The raw milk controversy: Natural isn't always better

US - Just when you think a topic has disappeared from the news cycle, it pops right back in. Mark Nolt, a Cumberland County, Pennsylvania dairy farmer, was recently accused by state officials of selling raw milk illegally.
calendar icon 27 August 2007
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The state departments of Agriculture and Health confiscated more than $25,000 worth of equipment and products from Nolt, who refuses to obtain the required permit, and is in violation of a court order.

Pennsylvania currently has more than 70 businesses with permits to sell raw milk, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

In June of this year, state officials ordered Nolt to stop selling raw milk after testing determined that three samples of milk from his farm showed unacceptable levels of bacteria.

Speaking like someone who stepped out of a time warp, Nolt said he won't sign the permit and resents giving the state the ability to shut his farm down—something he claims the permit could allow if inspectors don't like what they find.

So-called raw milk is simply milk as it comes directly out of the cow, in its natural and unpasteurized state. Pasteurization—named in honor of Louis Pasteur—as now practiced requires heating the milk for 15 seconds at 161 °F (71.7 °C). The process kills pathogens, as well as most of the bacteria that could cause spoilage. The process conditions are based on the parameters necessary to kill Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

"Certified" milk, is raw milk obtained from cows certified as healthy, with a bacteria count below a specified standard. Of course, it still can contain significant numbers of disease-producing organisms.

Advocates of raw milk tout various health benefits that pasteurization removes, but are generally silent on the issue of bacterial contamination. We will stipulate that pasteurization removes 10-30% of the heat-sensitive vitamins (vitamin C and thiamine—although milk is not a particularly good source for these nutrients) and may remove certain enzymes that render milk easier to digest for some individuals.

A protracted effort to regulate the sale of raw milk ran from the mid-1970s through nearly the end of the 1980s, and involved numerous federal agencies, state governments, health and consumer associations, and advocates from both sides of the issue. Much of the real fireworks concerned California's Alta-Dena Dairy, and repeated state-issued recall warnings over Salmonella contamination.


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