magazine articles

Raw Milk: A Healthier Alternative?

  from Vancouver Magazine October 2010

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

Alice Jongerden’s Home on the Range Dairy raises its herd on the back 40 of a derelict farmhouse in Chilliwack. From there, the unpasteurized milk and other dairy products travel to depots around the Lower Mainland; what families do after that intensely i
Alice Jongerden’s Home on the Range Dairy  Shannon Mendes
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.

According to

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:


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

white-frocked, hairnet-wearing

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

very costly.”

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

of digestion.”

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

the antibodies.

“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

over this.”

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



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