Why Cry Over Spilt Raw Milk?

Spilt milk | Photo: Newton Grafitti/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Walk into any medical marijuana clinic, and the feeling inside isn't one of calm and tranquility. With the still murky laws and "Wild West" feel of the whole operation, a customer wouldn't be shocked if suddenly, in the middle of shopping for the dankest of medicinals, a bunch of police officers came storming through the doors with their guns drawn. It just goes with the territory for now. But expecting that kind of thing while shopping in a health food store seems, frankly, ridiculous.

Yet that's what customers at Rawesome Foods in Venice were treated to back in 2010, when four officers raided the joint, guns drawn, and stormed the aisles before eventually finding the prize they were looking for in the store's walk-in refrigerator: jugs of raw milk. The jugs were wanted because of the so-called "unsanitary conditions" which they were found, a slick way of saying that they were being sold without a regulatory permit from the state.

Thus is the state of raw milk in California.

For six years, Rawesome was "getting away with" selling customers raw milk. While the fate of store owner James Stewart is still up in the air, last week saw the legal conclusion to one end of the raw milk supply chain, when farmer Sharon Ann Palmer of Healthy Family Farms in Santa Paula -- where Rawesome got their milk -- pled guilty, leaving her with $1,300 in fines to pay and 40 hours of community service to participate in.

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Which all begs the question: Why the fuss?

While California is one of the 10 states where raw milk is legally sold through retail means, the above story proves that hopes of it becoming as normalized as "ordinary" (read: pasteurized and processed) milk is quite a ways away. (Let's start thinking in those terms as soon as officers with guns drawn aren't raiding stores.) Why has this become such a divisive issue? As usual, there are two basic sides to the argument.

On the one end are the government regulators who are in the position of keeping consumers from getting sick. Which, of course, is a good thing. The problem with this, however, are the same problems that come with any bureaucracy, with the red tape, and the lengthy trials of approving new foods, and the fines, and permit fees, and so on and so forth. All things that are not entirely conducive to new, homegrown, non-corporate farmed products. But still, it would make sense if the risks of raw milk were as great and terrible as the FDA would have us believe:

However, disputing that claim is the other side of the arguing aisle: The health food consumers and stores.

According to RealMilk.com, raw milk actually contains components that assist in killing pathogens, prevents pathogen absorption into the intestinal wall, and strengthens the immune system, all natural benefits of milk that are greatly reduced if the product undergoes pasteurization. In fact, they go on to say, while there have been cases of raw milk causing illnesses, a consumer is 515 times more likely to get sick from deli meats, and 29 more likely to actually get sick from pasteurized milk. (Another big plus in the raw milk side of things are the countless testimonials from health foodies that it actually tastes way better than the processed stuff. But that's more of a "preference" than "fact.")

Essentially then, it's our scientist versus your scientist. Which puts us in a bit of a pickle.

Of course being exposed to a substance that makes you sick isn't in everyone's best interest -- the healthcare debate, hopefully, has made reasons why clear -- so, the FDA is simply doing its due diligence with their stringent regulations. But on the other hand, is processing really the answer when it comes to the perfectly fine-as-is-for-centuries-and-centuries dairy product, especially if it removes some of the natural benefits? With advanced farming methods, better testing and refrigeration techniques, and just a better understanding of raw milk, is it possible that we're over-pasteurizing things just because that's The Way Things Have Been?

So, then:

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