Milking It: Ron Paul Wants Choice on Raw Milk

At a recent campaign stop in Iowa, Rep. Ron Paul garnered applause for a remark about legalization.

No, not marijuana: This time the Texas congressman was talking about legalizing the sale of  raw milk .

Amid talk of overregulation and the government's alleged meddling in personal affairs, Paul promised change. "I'm all for raw milk," the GOP presidential candidate said. "I think you should make your own choice on whether you drink raw milk or not."

Unlike the supermarket varieties, raw milk does not undergo the process called pasteurization in which milk is heated enough to kill bacteria in it. For that reason, raw milk is more susceptible to the growth of certain bacteria that can lead to food-borne illness. Twenty states prohibit the sale of raw milk outright, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

New Hampshire is one of the 30 states that does allow the sale of raw milk. It requires dairy products sold in supermarkets be pasteurized, but farms, pasteurization plants and stores can sell raw milk directly to consumers.

Carol Lake, a dairy farmer from Peterborough, N.H., said knowing the farmer and where milk comes from are key to drinking it.

Lake said regulating the production of raw milk doesn't have to mean making it illegal.

"Absolutely, I think it needs to be a safe food just like any other food we produce," Lake said. "But, yes, it should, of course, be [legal]. We are allowed to eat raw hamburger, for heaven's sake."

On Dancing Dog Farm - named for Lake's late English Shepherd -  three dairy goats produce milk that Lake serves to her family and sells to friends and neighbors.

Lake said milk that is destined to be pasteurized often contains items such as hair and dirt that are banned from raw milk.

She said those contaminants eventually get "cooked out …but do you still want to drink it?"

But infectious disease expert William Hueston said that is not always the case. "You can pasteurize manure, but who wants to drink it?" Hueston, who teaches food safety at the University of Minnesota, said, calling Lake's remark "a little bit of a red herring."

"Can it happen? Sure. It can happen with any cow if you don't clean the udder adequately," Hueston said. "But that's not a common occurrence with the commercial dairymen that produce the milk you buy at the store."

The fight to legalize raw milk epitomizes a theme at the heart of Paul's campaign: get government out of Americans' decisions, even those that could put them in harm's way.

Dan Holmes of Sunnyfield Farm in Peterborough saw Paul's speech Tuesday and said, on this issue, he's 100 percent in agreement with Paul. "There are no dangers in raw milk that aren't the same sort of dangers that you might get from any milk," Holmes said.

Holmes argued that the quality and safety of raw milk are determined by the health of the cow and how the milk is handled.

But Jeff Bender, director of the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety at the University of Minnesota, said the contaminants come from the cow's udders, which, being so close to the ground, are exposed to sources of bacteria, soiling all milk from the get-go.

"It's not a sterile product, so that's why pasteurization has been a simple, easy solution," Bender said. He called it "one of the pinnacles of public health success."

Experts did not dispute that pasteurization affects the milk's taste.

The taste of raw milk is not the same as pasteurized milk "but it's hard to put your finger on just what's happening to make the flavor different," Holmes said. "Usually, what's happening is you're getting a higher butter fat content."

That is because after pasteurization, milk destined for supermarkets is homogenized, meaning that the fat is separated out and only a percentage of it is put back in.

Over in Iowa, where another crop of candidates are campaigning these days, a storm over raw milk has been percolating since February 2010. That was when the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund filed a suit against the FDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Iowa District Court over restrictions prohibiting cross-border sales of raw milk.

The  Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund argues that such regulations are unconstitutional.

While no one from the FDA was available to comment on the issue of raw milk, the agency's website provides clarification on its position.

"As a science-based, public health regulatory agency, FDA strongly supports the application of effective measures, such as pasteurization, to protect the safety of the food supply and maintain public confidence in such important, healthy staples of the diet as milk," the site reads.

Both Bender and Hueston agreed that the raw milk feud is a battle over freedom of choice, not health benefits.

"The pasteurization from a public health point of view is a common-sense, safe approach to assure that milk doesn't transmit disease so we can safely feed it to our kids or our grandparents or whoever it is," Hueston said.

One of the main concerns raised by both health experts was for parents who give raw milk to their children, possibly exposing them to disease-causing bacteria that can be spread to other children. There is also concern for elderly consumers who, like children, are more susceptible to infection.

"At the end of the day, in public health, what we say on a regular basis is that if there are diseases that we can control with a simple and safe method, then we have a societal responsibility to do so," Hueston said, "especially when they involve young children who don't have a choice, can't make a choice whether or not to drink it."