We can probably all agree milk that comes straight from the cow to your glass is as fresh as it’s going to get. Raw milk, however, is a topic we certainly all don’t agree on. Some say it’s richer and creamier with tremendous health benefits. Others say it’s a high-priced fad that puts the most vulnerable in our society at risk of serious disease. The raw milk debate is a controversial one; it’s completely changed the face of the dairy industry.
Netflix’ “Rotten” series takes a look at the raw milk movement and introduces us to proponents on both sides. For instance, you’ll meet farmers and consumers alike who strongly believe unpasteurized dairy can help children who suffer from asthma, allergies, and skin conditions, to name a few. Farmers who sell the product say people come to them because they’ve been failed by modern medicine. One mother insists her extremely premature baby is thriving after drinking raw milk for a year. The way it works is raw milk is kept cool as soon as it leaves the cow. It’s never heated, meaning it retains tiny living organisms, also known as bacteria. The idea is the more bacteria you introduce to your immune system, the more resilient it becomes. But science hasn’t been able to prove that raw milk has any health benefits at all, and food safety specialists say if you drink it, you’re playing with fire.
The documentary transports you back in time to the turn of the twentieth century, when milk was the leading cause of foodborne illnesses. In some American cities, the infant mortality rate was at more than 30 percent. Then, a revolution in the dairy industry changed all of that. It was discovered that heating raw milk killed all of the dangerous bacteria, making it safer for people to drink. By the 1930’s, milk was almost always pasteurized and went from causing 25 percent of foodborne illness, to only one percent.
Still, the allure of supposed health benefits makes raw milk irresistible for some. You meet one mother in California who turned to the product in 2006 to help her young son, who was constantly congested. Three weeks later, he went from having a blocked nose, to fighting for his life with kidney failure. The boy developed HUS, which is commonly caused by E.coli infections. A total of six children got sick around the same time after drinking raw milk. The state of California linked the outbreak to a producer called Organic Pastures.
Organic Pastures is the largest raw milk dairy in the United States. Every month, 1200 cattle produce 90,000 gallons of milk. The company stands behind its product, despite the 2006 outbreak. It says while it regrets what happened, the events led to a new generation of consciousness and cleanliness at raw dairy farms. Organic Pastures now has special sprinkler systems that hose the cows down before they’re milked. It also heavily tests the raw milk for pathogens before it leaves the barns for distribution. But like anything else, the testing system isn’t perfect. After the 2006 E.coli outbreak, there was another one involving children in 2011. Then again in 2016. Organic Pastures ended up settling four lawsuits after admitting its testing process failed to catch one infected cow. When asked if the risk was just too much, the company told the docuseries it would never stop producing and distributing raw milk, because the benefits of helping so many other children outweigh the rare cases where somebody gets sick.
Health officials around the world disagree, and accessibility to the raw milk market is hard to come by. Let’s say you wanted to buy raw milk; do you know where you’d be able to get it? Not in Canada; people caught selling and distributing unpasteurized milk there could go to jail. It’s the only G7 country that has taken such a hard stance against the product. There’s a little more wiggle room in the USA, but raw milk is still illegal in 15 states. The states that do allow it heavily regulate where exactly it can be sold. It’s worth noting that the Centre for Disease Control says that with every new state that legalizes the sale of raw milk, the number of E.coli outbreaks increase. And while it’s been very popular in Europe for a long time, European health agencies are now tightening regulations and suggesting that people drink pasteurized milk instead.
Still, where it’s legal, the raw milk industry is booming. California-based Organic Pastures has an estimated revenue of more than $10 million. Meanwhile, dairy farmers producing pasteurized milk are struggling to make ends meet. The “Rotten” episode features a dairy farming family that works day and night milking cows, while also holding down multiple other jobs to keep the farm and themselves afloat. The money from conventional milk simply isn’t there anymore; it hasn’t been for some time. Over the past 40 years, the amount of milk Americans drink has dropped by more than a third. As a result, since the year 2000 alone, close to 30,000 dairy farms in the U.S. have sold their cows and closed their barns.
Part of the problem for dairy farmers is they’re no longer protected from volatile milk markets. Gone are the days where the government enforced a minimum price on milk, also agreeing to absorb the surplus dairy produced by the farmers. In the 1980’s the government was spending about $2 billion a year supporting the dairy industry. All of that came to an end around 1990, and today, milk prices are determined by a government-created formula that fluctuates along with commodity markets. The price is adjusted according to market demand and region. It’s such a complicated formula to follow, that many farmers no longer try to predict their income, and have stopped producing altogether.
So first, the milkman disappeared. Next to go: those fantastic “Got Milk” ads featuring the hottest celebrities and professional athletes sporting milk moustaches. It’s no surprise the dairy farmers would eventually start vanishing too. 30 years ago, 21 percent of adults said they drank milk with dinner; by 2008 it had fallen to just nine percent, and experts aren’t surprised. One nutritionist told the New York Daily News that soda and sports drinks are partly to blame, but also an increased concern about hormones and antibiotics in milk. So why not go organic? For one, it’s extremely costly for dairy farmers to make that transition. And the consumer ends up paying a lot more for it at the stores.
It’s all very messy when you consider the state of the milk industry today. We will never all agree on the debate over organic versus conventional, or raw versus pasteurized. One thing’s for sure though: no matter how you slice it, dairy is one heck of a risky business to be in these days.