Thinking Thursday: something to ponder in the world of food and farming.
You’ll have to trust me on this, but when it comes to dairy, most of us don’t know what we don’t know. You can google it, and read about it, but the light-bulb won’t really be on until you spend a little time with farmers and straight-from-the-cow milk.
Recently, the Harvard Food Law Society hosted a debate about Raw Milk. If you missed the live stream, you’re in luck because it’s posted here. Even if you think raw milk is a real yawn, this debate is important. I certainly do hope you will take a little time and watch – there is a lot of great information presented.
One way they could have made it more interesting for me, and I’m only joking just a little: they really needed a good baker or cheese maker on the panel to enlighten everyone about the difference in raw milk vs store-bought pasteurized in cooking, cheese making and baking. It’s paradigm shifting and would help those who have no experience or interest in milk get an idea why some of us are so passionate about being denied essential cooking ingredients.
I find myself more than a little worried as I watch the government focus on one food and go to such great lengths to restrict access to the small group of citizens who want it. The level of aggression by officials conducting the raids and the amount of recon behind the raids is a little disproportionate to the crimes and kind of shocking. This whole thing illustrates what can happen if you decide to oppose the “system” (related to the “man”) and sets precedent for future bans of other items deemed to be harmful by groups of bossy people who like to set rules restricting other people’s lives. Well, can you guess which side I’m on yet?
The contentiousness of this debate perfectly illustrates our American expectation for absolute, government mandated safety and its impact on our personal freedom. Today it’s milk, tomorrow who knows? The list is already endless and since each infraction affects a small slice of people here, a different industry there, we allow it all to pass. There’s only so much you can be on top of and get excited about….
I won’t dwell on what a questionable use of tax dollars chasing after a small group of raw milk consumers is, especially considering that due to inadequate budget, only about 15% of imported foods are inspected by the FDA. And, unlike raw milk, those inadequately inspected foods are headed straight for the mainstream food supply.
Obviously, the fact that the market for raw foods is growing is a bright, shiny sign that Americans are losing confidence in our industrialized food supply and the officials in charge of regulating it. I suppose history has proven we can expect a strong push back from an industry who has enjoyed little resistance for so long.
Let’s face it, it makes no sense for the government to invest the dollars and manpower into the research, search and seizure that they are, unless you follow the money. Selling licensed raw milk is the one way farmers have of taking control of their business. And the last thing Big Dairy and all their lobbyists wants to see happen.
When you learn more about how our milk system works, it’s so odd, so painfully one-sided, it’s kind of hard to believe. In fact, if it wasn’t for tradition and love of farming, no sane entrepreneur would give this oddball business model a second look.
The federal government sets the price for milk. Farmers contract with a processor to pick up their milk and empty their bulk tank so there’s a place to store the next day’s milk. It’s a relentless schedule and the processors benefit from the fact that the government set price is so low, and too slow to respond to changes in the farmer’s cost of producing that milk. In recent years, the set price has often been lower than the farmer’s cost to produce the milk.
The processor then pasteurizes, homogenizes, skims, bottles, packages and distributes the milk, cream, cottage cheese and all sorts of other dairy products you buy in the store. Processing is where the money is – and it’s a daunting financial and bureaucratic leap for a struggling dairy to start bottling their own milk and/or making cheese to sell direct. If you’re lucky enough to have a dairy like that where you live, please buy that brand and support the effort.
Does it bug me that the head of Dean Foods takes home 10 mil while their supplier farmers are driven out of business by the low federal milk prices? Yes, I admit it does. But I’m not a martyr by any stretch. I believe in getting paid for hard work. And make no mistake, Dean Foods is permitted to pay over the federal price to help sustain farmers, but instead chooses to invest in their own mega-dairies to further control prices. This behavior was threatening enough to warrant an anti-trust lawsuit awarding damages to farmers and restricting some of the activity, but too little too late for many farmers.
Back to the debate, I thought most everyone brought an excellent point or bit of information to share. But with such a short amount of time for such a complex issue so much skimming was needed that in my opinion, the actual debate part barely got started. It was more like four presentations followed by Q&A.
Here’s why I’m frustrated. This is a very basic list of points many people don’t know and nobody seems to mention:
- This debate is not about what kind of milk you want to drink. You’re not being asked to pick your favorite. This is a debate about infringement on personal choice. You can prefer to drink pasteurized milk, yet still support legal raw milk.
- Do you know you can buy raw milk and still pasteurize it at home? It’s true, you can. It’s no big laboratory secret, you can do it on your kitchen stove with no fancy equipment. Here’s how. Why would I want to do that? Stick with me….
- Did you know that milk sold to be pasteurized and milk to be sold raw (licensed) are held to two different standards? Licensed raw milk is tested more stringently and held to higher standards.
- Commercial processors take the milk from all their dairies and combine them. So, the milk from the filthiest farm is mixed with that of the cleanest and in that way, the pathogen average is met. Kind of like grading on the curve… when I buy raw milk at the farm, my milk is from that one, single dairy that I have seen for myself. I like knowing what kind of farming and animal welfare my dollars are supporting.
- I don’t like over-processed dairy products and I don’t want additives either. Milk processing as it is commercially performed typically cooks the milk at very high temperatures for a very brief period of time. This means milk commercially pasteurized often does not taste like, match the nutritional content or form curds like milk that has been more gently processed at a lower temperature for a longer period of time as I do at home. Homogenization further heats and smashes the globules and ultra-pasteurized is the highest temperature cooking of all.
- When I buy milk from my local dairy, my farmer earns a fair price for the milk, it costs me no more and the dollars stay in my community rather than float away to a national corporation headquartered far away. When I buy the store brands, the farmer was often underpaid for the milk, the cows often spend their days in confinement dairies far away and the processor made the profit.
- For most raw milk supporters, it is a serious well-considered choice. All raw milk supporters are not emotional counter-culture fanatics using raw milk as a miracle cure. Bakers, cheesemakers, those caring about the environment, improved nutrition, local economies, corporate bullying, animal welfare and sustainability prefer raw milk from family-sized farms. Until you’ve tried it, you’ll have to take my word for it, but commercial dairy products are an entirely different category of flavor and texture. No processed additives can replace the deliciousness commercial processing strips from the raw milk.
- I’m not certain anyone has reassured the non-farming public that raw milk is not going to be replacing your grocery store milk. Supporting legal raw milk will not affect the availability of pasteurized milk. Your favorite brand is not in the least bit of danger. Very few stores will be willing or able to afford the type of insurance that would be required to sell raw milk. It will not be showing up in school lunches or at the coffee shop, never fear. Your ability to choose the milk you want will remain unchanged. All raw milk supporters ask is that their right to choose is equally respected.
Okay friends. I seriously hope you’ll take a minute and watch the debate – I promise you’ll learn a lot – especially that the dairy business is an important slice of American Life that we rely on heavily yet don’t really know much about.
We owe it to our local family sized dairy farmers to consider their side of the tale and to ourselves to learn more about milk – it’s kind of shocking what we’ve forgotten and how easily we’re willing to let it slip away.
This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday. What’s that you ask? It’s an ambitious and enlightening collection of posts from bloggers all over about issues near and dear to my heart: real food and natural living. Check it out!