(You may want to read my essays in order.)
April 26, 2010
Tipping Points 7
Betrayal of Our Trust
“You could get undulant fever,” my mother said when I told her a few years ago that I was drinking raw milk, that we could buy it in our local markets in Maine. “You could get tuberculosis,” said my younger sister who struggles with a severe case of Parkinson’s. Typhoid fever, scarlet fever, and diphtheria lurk in our national perception of raw milk.
Ron Schmid in The Untold Story of Milk (2009) describes how at the end of World War II, when “thousands of small farms throughout the country still sold raw milk directly to consumers and through local distribution channels,” a massive campaign to demonize raw milk began. As Will Allen describes with the chemical industry in The War on Bugs (2008), the campaign was waged in part in popular magazines. The first salvo of the war against raw milk began in The Ladies Home Journal in 1944 with an article called “Undulant Fever.” The article claimed—without any documentation—that “tens of thousands of people in the U.S. suffered from fever and illness because of exposure to raw milk.” In 1945, Coronet published “Raw Milk Can Kill You,” by Harold J. Harris, MD. Articles in The Progressive and Reader’s Digest followed in 1946 (150).
Schmid shows that Harris, in his Coronet article, fabricated a town and an epidemic. Harris located Crossroads, USA, in “ `one of those states in the Midwest area called the bread basket and milk bowl of America.’ “ Harris claimed “ `what happened to Crossroads might happen to your town—to your city—might happen almost anywhere in America.’ “ Harris claimed undulant fever struck one out of four people in Crossroads and, “ `despite the efforts of two doctors and the State health department, one out of every four patients died.’ “ Harris later not only admitted his malicious fabrication, but, Schmid writes, other statements he made demonstrated that “he knew such a thing could not possibly happen” (150).
Undulant fever, or brucellosis, is, Schmid says, an “infectious disease that occurs in cattle and other animals and is transmitted to humans primarily through physical contact.” Brucellosis is an “occupational hazard for meatpackers, veterinarians, farmers and livestock producers and handlers.” Milk drinkers risk exposure only if a “grossly infected” animal sheds the organism into the milk. Actually, nationwide statistics from the U.S. Public Health Service from 1923 to 1944, or for the 21 years preceding Harris’s article, show there were 256 cases of undulent fever, with 3 deaths (151). But, because of this industry campaign, my mother, who grew up drinking raw milk, stopped drinking it.
Some, like Jean Bullitt Darlington, who in 1947 wrote a three-part series entitled “Why Milk Pasteurization?” in the Rural New Yorker, tried to combat industry-produced lies. Her articles “Sowing the Seeds of Fear,” “Plowing Under the Truth,” and “The Harvest is a Barren One,” obviously, had no impact on the milk industry’s juggernaut (151). But, I doubt my mother, who lived in rural Georgia, ever read these articles. Demonstrably, the milk industry’s juggernaut succeeded.
We’ve known, Schmid writes, since 1882, with the work of Robert Koch, that “the human and the bovine tubercle” are “neither identical nor transmissible, and that humans had nothing to fear from bovine bacillus.” Schmid writes that “the only way the bovine tubercle may pass directly into the milk is if the disease in the animal has become generalized and tubercular lesions have formed on the udders.” Another indirect route is fecal contamination (35-36).
The human tubercle may contaminate the milk if a tubercular milker coughs into or otherwise mishandles the milk.” (35-36) But, the closed-system automatic milking machine, invented in 1920, prevents the contamination of raw milk by human milkers. And, today, “most states no longer test for bovine TB because it is nearly unknown in America…though most states that license the retail sale of raw milk do require testing the cows used for milk production” (71-74).
Applied Dairy Microbiology (2001) is a comprehensive reference text for dairy microbiology. In it, Schmid says, Elliot T. Ryser, PhD, of Michigan State University, discusses the safety and quality of milk and, without references for what is “incorrect information,” claims that bacterial infections like diphtheria, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, and typhoid fever were linked to raw milk before World War II (232-234). Meanwhile, Schmid notes, Ryser does not discuss the 1927 Montreal pasteurized milk-borne outbreak of typhoid which affected nearly 5,000 people and killed 450 people. Further, Schmid writes, Ryser claims, without references, that the 1986 banning of all interstate shipment of all raw milk products reduced raw-milk related outbreaks of milk-derived illness except in farm families (308-310).
Schmid notes that Ryser does call aflatoxins, which derive from mold in grains, “ `a major public health concern based on the potential impact of chronic exposure.’ “ Schmid agrees with Ryser that aflatoxins are “potent liver carcinogens for both animals and humans.” Aflatoxins, Ryser writes, are “ `relatively unaffected by pasteurization, sterilization, fermentation, cold storage, freezing, concentrating or drying….’ “ Yet, Schmid notes, Ryser does not discuss “the desirability of grass feeding,” or “the possibility of utilizing pasture-based systems,” or “the importance of using less grain in feeding” (232-234).
Schmid, after his exhaustive search through the archives of milk-related data, concludes that the dangers of drinking raw milk from healthy cows and from clean milking systems have been grossly exaggerated by public health officials, by medical literature, and by, therefore, doctors. This banning, Schmid argues, has been based on junk science, outright distortions of data, and invented stories: raw milk is a nutrient dense whole food with a long history of supporting human health. In the past 40 years, there have been no milk-borne cases of typhoid fever, scarlet fever, or diphtheria despite the fact that raw milk is legally sold in some 35 states and that “millions of farm families” have consumed raw milk (310-311).
So, Schmid charges, warnings about raw milk derive from another motive than the protection of human health (310-311). And the banning of raw milk by our private and public institutions is a betrayal of our trust (149).
Schmid critiques the USDA’s “Official Statement on Raw Milk.” He argues, with the weight of his research behind him, that “honest investigators have demonstrated that the risk from raw milk is very low”; that “raw milk from healthy cows raised on fresh pasture, produced under sanitary conditions, simply does not contain pathogenic bacteria”; that raw milk can be and is routinely tested for bacteria; that the system of unhealthy cows in confinement dairies produces dangerous pathogens that pasteurization does not kill; that the “cases” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) uses to support the banning of raw milk are biased and flawed; that our government is operating a double food standard as many other industrial, processed foods are much more lethal than raw milk; that the scientific evidence supporting the nutritional benefits of raw milk are being ignored willfully; and that government rulings have nothing to do with the safety of raw milk and everything to do with benefiting the commercial dairy industry (433-442). I would add that this situation is an effect of the power of corporatism.
Most importantly, Schmid charges that mandatory pasteurization is a fascist tactic that cannot be said to be supported by our constitution which embodies concepts of freedom of choice. He asks whether “our constitutional government…[has] the right to make laws outlawing a food that has sustained much of humanity throughout recorded history” (264).
It’s a good question.