can see the knotted guts bulging under
the skin. Other disorders also result
from the combination of high-energy
feeds and high production: abscessed
liver, ulcerated rumen, rotten hooves,
inflammation of the udders.
It is in a farmer’s interest to keep a
cow healthy—but not too healthy. If a dairyman decreased the grain portion of a cow’s rations to a level that eliminated health problems, he would lose money. A balance must be struck between health and yield. It’s not surprising, then, that farmers end up sending grain-fed cows off to the hamburger plant at a much younger age than their pastured counterparts. On average, dairy farmers slaughter a third of their herds each year. As Brent Stoker put it, “We’re mining the cow.”
There are other bacterial opportunists that move in when a cow’s gastric environment is disturbed by a change in diet. Tired cows and ubiquitous feces combine to create conditions that are ideal for the transmission of pathogens. In a 2002 survey of American farms, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found Campylobacter in 98 percent of all dairies and E. coli O157:H7 on more than half of farms with 500 or more cows. When the milk at these large farms was tested, the researchers discovered salmonella in 3 percent of all bulk tanks and Listeria monocytogenes in 7 percent.
If that milk were shipped to supermarkets without pasteurization, a lot of people would get sick. Healthy cows with plenty of energy are less likely to take on pathogens. I asked Stoker if he’d ever considered returning to a smaller, healthier style of farming. “If I had a way to provide for my six kids and have a comparable standard of living I would do that,” Stoker said. “The way it is now, I’m more stressed, the animals are more stressed, our crops are probably more stressed. There’s nothing I would like more than to go back to that, but I’m too stupid to figure out how.”
The problem isn’t Stoker’s intelligence; it’s what he calls the “dishonesty of the market.” Advertisers promise that consumers can have the healthiest possible food from happy animals in idyllic settings at current prices. This obviously is a lie, but it’s a lie that most people accept. Although American consumers are periodically outraged by the realities of modern agriculture, they never stop demanding cheaper food.
Stoker doesn’t mind playing the hand he’s been dealt. He’s good at producing cheap food. But, he acknowledged, “cheap food makes for expensive health care.”
The people who buy from Michael Schmidt are atypical consumers. They pay a premium for food they believe will keep them healthy. In their estimation, Schmidt has a biological formula working for him that will be to their benefit. The elements of a dairy farm—the cows, plants, microbes, and humans—have been together long enough to have sorted out their differences. By working within this system, Schmidt can take advantage of some natural efficiencies.
Although the life expectancy of a conventional dairy cow is a little under five years, Schmidt’s cows are eight, nine, and twelve years old; they are glossy-coated and solid on their feet. Schmidt told me that he hasn’t needed to have someone trim his cows’ hooves in fifteen years.
The cows produce only around
twenty-five pounds of milk daily,
one third the production of Brent
Stoker’s animals, but Schmidt
doesn’t have to pay much for veterinary
service. He doesn’t have to slap
haunches to roust exhausted animals
from their beds; his cows actually
line up on their own for milking.
There’s a little trick he likes to show
off when it’s time for them to return
from the fields.
“Watch this,” Schmidt said, and
he pulled open the door. The cows
came jogging in, each one peeling
out of line to take her place, unprompted,
in the barn beneath a
white placard bearing her name:
ANNA, SOPHIA, CANTATE, LAURA.
They buried their heads in the hay.
He beamed. So far the microbes that
end up in Schmidt’s milk have been
benign, possibly beneficial. He says
biodynamic farming doesn’t open up
new niches for unfamiliar forms of
bacteria, and it encourages the ones
people have adapted to.
It turns out that black-market
buyers aren’t the only ones who
think germ-infested milk is healthy.
The yogurt giant Dannon has invested
heavily in understanding the
benefits of bacteria, and the company
now sells dairy products stocked
with healthy, or “probiotic,” microbes:
DanActive, “an ally for your
body’s defenses,” which comes in a
small pill-shaped bottle and provides
a dose of an organism owned
in full by Dannon called L. casei Immunitas;
Danimals, a more playfully
packaged bacteria-infused drink, designed
to appeal to children; and
Activia, a yogurt containing a bacterium
the company has named
Bifidus regularis, which “is scientifically
proven to help with slow intestinal
transit.” Both Michael
Schmidt and Dannon may be working
to reintroduce bacteria into the
modern diet, but Schmidt labors
under a principle of submission. He
accepts the presence of unknown
microbes and tries to make his customers
healthy by keeping the
creeks that run through his farm
clean, by maintaining the stability
of his ecosystem. In contrast, Dannon’s
is a philosophy of mastery.
Milk comes to Dannon’s Fort
Worth processing plant in tanker
trucks, arriving wild, full of its own
diverse bacteria. It leaves the factory
civilized and safe, in four-ounce
cups. It takes a lot of machinery to
accomplish this domestication:
miles of stainless-steel pipes, huge
fermentation vats, and dozens of
workers. Although the process is intricate,
the concept is simple: kill the bacteria, then add bacteria. Workers pasteurize the milk not once but twice. All yogurt is made when benign bacteria are mixedinto milk. But Dannon also adds
probiotic bacteria, and when I visited
the plant last year, this is what I
asked to see. Dannon employees
looked at one another nervously.
The bacterial strains are proprietary,
and so are the methods surrounding
their use. My public relations minder,
Michael Neuwirth, exchanged a
few words with J. W. Erskin, the
plant manager, then nodded.
“We can see the place where it’s
done,” Neuwirth said.
The room was lined with freezers.
Neuwirth opened one, and frost billowed
out. Inside were stacks of what
looked like one-quart milk cartons,
encrusted with ice. “This is for Activia,
right?” Neuwirth asked.
“Yep,” Erskin said. “Regularis.”
The Dannon workers explained
that each carton contained thousands
of tiny pellets consisting of
frozen milk and bacteria. You can
buy non-proprietary yogurt-making
bacteria for about $40 a bottle from
several suppliers. No one at Dannon
would tell me the price of the company’s
proprietary strains, but Erskin
said, “When our little friends die, it’s
Workers wait for the moment
when the milk reaches the ideal
temperature, then add the bacteria.
Lactobacillus bulgaricus, a yogurtmaking
bacterium, acts first, converting
sugar to acid; Streptococcus
thermophilus is next. These prepare
the substance for the probiotic
strains. Every bacterial move is
choreographed. Although the Dannon
people wouldn’t show me how
the healthy microbes fit into this
process, they did take me next door,
to the bottling room, where the precision
continued, though in engineering
rather than biochemistry.
The most beautiful machine there
was the one filling little bottles with
DanActive. The bottles moved
across the ceiling, propelled by
compressed air along a metal track,
halting, then scooting forward, like
a line of penguins. When the bottles
reached the machine, an auger
caught them in its threads, sending
them spinning in an endless line
around gears and carousels. The machine
cleaned the bottles with acid,
zapped them with sterilizing UV
light, filled, sealed, boxed, and
stacked them—in scherzo—at 460
containers per minute.
Erskin stood beside me, watching
through the Plexiglas window.
“It’s like a ballet,” he
said. Dannon’s new lines of products
lend some credibility to the claims of
bacterial necessity made by Schmidt
and other raw-milk advocates. Albeit
cautiously, scientists have also
begun weighing in on whether such
technologies as pasteurization have
purged necessary bacteria from our
food. When I started talking to milk
experts, several told me I needed to
speak to Bruce German. A food
chemist at U.C. Davis, German realized
early in his career that if he
could determine what a food perfectly
suited to our DNA looked like, he
would have a Rosetta Stone with
which to solve the puzzle of dietary
well-being. He would be able to examine
each molecular component of
this food to understand what it was
doing to make people healthy. No
plant would do as a model, since
evolutionary pressure tends to favor
plants that can avoid being eaten.
The model food would be just the
opposite: something that had
evolved specifically to be a meal,
something shaped by constant Darwinian
selection to satisfy all the dietary
needs of mammals. That Urfood,
of course, is milk.
The day I visited German, he was
hosting a reception in honor of Agilent,
a company that had helped develop
a machine able to analyze
oligosaccharides, sugar polymers found
in breast milk. As we walked across
the U.C. Davis campus, German
brought me up to speed. He’s a slight,
energetic man, with smile lines creased
into his face. His excitement for his
work is infectious. Oligosaccharides
make up a large portion of human milk,
in which they are about as abundant as
proteins. The curious thing about them,
German said, is that they are indigestible.
Which means, he said, one hand chopping the air, that they are there to feed the bacteria living inside a baby’s gut, not to feed the baby. As far as scientists know, only one microbe thrives on this sugar, a bacterium named Bifidobacterium infantis that has
a fairly unique genome.
“There’s a lot of evidence that we
coevolved with this organism,” German
explained. “It’s really specialized
to us and vice versa. Mothers recruit
this entire life form to help the process
Chemists have identified numerous
other compounds in milk that are there
not just to nourish babies but to create
a specific microbial ecosystem. Lactoferrin,
lysozyme, and lactoperoxidase
kill off only harmful bacteria, not beneficial
bacteria. (These selective bactericides,
along with oligosaccharides,
are also in cow’s milk, though in lower
concentrations.) Consider, German
said, what it means that milk, the model
food, has evolved such a sophisticated
chemical system that caters not
to us but to our microbial friends. It
means, he said, raising his eyebrows,
that “bacteria are tremendously important
to us”—so important that researchers
studying the microbes living
inside us say it’s unclear where our
bodily functions end and the functions
of microbes begin.
By any rational measure, this world
belongs to microbes. They were mastering
the subtleties of evolution three
billion years before the first multicellular
organism appeared. They continue
to evolve and adapt in a tiny fraction
of the time it takes us to reproduce
once. They flourish in polar ice caps, in
boiling water, and amid radioactive
waste. We exist only because some of
them find us useful. Ninety percent of
the cells in our bodies are bacteria. The
entirety of human evolution has taken
place in an environment saturated with
microbes, and humans are so firmly
adapted to the routine of sheltering allies
and rebuffing enemies that the removal
of either can devastate our defense
For the past century, however, we’ve
done our best to wall ourselves off from
microbes. In 1989, David Strachan put
forward the “hygiene hypothesis,”
which posed that this separation could
be causing the increased incidence of
immune disorders. As the years have
passed, many studies have helped refine
his proposal. Scientists found that hygiene
itself wasn’t a problem. People
who never used antibacterial soap were
just as likely to have asthma as those
who scrubbed obsessively. In a 2006
study of thousands of children living on
farms in Shropshire, England, Strachan
and another scientist, Michael
Perkin, found that raw-milk drinkers
were unlikely to have eczema or to react
to allergens in skin-prick tests.
“The protective effect of unpasteurized
milk consumption was remarkably
robust,” Strachan and Perkin
wrote. Then, in May of 2007, a group
of scientists published a paper after
surveying almost 15,000 children
around Europe. They found that children
who drank raw milk were less
likely to have any among a wide range
of allergies. Either there’s something
about industrial milk that’s harmful,
Perkin wrote in a commentary that
accompanied the paper, or there’s
something in raw milk that’s beneficial.
None of these findings mean that
raw milk is safe. Every single study contains
the caveat that raw milk often
harbors pathogens. From an epidemiological
perspective, Bruce German
told me, advising raw-milk consumption
at this point “would be crazy.”
Health officials certainly should have
a high level of confidence before approving
anything risky. But in light of
the new evidence, it was becoming
harder to deny that something beneficial
was being lost during pasteurization.
And health offiicials also have an obligation
to ensure that they are not
outlawing what makes
us healthy. Last March I drove to Fresno to
meet Organic Pastures owner Mark
McAfee and see how he had fared
since the E. coli outbreak. The dairy
is made up of a few prefabricated
double-wide trailers on 450 acres of
pasture extending out into the hazy
flatness of California’s Central Valley.
When I arrived, some 200 cows
were chewing their cud on thirty
shadeless acres of closely cropped
grass. McAfee culls about 14 percent
of his herd each year, far below the
industry’s average but still above Schmidt’s. When you have fewer than fifty cows, like Schmidt, it’s different, McAfee said. “You have time to give each one a foot rub every night. You can do yoga with them every morning.”
After walking through the dairy, we sat down in McAfee’s office. Lab results
had found the exact same sub-strain of
E. coli O157:H7 in almost all of the
children who fell ill after drinking unpasteurized
dairy. Yet McAfee remained
unfazed. How did it help to
show that the bacteria from each patient
matched, he asked, when one
patient, an eighteen-year-old in Nevada
City, claimed he hadn’t drunk the
milk? The disease trackers I talked to
explained this by saying that sometimes
germs move indirectly. Someone
else in the family spills a little
milk. You wipe it up. Then you wipe
your mouth. But there was another
theory I’d been hearing from scientists
working to explain why O157:H7 had
burst onto the scene in the 1980s with
such virulence. Maybe, they said, it
wasn’t that the bacteria had changed
but that we had changed. In Brazil
outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 are unheard
of, though the bacteria exist
there. A pair of recent studies show
that Brazilian women have antibodies
protecting them against O157:H7
and that they pass these antibodies to
their children through the placenta
and their breast milk. I found this interesting,
especially in light of the fact
that in every case I learned about, the
victims of the Organic Pastures outbreak
had just started drinking
McAfee’s milk. Perhaps those who had
been drinking the milk longer had developed
“It’s an old story,” McAfee said.
“You see it again and again in the lists
of outbreaks. City kids went to the
country, drank raw milk, and got sick;
country kids didn’t get sick.” But, I
pointed out, this explanation still implicates
Organic Pastures. McAfee
shook his head. “Look, if I made four
kids sick, I made four kids sick. But
show me the 50,000 kids I made
healthy. We don’t guarantee zero risk.
We aren’t worried about the .001 percent
chance that someone will get
sick; we are worried about the 99 percent
assurance that you are going to
get sick if you eat a totally sterile,
anonymous, homogenous diet.”
The problem for McAfee is that the
.001 percent is shocking and visible.
A dying child will make people change
their behavior. The diseases that
might stem from a lack of bacteria are
much more subtle. They come on
slowly. It’s difficult to link cause and
effect. Businesses that contribute to
chronic disease often flourish while
businesses that contribute to acute
disease get shut down. McAfee, now
clearly incensed, dismissed this line
of reasoning. “If my milk gets someone
sick, I deserve some blame, but not
all of it. People have to take responsibility
for maintaining their own immune
systems. And we have to look at
an environmental level too. Where
did these germs come from? E. coli
O157:H7 evolved in grain-fed cattle.
It’s amazing to me that we’ve sat by as
factory farmers feed more than half
the antibiotics in the country to animals
and breed these antibioticresistant
bacteria at the same time the
food corporations are destroying our
immune systems. I believe our forefathers
would have grabbed their muskets
and gone and shot someone over
this. They would have had a tea party
Instead of grabbing his musket, McAfee is expanding. He’s building a $2 million creamery, complete with a raw-milk museum. He expects to finish construction in 2009. I asked what he’d do if regulators come to shut that down. “I have an email list of 8,000, ready for immediate revolutionary action,” he said. When the California legislature quietly passed a law late last year
with such strict standards that it constituted a de facto ban on raw milk, McAfee mobilized these forces. In January hundreds of people packed into a committee chamber in Sacramento carrying their children and wearing black GOT RAW MILK? T-shirts. A legislative study group is now
working to come up with new standards.
Aside from the revolutionaries and reactionaries, what are the rest of us to do? When Schmidt’s case goes to trial this spring, his lawyer, Clayton Ruby, will challenge the constitutionality of mandatory pasteurization.
In Canada, Ruby is one of those lawyers people threaten to hire in the same way people in the United States used to say they were going to hire Johnnie Cochran. He’s sure to argue eloquently, but the judge’s decision on milk will leave unanswered the larger question of how we should mend relations with our microbial friends. The court won’t tell us whether raw milk is good for people or how Schmidt has managed to distribute it for twentyfive years without making anyone sick. Someday scientists may answer these questions. But until then, we will have to conduct our own calculations to determine what constitutes clean and healthy food.
When I sat at Schmidt’s breakfast table early one morning, glass in hand, I understood the possible consequences of my choice. All the competing science was there, along with the stories of epic sickness I’d heard. And I have to confess, the thought crossed my mind that if I got sick it would make a hell of a story. But when it comes down to it, here’s why I drank the raw milk. The
sun had just come up, and we’d already finished three hours of work in the barn. I was filled with a righteous hunger. The table was laden with eggs from the chickens, salami from the pigs, jarred fruit, steaming porridge, cheese, and yogurt.
Although dairy isn’t for everyone, I come from the people of the udder: my ancestors relied so heavily on milk that they passed down a mutation allowing me to digest lactose. For many generations my forefathers sat down to meals like this after the morning milking. It felt unambiguously right. This, of course, is the very definition of bias: the conflation of what feels right with what is scientifically correct. But as it was, I could only hope that my biases were rooted in something more than nostalgia. Perhaps they were. The way a place feels won’t tell you anything about whether bacteria have breached the wall of sanitation, but it does reveal something about the overall health of an ecosystem. Humans have relied on such impressions to assess the quality of their food for most of history. Someday the uncertainties of dietary science will fall to manageable levels, but until then I will rely on my gut. I drained my cup and poured thick clabbered milk and apple syrup on my porridge. If any bacteria disagreed with my body, the conflict was too small to detect. n