Raw Milk

Although Brighton Food Co-op does not buy or sell raw milk, many of our members get it from local dairies through "herd share" programs, three of which are described near the bottom of this web page. First, however, some information about raw milk itself.

Raw milk is milk in its natural state, pretty much as it comes directly from the cow. (Raw milk may also come from goats, sheep, water buffalo, and other animals, but to simplify matters, I'll talk only about cow's milk.) Some people call it "fresh milk" because it is not subjected to the "processing" (pasteurization, homogenization, and introduction of antibiotics, growth hormones, etc.) of commercial milk. More importantly, raw milk is not intended to be processed like commercial milk, so both the milk and the cows that produce it are handled in a more careful and holistic way. The milk does contain small amounts of live bacteria, but almost entirely of a beneficial nature (like the friendly bacteria in yogurt), and to prevent encroachment by unfriendly bacteria, the milk is transported in sterilized containers, or through sterilized pipes, to refrigerated storage as soon as it leaves the cow.

As mentioned, commercial milk is processed -- that is, pasteurized and usually also homogenized. Pasteurization is the process developed in 1862 by the French microbiologist Louis Pasteur to kill microorganisms in milk by subjecting it to high temperatures. Homogenization is the process developed in 1899 by French inventor Auguste Gaulin to distribute butterfat evenly throughout milk by forcing it through tiny orifices that break up the fat globules into smaller, more numerous particles which stay in suspension rather than separating and rising to the top as cream.

Milk has long been touted as a "perfect food"; but modern commercial dairy practices have certainly rendered it otherwise. First, the intense heat of pasteurization drastically alters the properties of milk that make it so nutritious -- damaging its proteins and enzymes and killing the beneficial bacteria. Then homogenization wreaks havoc on the cellular structure of the butterfat -- according to some accounts, releasing enzymes that provoke arteriosclerosis ("hardening of the arteries") and aggravating the allergenic impact of the casein and whey proteins in the milk. Finally, the product that emerges from all this violence is such a bland-tasting beverage that it doesn't stand a chance against soft drinks, chemical shakes, "powerades", and fancy coffee concoctions! Hence the need for desperate marketing measures like the "Got milk?" campaign.

In its natural state, milk is actually quite tasty, and who doesn't love the taste of cream and butter? Yet commercial dairies go beyond homogenization to make even blander products, removing all or most of the cream to produce downright insipid "skim" and "low-fat" milk. This "skimming" practice is based on the mistaken notion that butterfat is unhealthy and fattening. But in fact, butterfat contains many of the most important nutrients in milk, and skimming it makes the milk an anemic and inferior product -- not just in taste, but also in nutritive value. And ironically, making the milk less fatty does not necessarily make it less fattening! The full-fat raw milk poured into a bowl of "fat-free" Special K may well be less fattening than the cereal itself!

How can this be? Haven't we all learned by now that fat makes people fat and clogs their arteries? Well, that's certainly what the multi-billion dollar diet industry would have us believe. But this simplistic idea is based more on the tired old saw "You are what you eat" than on real knowledge. According to this nonsense, the fat we eat is channeled straight into "love handles" and "saddlebag thighs" while the cholesterol we eat is slathered right onto artery walls. But in reality, the fat and cholesterol in the body come not directly from food, but almost entirely from the body itself, which makes these substances through complex metabolic processes. The foods we eat supply the raw materials, of course, but perhaps more importantly, they affect how the processes work; and it turns out fats play a much smaller role than sugars and starches in the processes generating body fat and cholesterol!

Why, then, would the body make such detrimental substances? The answer is that they are not detrimental! Body fat is an important energy reserve, and cholesterol is an essential building and repair material. However, these benefits are based on the physically demanding subsistence lifestyles of our distant ancestors, not on today's technology-supported lifestyles in which cheap food and emotional stress are abundant, while physical demands (and therefore occasions for exercise) are virtually nil. Given this modern context, the real culprits in obesity and heart disease are not fats like butterfat, but sugars and starches, especially grain products like white flour and high fructose corn syrup. (Also bad are trans-fats like hydrogenated and interesterified vegetable oils, but these are not real fats; they're plastic-like chemical concoctions meant to extend the "shelf-life" of processed foods.) The basic problem is that the flood of sugars and starches in the modern diet tends to throw the body's insulin mechanism out of whack, creating the conditions for a great many health problems, not just obesity and heart disease. Yet, ironically, sugars and starches are what get substituted for fats when ordinary food is processed into so-called "diet" products. In a modern diet replete with processed foods, "diet" products tend to be the most processed of all!

The real virtue of raw milk is that it's essentially unprocessed. Yet that's the very attribute which makes it a vice in the eyes of many public health officials. Most states, including Michigan, treat raw milk like some kind of dangerous drug, largely because they confuse true raw milk with pre-pasteurized commercial milk. The big industrial dairies that supply most grocery stores make little effort to maintain the safety of milk during its production. Why should they spend extra time and money to keep the milk free of pathogens during the production process when they expect pasteurization to kill the pathogens at the end of the process? Those dairies use cows that have been bred to produce enormous quantities of milk on an unnatural diet of genetically modified soy and grains, animal byproducts, growth hormones, antibiotics, milk stimulants, and assorted chemicals. The cows are typically crowded together in huge numbers on "factory farms" or "feed lots" known as CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) where the conditions are appallingly unsanitary. As a result, the animals are almost constantly sick (hence the antibiotics) and rarely live more than a couple of years, and the milk they produce is not fit to drink as-is. Before it can be sold, it has to be centrifuged to separate out the slime and pus and then pasteurized to kill the prodigious quantities of pathogens. This raw milk is "raw" in much the same sense that raw sewage is raw! Because the term "raw milk" has been perverted in this way, some people prefer to use the term "fresh milk" for holistically derived milk -- to distinguish it more clearly from the pre-pasteurized stages of the slop produced by commercial dairies.

Maybe such a change in terminology would help in the political arena. Right now, federal and state laws draw no distinction between holistic milk production and the factory farm approach. The unseemly practices of industrial dairies have compelled public health officials to apply the same rules to all dairies, even the small family farms that produce organic milk from carefully tended, pasture-grazed cows. In Michigan it is illegal to sell raw milk for people to drink, although it's OK for a dairy farmer to drink the raw milk from his own cows or to sell it as pet food or to give it away as a gift. And woe to anyone who tries to sell raw milk across state lines! Then the feds get involved, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will crack down with the same sort of force that the FBI uses against a drug lord! For these reasons, even "organic" milk has to be pasteurized if sold commercially, and in far too many cases, the production methods for commercial organic milk stretch the organic label to the point of breaking!

Practically speaking, the only commercially viable way to make raw milk legally available is through a "herd share" program. The idea is that the dairy farmer sells shares in his herd to people who want raw milk; those people then become part-owners of the herd and can therefore obtain raw milk from "their own" cows without getting the farmer into trouble for "trafficking" the milk. In its most basic form, a herd share program would have these "owners" fetching their own milk. But everyone acknowledges that the farmer is best equipped to tend the herd and milk the cows; so herd share contracts, besides specifying what the share owners will pay, also specify what services the farmer will provide, including how he will make the milk available.

Some raw milk suppliers have tested the limits of this kind of contract. Several years ago, BFC was supplied with raw milk by Richard Hebron, who represents a farming cooperative in southwestern Michigan. Hebron includes outright delivery in his contracts -- not door-to-door delivery like the old-fashioned milkman of a hundred years ago, but delivery to convenient distribution points, like the church where we hold our distributions. He stopped delivering to us when the number of members participating in the program dropped below a level that would justify his transportation costs. But he continued to make raw milk available in this area by distributing it from a back room at the Big Ten Party Store (now called the Big Ten Market) in Ann Arbor, and some of our members continued to get their milk from him that way. But then the state Food & Drug Gestapo decided to crack down. This 2007 article from Time magazine captured some of the sordid details, as well as the overall controversy surrounding raw milk.

Hebron was ultimately vindicated, largely with the help of the Weston A. Price Foundation, and to some extent that opened the way for local herdshare programs like the two we recommend for our members. For the time being, at least, herd share owners have legal access to raw milk from these dairies, even if the milk is delivered. However, raw milk suppliers continue to be harassed all over the country, not just by state agencies, but also by the FDA -- as demonstrated by recent cases in Wisconsin, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Moreover, the recently passed Food Safety Modernization Act grants the FDA even more power -- supposedly to prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness that are almost always associated with industrial food production or importation. But this law does little to shield small farmers from FDA harassment. Given the FDA's solid track record of going after easy targets like raw milk suppliers, while pretty much ignoring food importers and factory farms with more money for lawyers and lobbyists, we cannot take these herd share programs for granted!

Hicks Dairy Farm ( http://www.hicksorganicfood.com)
This dairy is certified organic. Although located up in the Thumb, the dairy delivers to a distribution point in Brighton (Holy Spirit Church at 9655 Musch Rd. near South Lyon) every other Thursday. A handful of our members pick up their raw milk there. Like Richard Hebron, Hicks proprietor Jenny Samuelson has offered to deliver directly to our co-op distributions if enough members are interested, but so far we do not have the "critical mass" of interest to make that happen. The way her program works is that each participant purchases a herd share, or a portion thereof, at an annual cost of $52 per share. That entitles the herd share owner to 3 gallons of raw milk per week (which would be 12 gallons per co-op distribution) at a cost of $7 per gallon. This per-gallon cost actually covers the ongoing "cow maintenance" expense: the cost of feeding the cows, paying the veterinary bills, testing the milk, maintaining the milking and storage equipment, etc. Jenny doesn't mind if we split the shares; so for example, 4 co-op members could pay $13 each to buy a herd share for the year, and then each would be able to get 3 gallons at distribution for $21.

Dairy Delight (http://www.dairydelight.org)
This dairy, which is ABC organic (All But Certified), is located in Cohoctah (about 10 miles north of Howell). The dairy owner, Kris Unger, offers a "cow boarding" program, as described in this 2007 article from The Flint Journal. Her herd consists of Jerseys and Milking Short Horns that are pasture-grazed through most of the year, although during the winter they get some organic hay and grains. One herd share, which costs $60, entitles the owner to one gallon of raw milk per week. The share is transferable -- i.e. it can be sold if the owner has to drop out of the program. (Kris then arranges for a new customer to buy the share -- which rarely takes very long because she has a waiting list.) The monthly cow boarding fee is $21.50 per share, so the cost per gallon of milk works out to be just under $5 ($21.50 per month times 12 months divided by 52 weeks = $4.96/week). The dairy does not deliver. To get the milk, an owner must go to the farm with appropriate containers between 8AM and 8PM, sign a register, then tap the milk from a large refrigerated stainless steel storage tank into which the milk has been piped directly from milking machines. The milk is regularly tested to ensure that it's free of pathogens.

If you're interested in Hicks Dairy, talk with Dolores Johnson or Nancy Clark at the next distribution. If you're interested in Dairy Delight, you can talk with me. Together with 4 neighbors, I formed a "mini-coop" that split the task of fetching the milk so we could collectively get raw milk every week, yet individually had to drive up to the dairy only once a month. You may be able to set up similar arrangements with your own neighbors or with other members of the co-op, depending on where everyone lives.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to learn more about raw milk, you can find a number of good videos on the topic, including this one on YouTube. For the most comprehensive information on the topic, though, go to the Real Milk website maintained by the Westin A. Price Foundation.

One final note: Many people are allergic to cow's milk. That, in fact, is what ultimately forced me to drop out of the Dairy Delight program. The usual reason is lactose intolerance: the inability to digest the lactose in milk because of a deficiency of the intestinal enzyme lactase. But milk is a complex food with other elements, like casein and whey, that may also trigger allergic symptoms. What confuses the issue is that commercial milk contains stuff not natural to the milk, and many people who think they are allergic to milk itself are actually reacting to the foreign stuff that ends up in commercial milk: the denatured proteins, damaged enzymes, growth hormones, antibiotics, chemicals, and abnormally large quantities of pathogenic bacteria (which may be killed by pasteurization, but are not actually removed from the milk, so the immune system may still treat them as a threat). One of the members of my "mini-coop" had given up cow's milk because of allergic symptoms, but when she switched from commercial milk to raw milk, she no longer had any problems.

So how do you know whether you're really allergic to cow's milk? Well, it's possible to get tested for lactose intolerance, but it's easier and less expensive just to try a "milk challenge": fast overnight, then drink an 8-12 ounce glass of raw milk in the morning, then consume no other food or drink for the next 3-5 hours. If symptoms appear within that time (primarily diarrhea or flatulence), then lactose intolerance may be the problem after all. You may still be able to benefit from raw milk, though, if you're willing to take a lactase supplement.

Another approach is to try a different type of raw milk. For example, Linder's Farm Goods near Dexter has a herd share program for goat milk products. One herd share is $25 per year, and the price of milk production is $12 per gallon. The milk is not as sweet as cow's milk, but it tastes great on my homemade granola and makes superb kefir and yogurt. I've also been able to get delicious chevre (goat cheese) and excellent eggs from Linder. Like Dairy Delight, Linder is not certified organic, but makes every effort to practice organic and natural methods wherever feasible.

The drawback to goat's milk -- and in fact to milk from sheep, water buffalo, and other such alternatives -- is that the cost is considerably more than cow's milk. But as with many health-related issues, the central question is whether your health is worth the extra expense. From my point of view, that's a no-brainer!

-- Jim Brown (Last Updated: 1 May 2016)