Views / Citizen Scientist

The raw milk debate isn't about milk (it's about mistrusting experts)

If you accept scientific fact, it's plain as day that this "super-food" is super-dangerous.

Raw-milk farmer Michael Schmidt outside court in Newmarket, Ont back in 2008 (this is a long-standing battle).

The Canadian Press

Raw-milk farmer Michael Schmidt outside court in Newmarket, Ont back in 2008 (this is a long-standing battle).

For decades, raw milk has been inaccessible in Canada except to those with a cow handy. Commercial milk must be pasteurized to kill germs. Before this was routine, milk-borne outbreaks­ — typhoid, polio, listeria — felled thousands, primarily children.

Personally, the word “listeria” puts me off any food or drink. But others, like farmer-activists Michael Schmidt and his wife Elisa Vander Hout, feel differently. They love raw milk.

They’re currently embroiled in a court case in Newmarket, Ont., arguing their raw dairy co-op does not constitute an unauthorized “milk plant” in the province.

I don’t know enough about the legal stuff to comment. But I don’t think that’s what this debate is really about. It’s about trusting experts.  

People who reject science and put themselves at unnecessary risk generally drive me nuts (cough, antivaxxers). But I tried to step back and look at this objectively.

I spoke with Vander Hout at length on the phone this week. She said she and Schmidt don’t sell their milk, or share it beyond the 150 families in the co-op. She said the product is tested for common germs monthly, and 0:157, the deadly E. coli strain associated with dairy, has never been found on their farm. 

Her calm reasoning and advocacy for her right to choose half-convinced me. If adults* who understand the risks want to drink raw milk, and precautions are taken, is it really any more dangerous than steak tartare or raw eggs?

I don't actually know the answer to that question. So I asked three experts. Doug Goff, a food science professor at the University of Guelph, said milk from many cows and farms is typically pooled, increasing the potential for contamination exponentially. His colleague, professor Jeff Farber, said milk is a staple food we’re exposed to much more than treats like steak tartare.

Mansel Griffiths, who edited a dairy science journal, said four per cent of Ontario milk contains dangerous germs, pre-pasteurization, and milk-borne diseases pass from person to person, so milk can seed outbreaks that extend beyond direct consumers.

All three said it's not possible to do enough testing to ensure safety. It’s far more practical and safe to zap the milk with heat and be done with it.

Raw milk has benefits: It’s reportedly delicious, ferments beautifully, and is associated with reduced allergies among children who live on dairy farms.

But the immense risks far outweigh them. On that, I trust the experts.

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*Children have immature immune systems and they're too young to be able to understand the risks and benefits of raw milk. Experts are united in the opinion that children, as well as other vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, people with immune disease and the elderly, should never, ever, ever drink raw milk.  

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