I’m not much of a milk drinker. I rarely drink it by the glass, but I try to be mindful of what I put in my cereal or my coffee. I buy organic, I buy as local as possible, and I feel good about my choices. Early this fall, however, I found out that I was pregnant with my first child. And I started thinking about milk a little differently.
As anyone who has ever been pregnant can confirm, the realization that you are now not one but two comes with a mixture of joy and anxiety, as well as an inundation of information. Specifically, you learn right away about what you should consume (whole grains, leafy green vegetables, plenty of dairy) and what you shouldn’t (sushi, deli meat, unpasteurized milk and cheese).
Cursed with both an aversion to being told I can’t do something and an inclination to become over-informed, I read everything I could about why I shouldn’t eat or drink the items on the “no” list. I also stocked up on milk, half and half, cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt, and ice cream.
Most of what I read about the “no” list made sense to me. Even though I’m always careful about what I eat and where it comes from, I decided I could do without sushi for nine months to avoid the risk of parasites. And I could skip the turkey sandwiches to avoid salmonella or listeria contamination. These bacteria can cause a few days of discomfort for me, but they can be far more dangerous (and even deadly) to my developing child.
However, when I read about unpasteurized dairy products — also known as “raw” dairy products — I got confused. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and other public-health organizations categorically caution everyone, not just expectant moms, against consuming unpasteurized milk and anything made from it because of the risk of contamination by such harmful bacteria as salmonella, listeria, E. coli, campylobacter, and brucella. Almost every news item I read quoted FDA official John Sheehan saying that drinking unpasteurized milk is “like playing Russian roulette with your health.”
Sounds straightforward enough, right?
I also found a wealth of information touting the benefits of drinking raw milk. Raw-milk drinkers talk about their choice with the enthusiasm of the devout. They adore its richer, creamier taste and describe it as a sort of miracle elixir with a unique cocktail of proteins, fats, nutrients, and beneficial bacteria that are vital to human health and that suffer the same fate as harmful bacteria in the pasteurization process.
They believe that raw milk cured their asthma and chronic fatigue syndrome, eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, blurred vision, and a host of other ailments. Many also point to evidence that milk in its natural state contains “good” microorganisms that actually keep troublesome pathogens in check.
Although the sale of raw milk is illegal in some states and heavily restricted in most, raw-milk drinkers have ways of getting it. They can buy it directly by going to a farm. They can get it indirectly, through underground milk clubs. In some states, they can legally purchase bottles of raw milk so long as it’s sold with a label stating “for pet consumption only.” Or they can acquire it through cow-sharing arrangements, in which consumers chip in for the care and maintenance of a farmer’s herd and enjoy the milk as a perk of ownership.
No matter how they get it, raw-milk enthusiasts emphasize that the important thing is knowing where it comes from. The perfect source of raw milk? A farm where the cows are pastured, raised on grass or hay instead of corn, never given hormones, and kept by a farmer trusted to keep every bit of the operation meticulously clean.
Advocates assert that raw milk is vastly superior to its commercially processed and pasteurized counterpart. They believe drinking raw milk is one of the best things you can do for your health, and they believe this just as fervently as public-health advocates believe it’s one of the most dangerous choices you can make.
When one person’s panacea is another’s poison, what’s a mother-to-be — or any conscientious milk drinker — to do?
In 1912, the epidemiologist Milton Joseph Rosenau published a series of lectures under the title The Milk Question. At the time, most Americans drank milk in its raw state, straight from the farm. As more Americans moved to cities, milk had to travel farther from cow to cup, and that gave dangerous bacteria more time to grow and thrive. Rising infant mortality and outbreaks of disease (such as tuberculosis and typhoid) attributed to milk consumption presented public-health officials with the troublesome “milk question”: How could Americans get wholesome milk without being subjected to the dangers of the bacteria it could contain?
Rosenau saw milk as “the most difficult standard food item to gather, handle, transport, and deliver in a fresh, clean, safe, and satisfactory manner.” He noted that nutrient-rich milk provided an ideal medium for harmful bacteria. Milk posed a particularly significant problem, he said, because it affected every aspect of American life, from individual health to the national economy, and because of its role as a primary source of nutrition for vulnerable infants and children.
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