Raw Milk Debate Has Maybe United Rural Conservatives, Urban Liberals

Wisconsin, America’s enchanted forest of cheeses, milks, and ice creams, is currently the home to one of the creamiest dairy debates in all the land about whether or not the governing powers that be should have the authority to punish dairy entrepreneurs for selling raw milk. If dairy consumers want to roll the dice with bacteria like salmonella and E coli, they should be allowed to do so unmolested by state and federal milk sentries, shouldn’t they?

Not according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, which visited the farm of 41-year-old dairy farmer (and former Amish dairy farmer) Vernon Hershberger in 2010 and found raw milk in his tanks. The retail sale of raw milk is legal in 10 states, but Wisconsin isn’t one of them, and state officials put a hold on the milk, essentially condemning it to spoil. Hershberger, however, could not abide so much wasted milk (he’s claimed that it violates his religious values as a non-denominational Christian) and broke the hold. He will go on trial later this month for three counts of licensure violation and one count of violating a hold order, which combined bring a maximum penalty of $13,000 and/or two-and-a-half years’ jail time.

Hershberger’s trouble with Wisconsin authorities has, according to the Daily Beast, provoked some of his former raw-milk “customers” and out-of-state advocates to protest the state’s treatment of Hershberger. The Daily Beast, moreover, explains that Hershberger didn’t technically sell raw milk directly to his pasteurization-averse customers, rather, he set up a “buyer’s club” for people who wanted to swill milk that was free of the meddlesome innovations of French microbiologists:


Technically, these club members were not customers of the farm, but partners: they legally leased animals from Hershberger, and in return for his family boarding and caring for their cattle on his 157 acres of farmland, they paid certain agreed-upon fees each time they came to pick up the products of those cattle—namely, raw milk. So Hershberger felt he didn’t need a license as a retail food establishment, because there was no retail going on; the milk already belonged to the club members.

Such “clubs” are popular ways for peddlers of foodstuffs to circumvent state and federal regulation. Back in December, The New Yorker’s Dana Goodyear chronicled the rise of the underground supper club, which is basically an underground restaurant operating exclusively on “donations.” The supper clubs are a way for, as Goodyear explains, “undercapitalized” chefs to gain traction in notoriously treacherous industry that has become even more treacherous in the down economy, but the dangers of unregulated restaurants serving food to patrons charmed with indie hipness parallel CDC concerns about dairy farms that produce raw milk: they can make people very sick. Just take one of Goodyear’s less than appetizing anecdotes:

The goal of this kind of dining is not seduction; it is experience. In the underground, that can mean the experience of being served undercooked chicken by a couple of Southern gals in a little Spanish house in Laurel Canyon. (My husband vomited when we got home, though it could have been the full jar of homemade pickles he ate to kill time before the first course came out.)

Double-yuck, but you get the idea — a lot of regulations on food (homemade pickles included) are in place to protect the large majority of stomachs from digestive unpleasantness.

Advocates involved in the raw milk issue, however, have gone beyond arguments of personal freedom to suggest that pasteurization isn’t as wonderful as the CDC says it is. The CDC warns against drinking raw milk, citing it as a cause of 148 illnesses and two fatalities from 1998 to 2011. Raw milk advocates say that, since 3,000 Americans die of foodborne illnesses every year, two deaths over a 14-year span seem to make raw milk a relatively low-risk cookie-dunking option. But, as a relentless infomercial pitch-person might scream at you late one night, that’s not all:

What’s more, advocates say, raw milk is tastier and more nutritious. Pasteurization does kill bad bacteria, but it also kills good bacteria and other nutrients. It’s the potential health benefit that drew people to Hershberger’s farm in the first place. “Maybe someone in the family has some health issues,” he says, “and they get to talking to their friends and they’ve heard about trying fresh milk from the cow and they want to try it, too. A lot of people have very good results.”

Raw milk has the added benefit of being better for the environment, too. Since it’s usually organic, the process of caring for the cows introduces fewer chemicals into the ground, and skipping the pasteurization process means fewer gas emissions from transportation.

If nothing else, the Daily Best notes that the raw milk debate represents an interesting delta of common ground between “rural conservatives and...liberal urban foodies,” who can now perhaps look forward to a sharing a feast of unpasteurized dairy products at the same odiferous table.

Wisconsin Farmer to Stand Trial for Selling Raw Milk [Daily Beast]

Image via Getty, Sandra Mu