Oct 11 2012

Milk in America: Part One

I've always had a fraught relationship with milk. As a child I didn't enjoy the taste and as a young adult, I only used it as a dressing for cereal. In attempting to tease apart my avoidance of milk from an early age, I've emerged with several theories. One: I didn't like the taste. Alternatively bland and sour, the unpredictability of the flavor turned me off. I could never imagine downing a giant glass of milk as a snack as fellow classmates did. Two: The milk served in schools was even more mysterious to me: chocolate, 2%, whole. I didn't understand what the different percentages meant, and I definitely didn't understand why year-in and year-out, the brand of milk was always the same, no matter the time of year, the grade, or even the school. Third, physically speaking, I've never had the best reaction to milk. My stomach seems to shrink in on itself, and it's not uncommon for nausea to follow soon after.

It wasn't until the very last few months that we lived in Arlington, Virginia—3 years ago now—that I began to develop an interest in milk and milk production. After purchasing Trickling Springs milk from our local farmers' market, I found myself actually enjoying the taste (as well as the reusable glass bottle). I was struck by the idea that cows weren't just milk machines but actual animals that operated according to the seasons and were effected by what they ate and how they were cared for. How could such a simple fact have eluded me until my later 20s?

But the most intriguing thing about the local, pastured milk? I didn't immediately feel sick after consuming it.

I've continued my quest to learn more about milk as life has taken me to New York and Portland. Upstate New York is traditionally known for its pastured land and rolling acres dotted with dairy farms. (Sadly, the number of dairy farms in New York State is shrinking each year, due to dairy consolidation and the natural gas boom.) While in Brooklyn, I had the opportunity to choose between several smaller milk producers, including Ronnybrook (a farm I also visited), Milk Thistle, Battenkill, and a farmer owned milk co-op, Hudson Valley Fresh.

Each dairy farm operated with a slightly different business model, and each farm's milk tasted different, depending on the terroir of the farm and grazing patterns of its cows. And while I still didn't seek milk out as an afternoon snack, I started to consistently enjoy its taste. I grew increasingly curious about the cows' living environments versus the confined milking 'barns' that the majority of dairy cows live in across the country.

Shortly before we moved to Portland, Milk Thistle—the only certified organic dairy of the bunch—went out of business. In their efforts to own and operate their own bottling facility, they found themselves in an enormous amount of debt, and were unable to continue operating, despite a loyal, ardent following (and selling their milk in the local Whole Foods). If Milk Thistle couldn't survive—a dairy that filled a need and received constant attention from a busy New York audience—how could any small dairies continue? And what is truly wrong with our milk system?

This thought brought up a slew of additional questions about milk: how is it priced? Why is most milk homogenized? Why is all milk sold in stores pasteurized? While in New York, touring Hawthorne Valley Farm, I saw raw (unpasteurized) milk for sale and heard rave reviews. At the time, my only entry point into milk was the pasteurized variety, along with the "knowledge" that pasteurization makes milk safer for you to consume. Finally, why does our country consume so much milk? Why is drinking milk a given for children in school? Why are small farms dying off while milk is still being consumed (and recommended for consumption) in greater and greater amounts?

Through the help of one book, The Untold Story of Milk, as well as supplementary articles from Grist, the New York Times, The Atlantic and a multitude of online articles and message boards, I've managed to partially answer many of these questions. Here's what I found out.

Milk in the early United States

The first cattle arrived in the New World in 1525. Settlers from Europe and the Canary Islands transported cattle to South America and Mexico. Many animals became wild, eventually roaming much of South America through Buenos Aires towards the Andes.

Dairy cows arrived shortly after the Jamestown settlers when Sir Thomas Dale brought 100 cows for the settlement. Under his tutelage, barns were built and hay was grown, but when he returned to England his ideas of animal welfare went with him. The cows starved and were treated poorly. In 1620, England imported a massive number of cows to the New World, roughly 20 heifers per 100 new emigrants. Settlers in Jamestown, Plymouth, and later New Amsterdam learned to take care of the cows, building their settlements on a foundation of agriculture and dairy. As settlers moved West, they took their cows with them, by then fully recognizing the importance of a dairy cow or dairy herd in their daily lives.

Ron Schmid, the author of "The Untold Story of Milk", points out that milk in America at the beginning of the 19th century was of the same characteristics as milk that had nurtured humanity for thousands of years.

But not for long.

In a twist that I bet your American history teacher didn't teach you in school, the War of 1812 represented a catalyst for the changing of the dairy industry in America, setting our treatment of cows, and eventual mandatory pasteurization of milk, down the path it's firmly entrenched in today.

Initially, in cities, cows were kept fairly local (for example Boston Common in Massachusetts and the Meadowlands near New York City). As cities developed, grazing land was pushed further and further away. The segregation of dairy land was greatly accelerated by the rampant development of "distillery dairies". The War of 1812 severed America's whisky supply from the West Indies, as the Caribbean Islands were part of the British Empire. And, like that, the domestic liquor industry was born.

By 1814, demand for milk and whisky was increasing at unparalleled rates. As more and more women entered the workforce during the industrial revolution, they became unable to breastfeed and began seeking alternatives for their babies. In addition, many cities' working residents were dealing with inadequate nutritional options and turned to milk to supplement their diet. Unfortunately, America's milk drinking habit was beset with problems from the start.

Distillery owners began housing cows next door to their factories, feeding distillery slop to the animals. The practice began as an experiment but quickly became popular as milk became incredibly cheap to produce.

These distillery dairies led to a myriad of problems: pollution, disease, filth, inhumane conditions, and deaths (both bovine and human). As conditions became more and more filthy, with cows dying on the spot, tethered to the same post for months on end, rotting with disease, producers began adding starch and chalk to bulk up the consistency of their milk. It wasn't long before two conflicting movements began to form: advocates for mandatory pasteurization (the heating of milk to high temperatures to kill potentially harmful bacteria), and the "clean milk" movement (changing how dairy cows were treated to ensure safer milk).

The Dawn of Pasteurization

Why as a culture were we still drinking milk if it made us so sick? The infant mortality rate hovered around 50%, but most didn't initially consider that the poor quality of milk was part of the problem.

Pasteurization advocates and "clean milk" proponents demanded an improvement in public health but disagreed on how to achieve this. In one camp sat Henry Coit, a crusader for the certified milk movement and for raw milk. Opposing him was Nathan Straus, the co-owner of Macy's, a staunch believer in pasteurizing milk. Both knew that milk had to change to curb the rampant illness and bacterial outbreaks, but their approaches couldn't have been more different.

Coit called for a legal contract between dairymen and a certified milk committee. This committee would stipulate how milk would be produced, inspected, and certified. The first milk committee was created in 1893, starting in New Jersey before becoming a national movement. Dairymen joined with promise of medical support and increased price for their milk. These certified milk standards began to raise the standards for the entire industry, but unfortunately for the certified milk camp, administering the standards was deemed costly, and people felt that the hygiene rules would be impossible to enforce. People began to look for a technological fix (rather than a cultural one) and the pasteurization movement gained momentum.

Nathran Straus, along with his medical ally Dr. Abraham Jacobi, had witnessed many children die from milk and had seen the disgusting state of milk production first hand. At first pasteurization began as a solution to a serious problem: people were consuming milk and dying from that consumption. But with this success in treating milk-related illnesses came the notion that all milk must be pasteurized, and the idea that pasteurization would somehow take unhealthy milk and make it healthy.

Straus urged New York City to pasteurize the city's milk supply, but this initial ordinance was defeated by supporters of clean raw milk. New York City's 1913 typhoid epidemic changed the mind of the commissioner of health, along with much of the public. The commissioner, Hermann Biggs, ordered the pasteurization of the entire milk supply, except for Coit's certified raw milk. This ordinance effected the 100,000 farmers who supplied milk to New York City, and many cities soon followed with similar ordinances.

This rush to make milk safer to consume meant that the fundamental relationships between food, animals, and human health were being ignored.

Standard pasteurization heats milk to 145 degrees for 30 minutes. Ultra pasteurization heats milk to 230 degrees. When milk is heated to this degree, the nutritional quality of milk is irrevocably altered. Heat destroys milk enzymes, vitamins, milk proteins, and any antimicrobial immune supporting proteins that are present in raw milk. Pasteurization actually distorts the milk protein to a point where the body no longer recognizes it and mounts an immune response.

"The Untold Story of Milk" goes into a great amount of detail about enzymes. Unless you were a science major, are a scientist, or have an affinity for science, you probably think about enzymes as much as I do in my daily life. Which is to say: never. So here's a brief (and in no way, exhaustive) primer.

Found in all cells, enzymes are large molecules composed of proteins. They act as a catalyst for biochemical reactions, meaning that without enzymes, there is no life. Enzymes support the immune system, protect the body from pathogens, aid in digestion and nutrient assimilation, and promote healthy bacteria. Enzymes fall under three categories:

  • Metabolic Enzymes: instrumental in the growth of new cells and the maintenance of all tissues
  • Digestive Enzymes: manufactured by the pancreas and secreted by the salivary glands, stomach, pancreas, and the small intestine
  • Food Enzymes: present in raw food (lower amounts in fruits and vegetables, higher amounts in animal products); initiate digestion. Most food, when it is uncooked, contains enough natural food enzymes to digest that food. When you cook the food the enzymes are inactivated (denatured) and can no longer assist in the digestive process.

As we age, the organs responsible for producing our digestive enzymes become less efficient.

An important distinction between Coit and Straus' approaches to milk were how they philosophically approached the concept of illness. Read the following questions and see if you have a quick "gut reaction" opinion:

Is illness caused simply by the presence of germs?

Is illness caused by a failure of the immune system?

The first question is the basis behind germ theory, which views the body as a sterile environment in which microbes make us sick.

The second question views the human body as a kind of 'super organism' with a variety of healthy bacteria supporting a fluctuating immune system.

It's a fitting time to turn to cow biology and health before discussing raw (aka: unpasteurized) milk in further detail.

Cow Biology and Health

As my months spent with the CAFO Reader indicated, the health effects of any food that comes from an animal depends on the health of that animal. This is readily summed up in the pithy slogans, "You are what you eat, eats" or "The healthier the animal, the healthier the food".

Just as these adages are true for chickens and their resulting meat and eggs, it's equally true for cows and steer and their meat, milk, butter, cheese, cream and other extended products: the health of the product is determined by the health of the cow.

Cows are ruminants, meaning that their bodies are developed to eat and digest grass by softening it within one compartment of their stomach before regurgitating it and chewing it again ("chewing the cud").

Ruminants are instrumental in building fertile soil: without ruminants to fertilize the soil and break down cellulose, prairies could become desserts. In fact, properly managed pasture can minimize erosion and sequester carbon. The goal of domestic grazing should be to mimic native grazing patterns. Bovines in the wild spend most of their waking hours in an ambulant state of grazing, walking an average of 2.5 miles a day, all the while taking 50 to 80 bites of forage per minute.

Though cows are meant to graze on pasture (and can be quite productive while doing so: a pastured cow can produce 1200 gallons of milk a year!), many cows never see land or have a chance to graze: The Humane Society estimates that in 2008, 90% of the 9.3 million cows used for milk production were housed in primarily indoor systems. The roughage provided by grasses and other plants allows ruminants to produce saliva, which helps neutralize acids that exist naturally in their digestive systems.

When taken off pasture and put on a diet of grain, a ruminant will produce less saliva, causing an increase in acidity within its digestive tract. As a result, grain-fed cattle often suffer from a number of health problems including intestinal damage, dehydration, liver abscesses, and even death. A cow kept in a confinement dairy has a 42 month lifespan compared to the 12-15 year lifespan of a pastured cow. Despite the fact that grain diets can sicken cattle and cows, factory farms feed these animals grain (usually corn or soybeans) because it's a cheap and quick way for an animal to fatten up and produce more milk.

These cows are kept in environmentally controlled dairies, most housed in concrete-floored stalls measuring 4x5 feet, treated with rBGH, antibiotics, and steroids, and fed grain, not grass, in massive feedlots. Along with contributing to the prevalence of laminitis, feeding cows grain effects the kinds of bacteria found in milk and can produce acid-resistant strains. When cattle are fed grain, they have a lower, more acidic intestinal pH and are more likely to harbor pathogenic bacteria. These acid resistant bacteria can survive the acid environment of the human stomach and in some cases, colonize the intestine.

Summing up the state of industrial dairy, Schmid states: "At best, these facilities minimize animal discomfort, prevent overt disease, and allow for semi-clean production of milk. Under no circumstances can a confinement dairy produce milk that compares in quality to milk from pasture-fed animals. In most confinement facilities, overtly sickly cows produce inferior milk that is only safe due to pasteurization."

At the time of the debate between Coit and Straus, physicians recognized that milk from pastured cows was superior for health. The very things that pasteurization kills off—enzymes and nutrients—are essential for a healthy body and immune system.

Cooked food requires the body to make the enzymes needed for digestion, depleting the body's enzyme capacity. Contrary to belief, food enzymes aren't destroyed during the digestive process, but rather take priority in digestion over secreted digestive enzymes. It's certainly fine to eat cooked food, as long as it's eaten in balance with food full of enzymes, ideally raw. Enzymes in raw milk support the immune system, aid in the protection against pathogens, and help assimilate vitamins and minerals.

With the apparent good that raw milk can do for your body, why is there so little scientific literature in support of raw milk, and why are there so few places you can buy it? It's important to know that many public officials that denigrate raw milk are closely tied to a system that demands compulsory pasteurization. And as far as scientific journals, it seems that most journals aren't going to challenge the dictum that raw milk is dangerous, writes Schmid. In his research, he turned to older studies and a discussion of raw breast milk. Breast milk can contain many pathogens, but it contains protective factors that both inhibit pathogens and anticipate new pathogens. Schmid argues that "mammals including humans have survived because raw milk contains multiple, redundant systems of bioactive components that can reduce or eliminate populations of pathogenic bacteria while also strengthening the immune system of the suckling infant."

Many components in raw milk play duel roles of fighting pathogens and supporting the immune system, acting synergistically. Pasteurization wipes out the protective factors, inactivating antibodies, enzymes, and beneficial bacteria. When pathogens contaminate pasteurized milk, there is very little of a protective system left in place.

Pasteurization also compromises the milk's nutritional value, destroying enzymes in the process. Enzymes effected include lipase, the enzyme needed to utilize milk fat, and lactase, the enzyme that digests lactose, the carbohydrate present in milk. This fact might help to explain why so many people suffer from lactose intolerance. When undigested lactose reaches the large intestine, it ferments in the colon, resulting in intestinal problems.

Back to Coit and Straus. After New York City enforced mandatory pasteurization of the entire city's milk supply, cities across the country followed suit. After World War II, all of America's agriculture took a "get big or get out mentality" led by the 1970s USDA Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz. Between 1950 and 2000, 3.5 million family dairy farmers left the land. Pasteurization became compulsory, and in some cases, stories were even invented about raw milk outbreaks. By 1986, the FDA banned interstate shipping of raw milk.

How Milk is Processed: Demystifying 1%, Whole and Cream-top

After a cow is milked, that milk is stored in a vat, mingling with other cows' milk, before being taken by a truck to a processing plant. When the milk arrives at the plant, the liquid is separated into cream, skim milk, protein, and solids. These various parts of the whole are then reconstituted into whole, low-fat, and nonfat milk. Cream is added back into skim milk to create whole and low fat milk. The fatty milk leftovers become butter, cream, and cheese, among other products.

Once the milk is 'remade', it's put back into tanker trucks according to its designation and heads to a bottling plant. The milk is then either pasteurized or ultra-pasteurized, before being homogenized. Homogenization was first invented to emulsify margarine. The process was applied to milk to solve the "problem" of cream rising to the top during transportation. Though Schmid writes that the American public initially resisted homogenization (preferring the taste of unhomogenized milk, as well as the ability to see how much fat was in their milk), several influential milk companies launched campaigns promoting it. By the 1950s, nearly all milk available for sale was homogenized.

Homogenization involves passing the milk at high speeds (4,000 pounds per square inch) through small holes to create a uniform texture and to prevent the cream from separating and rising to the top. In some states, non-fat milk solids are added to the milk in order to thicken it and give it a better mouth feel.

Nonfat milk solids are created by removing the moisture from skim milk; this exposure to high heat and oxygen causes fats to oxidize. Nina Planck, author of Real Food, has found that oxidized cholesterol can harden arteries, contributing to atherosclerosis.

In Part Two, I write about dairy consolidation, milk pricing, and our country's relationship to milk, as well as share my thoughts following my weeks of research. Check back tomorrow!