Article — From the April 2008 issue

The Revolution Will Not Be Pasteurized

Inside the raw-milk underground

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 black-market 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.

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