Raw Dairy: Fact, Fable, and Freedom

By Lillian Weiland · On April 26, 2016

One day a few years back, I opened the fridge at my parents’ house and saw a block of cheese. Not the typical fluorescent orange American cheese, but a creamy, white, “raw” cheese. What the hell is “raw” cheese? I grabbed the block and asked my mom about it skeptically.

My mother is the type who makes her own soup stalk (you know, with real chicken bones) and urged me to eat sauerkraut daily—a habit that makes my roommates a little disgusted. I knew there was more to this “raw” dairy than just the taste. She explained to me that raw dairy is not pasteurized, meaning the product is less processed and retains the beneficial bacteria and proteins that give dairy its nutritional value. If the thought of unpasteurized dairy frightens you, you’re not alone. Selling raw dairy is illegal in 18 states, and is mercilessly demonized by government health agencies.

Let’s first look at what pasteurization is and what it does to dairy products. Pasteurization was created by French scientist, Louis Pasteur in 1864. The process is quite simple: milk is heated to a specific temperature in order to kill harmful bacteria that could potentially be found in the raw product. The invention of this method has been effective at preventing food borne illnesses such as listeriosis, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and brucellosis. Sounds pretty good, right?

Like so many aspects of the modern American food industry, it isn’t so simple. A peer-reviewed study done in Europe (where “raw”dairy is widely consumed), showed consumption of raw dairy to be protective against childhood asthma, due to the foods higher content and quality of whey proteins. However, many scientists and medical experts say that studies like this are not applicable to the majority population. Since the children in the study grew up on farms, they are naturally exposed to a different set of bacteria and microbes than the average city-dweller, making their immune systems able to tolerate certain bugs that other children cannot. Moral of the story: consume at your own risk.

Despite conflicting opinions on raw dairy’s health risks and benefits, a deeper issue is embedded in that block of cheese. The problem lies in the inconsistency and irony of food laws in America. States ban raw dairy for its health risks, yet allow prolific sales of soda and processed foods that have been the main contributors to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes—illnesses that are absurdly more common than food poisoning. Many supporters of raw dairy argue it is their right to produce and consume food they feel is healthy for themselves. On a deeper level, state and federal governments allow and support industrial agriculture and food production, while imposing stricter regulations on small-scale farmers and producers like those that sell raw milk and cheese. Raw dairy is another reminder that the right to produce and consume food is increasingly more political and convoluted than it appears on the label.

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