Friday, May 23, 2008

Raw Milk Rebellion: How much business does the government have in the barnyard?

See also a previous post here on May 5th

On May 1, Pennsylvania state troopers arrived at the home of Mennonite farmer Mark Nolt, seizing a reported $20,000 to 25,000 worth of farm equipment and placing Nolt under arrest. His crime? The illegal sale of unpasteurized milk and other dairy products. And Nolt isn't alone. In February, federal investigators subpoenaed two employees of Mark McAfee's Organic Pastures Dairy in California. Though the subpoenas do not indicate the purpose of the investigation, McAfee told me the feds were seeking evidence that his dairy was selling unpasteurized milk for human consumption across state lines.

These are just the latest skirmishes in the growing conflict over the right to sell unpasteurized, or "raw" milk. On one side of the fight is an odd coalition of whole foodists, dairy farmers, and libertarians who want the government to butt out of their milk-drinking decisions. On the other side are public health officials and assorted busybodies determined to tighten regulations.

Fittingly, the debate has come to a head in California, a state equally known for its organic foods and its nanny state meddling. Late last year, the legislature quietly enacted strict new bacteria limits on raw milk, holding the product to the same standard of sterility as its pasteurized counterpart. Proponents contend the rule is necessary to protect consumers from dangerous diseases. Opponents, including McAfee and state Senator Dean Florez, say the standard is unfeasible and will put dairymen out of business. They've secured a temporary restraining order against the law, but losing in court could bring about what Florez calls "the end of raw milk in California."

While the fight to produce and consume unpasteurized milk might seem like a step back in time, raw milk advocates have good reason to lament the state of the modern dairy. Today's agricultural processes sacrifice flavor for safety. In the 2004 edition of his classic book, On Food and Cooking, food science writer Harold McGee explains how milk used to change with the seasons. When it wasn't preserved in cheese, butter, or other products, it was enjoyed fresh on the farm and tasted of the pasture. The growth of cities in the 18th and 19th centuries changed this. Without access to grass, cows were often fed on less nutritious fare, like the spent grains from beer brewing. The resulting milk was less flavorful and frequently unsafe. Expanding railroads and the invention of the refrigerated rail car brought fresher milk to the cities, but these required producers to pool their output, increasing the risk of contamination. Milk-borne illness quickly became a major cause of infant mortality.

Thus pasteurization came as a tremendous boon. By heating milk below the boiling point, producers killed off potentially harmful bacteria and increased their product's shelf life. As pasteurization became the norm, both the federal government and many states prohibited the sale of unpasteurized milk. Though these regulations made milk safer, today's burgeoning growth in natural foods requires a looser regulatory approach.

In short, safer milk resulted in the loss of seasonality and taste. Cooking milk introduces new flavors, some of them unpleasant. And since pasteurization kills bacteria indiscriminately, many raw milk devotees argue that the process robs them of probiotics, bacteria that they say build their immune systems and aid digestion. As McAfee put it to me, "kids are germ magnets." Exposing them to raw milk, he argues, is good for them. Similarly, the testimonials section on the website of the Campaign for Real Milk, a project of the Weston A. Price Foundation that aims to overturn legal barriers to unpasteurized milk, is full of quotes from people writing that the product has cured them of everything from indigestion to autism. While some of these claims are obviously far-fetched, it's clear that many raw milk drinkers believe they benefit from introducing a thriving population of bacteria into their bodies.

And therein lies the problem. If a batch of unpasteurized milk happens to be tainted with E. coli or Listeria, feeding it to a "germ magnet" will lead to potentially serious illness. In his testimony at Florez' senate hearing, University of California-Davis professor Michael Payne testified that although raw milk accounts for just a tiny percentage of milk consumption in the U.S., it is responsible for twice the number of disease outbreaks as pasteurized milk. John Sheehan, director of the FDA's Division of Dairy and Egg Safety, takes things further and compares drinking raw milk to "playing Russian roulette with your health."

Alarmist statements like Sheehan's make it hard to believe the government's more reasonable warnings, and the FDA's ban is arguably part of what gives raw milk its allure. Payne does not advocate banning the sale of raw milk, but he does suggest that tighter regulations could help ensure safety. At greatest issue is California's new requirement that raw milk contain no more than 10 coliform bacteria per milliliter, the same standard that pasteurized milk must meet. The state argues that even though these bacteria are not inherently harmful, their presence is suggestive of fecal contamination; McAfee contends that such a low measure will be impossible to satisfy in California. Although Maine and Washington have instituted the 10 coliform limit without killing their raw milk industries, he is right to worry. Nearly a quarter of samples tested in Washington and Maine didn't pass the test, and even California's own Department of Food and Agriculture reports that only 25% of bulk milk samples collected in the state pass the test before being pasteurized.

Florez is considering legislation that would substantially raise the coliform limit for raw milk and increase testing for pathogens, along with other safety improvements. Given that so many raw milk consumers demand live bacteria in their milk, it's a reasonable compromise, and one that McAfee says his dairy could live with.

And yet, while certain regulations make sense for broad retail sales, there's something heroic in the civil disobedience of men like Mark Nolt. After all, if a consenting adult wants to buy milk taken straight from the cow, is it any business of the law to interfere?

When I recently visited dairywoman Kitty Hockman-Nicholas at Hedgebrook Farms in Winchester, Virginia, I saw nothing dangerous or diabolical. Kitty showed me around the farm, introduced her cows by name, and demonstrated her milking process. It would have been illegal for Kitty to sell me raw milk-she provides it for people who buy into "cow shares" and thus technically own the cows from which they get their dairy-but she kindly sent me home with some as a gift.

My trip to the farm provided delightful insight into the origins of one of our most essential foods. I didn't enjoy any miraculous health effects after drinking it, but the taste was smooth and creamy, with none of the processed aftertaste I now can't help noticing in store-bought milk. As I sipped my unpasteurized beverage, I reflected on the absurdity of the situation: If Kitty were to offer the same experience to others for a profit, the government could forcibly put her out of business.

Though Mark Nolt, Mark McAfee, and their loyal customers' devotion to raw milk may seem eccentric to some, the consumption of raw fish in sushi or uncooked meat in beef carpaccio is equally strange to others. And with consumer freedom increasingly under attack from busybodies on the left and right, it's hard not to admire their rebelliousness and their resolution to drink milk in its freshest form. Though there is certainly a place for reasonable food safety laws, any regulation that leads to otherwise law-abiding farmers being shutdown or arrested has gone too far. With a growing movement of consumers demanding raw milk, the time has come for the government to get out of their way.


The A2 milk theory

Three years ago Victorian dairy farmers Wayne, Peter and David Mulcahy made what could certainly be viewed as a risky business decision. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to start the labor-intensive process of converting their entire herd of cows. In a few years, the only milk produced on their Kyabram farm will be a variety known as A2, named for an ancient version of an ordinary cow gene.

Because the Mulcahys wanted to continue selling regular milk - and earn a premium from the A2 milk they were already producing - they've gone to considerable lengths. The process has involved genetically testing their cows, and then segregating them from the rest of the herd. They have to be milked separately, and the milk has to be stored and processed separately. The family purchased additional storage vats and equipment, and had to be particularly diligent to ensure that none of the cows strayed into the other herd.

So why the extra efforts? It has to do with a protein, a compound that's important to building and regulating the body. A tiny protein found in ordinary milk might not seem a likely villain, but some experts warn that under certain circumstances, it can be. More than 100 scientific papers have drawn links between A1 beta-casein, a protein found in cow's milk, and serious illnesses including type 1 or juvenile diabetes and heart disease, and to a lesser extent, autism and schizophrenia. But just how strong the evidence is - and what should be done as a result from a public health perspective - has been the subject of debate.

In 2002 the Mulcahys happened upon a stock agent connected with A2 Corporation, the company that holds the patents for genetic testing of cattle and owns the A2 Milk trademark, a guarantee that the cow does not produce A1 beta-casein. They researched the claims the group made, and found them compelling. And they had some experience of their own. Peter's young daughter, Alexandra, would become violently ill within 20 minutes of consuming any dairy product, leading her doctor to conclude she was "lactose intolerant". But after hearing anecdotes of people who couldn't tolerate "normal milk" but didn't seem to have problems with A2, her parents decided to give it a shot. Sure enough, Alexandra could drink A2 milk without getting sick. "Our experience with Alexandra not only convinced us to convert to A2 cows, we believe the whole Australian dairy industry will eventually move that way too," Peter says.

Every litre of milk contains about two teaspoons of beta-casein, usually a mix between A1 and A2. A2 is the original type, found in herds of cattle thousands of years ago, but over time a natural mutation occurred in some European cattle, and A1 beta-casein developed, says Keith Woodford, professor of farm management and agribusiness at Lincoln University in New Zealand, and the author of a book on the subject, Devil in the Milk. According to Woodford, the genetic difference between the two beta-caseins is tiny, but the difference in outcome is enormous. "The beta-casein has 209 amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and the difference between A1 and A2 is just one of these," he says.

That is, the amino acids appear in a fixed sequence, and while A1 milk has an amino acid called histidine at one position, A2 milk has a proline. Woodford says that histidine changes the way the protein is digested, releasing a protein fragment called beta-casomorphin 7, or BMC7 for short. BMC7, he says, is a powerful opioid-a narcotic. It's also an oxidant. In laboratory tests BMC7 modifies cholesterol to a form that creates dangerous fatty plaques that line artery walls.

There have been no studies confirming a link between A1 and milk intolerance, but Woodford says anecdotal and observational evidence shows that a number of people who are intolerant to milk and automatically assume it's the lactose causing the problem, may in fact be intolerant to the BCM7. Alexandra Mulcahy may well be a case in point. Woodford ticks off the evidence against A1. For example, he says, experiments with mice found that 47 per cent of those fed A1 beta-casein developed diabetes after 250 days. None of the mice fed A2 beta-casein developed the disease.

But it's not all black-and-white, like the Mulcahy's Holsteins. For most people, BCM7 passes through their system without further ado because it's just too big to get through their gut wall into the blood stream. Still, for about 20 per cent of people BCM7 could be a problem. These include people who have a "leaky gut" that allows molecules called peptides to pass through. Groups who could be at risk of leaky guts include newborn babies, people with untreated celiac disease, stomach ulcers and Crohn's disease.

Public health expert Boyd Swinburn knows how heated the topic can be. He wrote a literature review of A1 and A2 beta-caseins for the New Zealand Food Safety Authority which was released in 2004. That report didn't take a hard-line stance, but didn't say the A2 coast was clear, either, though that's how the New Zealand Food Safety Authority interpreted the findings in its media hype: "all milk was safe", it spruiked, using a phrase Swinburn explicitly avoided. "The research that's there at the moment is very suggestive, but it's certainly not conclusive," says Swinburn, who now chairs Deakin University's population health program in the school of exercise and nutrition sciences. "There's good rationale for dairy farmers to consider changing their herds, but there's not empirical evidence that's strong enough for government warnings." Likewise, Food Standards Australia New Zealand spokersperson Lydia Buchtmann says FSANZ has examined the "very limited scientific evidence available on comparative health effects of the two milks" and does not believe the available information warrants a change to the Food Standards Code.

"FSANZ has noted that further research is in progress and concluded that, while there are some interesting hypotheses being examined, it could not proceed with regulatory action on the basis of the available evidence. FSANZ has not received any applications to amend the milk provisions of the Food Standards Code to consider A1 or A2 milk," she says. Still, Swinburn says there's now enough evidence to begin encouraging dairy farmers to switch their herds, if only as a precautionary measure. It takes about a decade to make a gradual transition to an A2-exclusive herd by breeding on A2 bulls. If the farmers keep selling regular milk with both A1 and A2 in the meantime, there's virtually nothing to lose. "There's no added cost, no detrimental effects and very little risk, and in fact there's quite a bit to gain," Swinburn says. "In 10 years either there'll be much stronger proof of these links and the farmer will be in a better position, or if not they won't have lost anything."

Meanwhile, Swinburn says people who have a strong family history of type 1 diabetes, who are at high risk of heart disease, or who have an autistic child, may want to consider drinking A2 milk. If they can find it, that is. So far, A2 milk is available in about 1500 supermarkets-costing about twice as much as the home brands - but shoppers in Tasmania and Western Australia are out of luck as the milk is still not available there.

Woodford agrees that it's probably too early to push for changes to regulation. He says the most important thing at this stage is to make sure people are aware of all the available evidence. But that's easier said than done. He argues that the dairy industry has downplayed the evidence amidst concerns that changing to A2 cows will create a communications and marketing nightmare and confuse consumers during the 10-year gap while the milk still contains a blend of the two beta-caseins. "There should be clear information so that farmers and consumers can make informed decisions," Woodford says. It's a decision the Mulcahy brothers have already made.


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