Below is an excerpt from the July 2015 edition of GINNED! Magazine about the Dà Mhìle Distillery. Every month, Craft Gin Club Members receive a bottle of amazing small-batch gins accompanied by GINNED! Magazine which is full of information about the gin, the distillery and loads of fascinating features.
“Don’t eat that! That cheese will kill you!”
Many people would react in this manner before you took a bite of Caws Teifi Cheese from the Glynhynod Farm in Wales, the farm that houses our July 2015 Gin of the Month, Dà Mhìle. This is because Teifi cheese is made with unpasteurised raw milk, a naturally-occurring nectar that strikes fear into the hearts of many for its potential to make us weak-stomached humans ill. For others, this fear is completely irrational. Teifi Cheese, for instance, is the UK’s most-awarded cheese and has not killed anyone.
Proponents of raw milk talk of the natural liquid’s assumed benefits on nutritional, environmental and taste grounds. From a health perspective, the argument goes that raw milk provides bacteria necessary for stimulating the immune system and familiarising young people with common bacteria that can be dangerous later in life if they are not introduced to the body at an early age. The enzymes in raw milk destroyed by pasteurisation help digestion, help the body to defeat pathogens and prevent lactose intolerance. One compound in particular - Conjugated Linoleic Acid - not present in pastuerised nor skim milk is proven to prevent different types of cancer, hypertension and obesity.
As for the environment, supporters of raw milk point to the fact that pasteurisation is an energy-intensive process that requires special machines to rapidly heat and cool the milk. Much milk found in supermarkets is also produced on large, industrial farms that generate pollution and which feed their cows unnatural diets.
In tasting raw milk, supporters almost treat it like terroir wine. Raw milk’s flavour varies tremendously depending on the region, the type of cow, what the cow has eaten, the weather, etc.
Despite these apparent benefits, there seems to an all-out war on raw milk in some parts of the world, particularly in Anglo-Saxon nations, some of which, such as Scotland, have banned raw milk outright. But why the harsh treatment of a natural product described by its supporters as “nature’s perfect food”? Are their arguments for banning raw milk justified?
The American government in particular has vilified raw milk beyond what some might consider reasonable bounds. Reading the literature on raw milk on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Center for Disease Control (CDC) websites, one would think raw milk an imminent threat in line with illegal drugs. Phrases such as “Raw milk and raw milk products… can be contaminated with bacteria that can cause serious illness, hospitalization, or death,” from the CDC website or the isolation of “soft cheeses, such as Brie and Camembert, and Mexican-style soft cheeses…” as foods that are “Unsafe to eat,” fail to simultaneously inform consumers that realistically any food can be contaminated and that French and Mexican people eat those cheeses as part of their everyday diet with no results of food poisoning epidemics.
Indeed, stories of the US authorities crack downs on raw milk read like breakups of dangerous drug rings. In the 2011 documentary Farmageddon, produced by the mother of child whose asthma and allergies disappeared after the family switched to raw milk on a doctor’s recommendation, federal agents are shown entering small, local farms under the guise of routine inspection only to shut down the farms’ dairy operations, forcing farmers to destroy their dairy stocks and even taking their animals despite any evidence of infection or illness. In 2010 and 2011, the same Venice, California natural foods market called Rawesome was raided by police with their guns drawn proceeding to frisk store employees and arrest the store’s owner, all in the name of shutting down what were legal raw milk sales.
Drug bust-like raids seem pretty extreme for a product that the CDC links to 2 deaths in the fourteen years from 1998 to 2011, particularly when considering that the Center also publishes statistics that show that every year, 3,000 people in the United States die from “foodborne diseases” most of which are caused by the same bacteria listed on its website as the harmful agents in raw milk. In the UK, no recent deaths linked to raw milk have been reported despite research by the Food Standards Agency reporting an estimated 500,000 cases of food poisoning per year with nearly half attributed to the consumption of poultry meat and a tenth to “vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds”. No government defamation of chicken or lettuce has ensued.
PASTEURISING THE ARGUMENT AGAINST RAW
The “raw vs. pasteurisation” debate has raged for decades. A study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine published in 1943 called milk pasteurisation “inexorable” as, at the time, between 1,500 and 2,000 people per year were dying of “tuberculosis of bovine origin,” a disease that is estimated to have caused more deaths in animals than all other diseases combined in the first decades of the 20th century.
This is a high death rate to be sure, but one caused by the fact that at the time of publication, 40% of cows in the UK were infected with bovine TB. The study, while promoting pasteurisation, also concluded that “the ultimate ideal may be clean milk produced from disease-free herds and protected from human contamination” and observed that “it is not sufficiently appreciated that the quality of the pasteurized product depends to a considerable extent on the cleanliness of the raw milk,” effectively stating that cows from clean, natural environments produce milk fit for human consumption without the bacteria-killing heating process.
Research updated in May of this year by the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs echoes these findings, claiming that bovine TB remains “one of the biggest challenges that the cattle farming industry faces, particularly in the West and South West of England,” but that in other regions “the infection in cattle has been virtually eliminated.” The study attributes the current low contraction in humans to “milk pasteurisation and to the early identification of cattle with TB on farms and at abattoirs,” essentially reaching the same conclusions as the 1943 study; milk pasteurisation is helpful but clean dairy farms are also essential.
NO USE CRYING OVER FRESH MILK
Taking all of these arguments into consideration, it is perhaps most helpful to take a step back and approach the situation from a logical perspective. Human beings drank raw milk for millennia before the widespread adoption of pasteurisation around the 1930s. Yes, many people became ill and some died from drinking raw milk pre-pasteurisation. Yes, others have become ill and died since pasteurisation’s popularity. Is there still risk today that consuming raw milk could make one ill or lead to death? Of course. But no more so than consuming any other type of food both fresh and processed; or, for that matter, driving in a car, not getting enough exercise, or walking to the corner store to buy a pint of milk.
The most important criteria when considering whether or not to drink raw milk is simply knowing where the milk comes from. Pasteurisation definitely works and is for the most part necessary for milk we buy in the supermarket, milk that is a product of industrial methods that mix a number of milks from a number of farms together which then travel long distances before arriving at your local Sainsbury’s freezer. But if you are buying milk from a local farm where the cows are grass fed, left to roam naturally around the property and are regularly tested for disease, there seems to be no reason why their raw milk would be any more dangerous than any other naturally-occurring food.
All in all, it appears that for milk produced and purchased under the right circumstances, the arguments of government bodies that raw milk is dangerous are tenuous at best. Perhaps their position is more driven by terminology-induced fear than by science or experience. Consider what we call the liquid subject of this debate; “raw”, a word that frightens many people where food is concerned. What if we eliminated the adjective? Maybe it’s time to call the natural, unpasteurised creamy fluid what it really is: just plain “milk”.