Friday, January 25, 2013

Why I am the Proud Owner of 1/50th of a Cow

I want to tell you about Bertha. Bertha is a cow, and I own 1/50th of her. Every three weeks we visit. I wave at Bertha from afar, she flicks her tail at me. Then I take home some of her milk.

Bertha's milk is not pasteurized. I own a part of her because it's illegal to sell unpasteurized milk in Michigan. I have a Farm Cow Sale and Boarding Agreement which proves I own Bertha. The contract also allows the farm to board her with my permission, and excuses the farm from any responsibility in my choice to drink raw milk. Since I am not technically buying the milk from the farm, but receiving it as a benefit of my ownership, the government cannot intervene in the milk purchase. Supposedly.

There is a dominant narrative about health in the United States. This narrative supports healing through technology. This narrative says technology helps us live better and longer. This narrative says old ways are backward, slow and dangerous. It asks that we please trust science.

Now,  I like science. Many scientific advances truly serve the public good. But I do see a connection between science, politics and business. And because of this connection, it is crucial that we evaluate whether or not scientific and technological advances are actually used for the public interest.

Does USDA-approved Milk Serve the Public Interest?
By studying homogenization, pasteurization, and dairy cow treatment, it is clear that modern milk is a profitable industry. The more processed a food, the more lucrative.1 The same is true for milk. Milk is homogenized, pasteurized, transported, graded, packed, labeled, and stored before used. The purpose of homogenization is to create a milk product where the cream doesn't separate. The homogenization process involves separating out the cream to make the desired amount of milk fat. Then pressure is applied to break down the fat so the milk all looks the same. Milk producers need a lot of complicated machinery 2 3 and often chemicals 4 to get the job done. Pasteurization, which involves heating milk to kill pathogenic bacteria, also requires extensive machinery. 5 Companies discover, build, patent then sell these chemicals and machines for a high profit.

The way cows are raised, fed and kept healthy also generate a profit. As true in many industries, it is possible to make more money with increased output. The dairy industry discovered in 1994 how to get more with less. Scientists created a new synthetic growth hormone, recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which increases milk yields by 10-25%. 6 7 Monsanto makes around 300 million in annual sales for Posilac, the companies version of rBGH, or 5% of the companies earnings. 8 The use of Posilac is lucrative for Monsanto. Unfortunately, the growth hormones and living conditions predispose the cow to sickness. Dairy cows have a 25% greater chance of developing clinical mastitis due to rBGH. 9 In response to this risk, dairy farmers give cows antibiotics. The antibiotic industry was initially very profitable. However, since antibiotic treatments tend to only last 10-14 days, many pharmaceutical companies are closing anti-bacterial development departments in favor of more lucrative medicines which treat chronic illnesses, like heart disease. 10There are still around 7 major drug companies which produce antibiotics. It can cost around $800 million and take over 15 years to research, test and produce the drug.11 Perhaps because of the fact that the antibiotic industry is not as profitable as chronic illness, drug producers continue to push the use of antibiotics in dairy farms. Despite current profits, or lack thereof, there are clear economic incentives for extensive processing in favor of just drinking milk from the udder.

"Frankenfood": Why US Milk Banned in Europe
What I believe is that when it comes to “food science,” we in the U.S. have created what Europe calls “Frankenfood.”12 Countries around the world question the safety of milk produced in the U.S. Europe and Canada ban milk from the United States.13 The U.N.'s main food safety body, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, refused to endorse the safety of rBGH. Though the U.S. government argues that dairy cattle health risks are “manageable,” 14 I have decided that I no longer want to just “manage” my health. In my opinion, more healthful ways of drinking milk and eating in general exist. 

Dairy Laws: for Safety or Control?
Unfortunately, the federal government doesn't believe I am smart enough to make that choice on my own. Dr. Richard Raymond, the former Undersecretary for Food Safety at the USDA from 2005-2008, works currently as a food safety and public health consultant. He writes that “laws are written for a reason, usually to help keep us safe.” Because laws are written exclusively to keep people safe, and the FDA and USDA are here to protect our health, no parent should be allowed to feed their child raw milk.15I must admit, I am pretty dubious of anyone who says, without a trace of irony, that laws are always written with only constituents' safety in mind.

Criminalization of Raw Milk
Though many people find ways around restrictive raw milk regulations, legal cow shares can still be criminalized. When I first contacted the farm about raw milk early this fall, it was the most intense conversation I have ever had about milk. The farm owner, Deb, launched into a really long story about Richard Hebron, the owner of a cow share operation in Michigan. His constituents signed Cow Share contracts similar to mine. Partial owners of fractional cows, these raw milk drinkers were well informed about their choice. It seemed Hebron's business was within the boundaries of the law. In 2006, however, a sting operation stopped him on a Michigan highway. Undercover agricultural agents had followed Hebron for a year, gathering evidence against him. Hebron traveled with unlabeled bottles of milk, and this was the loophole which undid his business. Apparently you can't transport liquid in unlabeled bottles. That night in 2006 the sting operation confiscated seven thousand dollars worth of raw dairy.1 Hebron's case, now before the court in Detroit, is considered a “federal criminal investigation.” 16

Access to Alternatives: Inequity, and Food Justice
But here I am now with my cow share, happily drinking coffee with raw milk and making raw milk ice cream and sharing my raw milk with all my grad school friends. Aren't I happy? Isn't this what I wanted?

Yes and No. I am happy that I have such easy access, but not everyone does. Not everyone has a car to drive out to the farm to pick up the milk, or the time, or the money. I feel satisfied knowing that I took my health into my own hands, but discouraged by the hurdles that most others face. For the time being, I hope to grow the good food movement with the amazing students who keep Cultivating Community up and running, and hang out with Bertha. 


1 The Domestic Foodscapes of Young Low-Income Women in Montreal: Cooking Practices in the Context of an Increasingly Processed Food Supply Health Educ Behav April 2010 37: 211-226, first published on August 18, 2009 doi: 10.1177/1090198109339453 

2 Homogenizer Systems, GEA Process Engineering, Inc., accessed December 15, 2012,

3 GEA Niro Soravi, accesed December 16, 2012,

4 Pieter Walstra, Jan T. M. Wouters, Tom J. Geurts, Dairy Science and Technology, Taylor and Francis Group, LLC (2006): 290, accessed December 15, 2012 on google books: 4C&pg=PA290&lpg=PA290&dq=surfactants+homogenized+milk&source=bl&ots=b_n7CDmRT_&sig=2zoVK71ENk5DGoAWsNcuc5I5Bg&hl=en&sa=X&ei=gjHPUL7BDIWm9gS_2YHwDw&ved=0CEAQ6AEwATgK#v=onepage&q=surfactants%20homogenized%20milk&f=false

5 Pasteurization Systems, GEA Process Engineering, Inc., accessed December 15, 2012,

6 Alex Pulaski, “Hormone fuels a fight in Tillamook,” Oregonian, February 27, 2005, accessed December 16, 2012.

7 M. Boutinaud, C. Rouseau, DH Keisler, H Jammes, “Growth hormone and milking frequency act differently on goat mammary gland in late lactation,” Journal of Dairy Science [2003, 86 (2): 509-520], PMID:12647957;jsessionid=ok8rIxhZSjAUYNnOSfWr.10

8 Thomas Klink, “rBGH and the (mis)Use of Science,” Macalester College (2008)

9 Kate Huffling, “The Effects of Environmental Contaminants in Food on Women's Health,” Journal of Midwifery and Women's Health, v. 1, issue 1, (2006): 19-25, DOI:10.1016/j.jmwh.2005.08.019

10 Deborah Gouge, “Big Pharma Abandons Antibiotics: An Opening for Small Biotech,” Seeking Alpha, May 13, 2012, accessed December 15, 2012,

13 Deborah Gouge, “Big Pharma Abandons Antibiotics: An Opening for Small Biotech,” Seeking Alpha, May 13, 2012, accessed December 15, 2012,

12 Jeremy Stahl, “Death of 'Frankenfood': Is the GMO debate growing up in Europe just as it devolves in the United States?,” Slate, June 14, 2012, accessed December 14, 2012,
13 Samuel S. Epstein, M.D., “Milk: America's Health Problem,” Cancer Prevention Coalition, accessed December 14, 2012,
14 "U.S. And Europe Agree to Disagree on Safety of Dairy Hormone: Action by U.N. Food Body Means Disputes About Safety of Hormone in Milk Will Linger," Consumers Union, June 30, 1999, accessed December 14, 2012,

15 Wendy Cole, “Got Raw Milk? Be Very Quiet,” Time Magazine, March 13, 2007, accessed December 14, 2012,,8599,1598525,00.html

16 David Gumpert, “Obama Administration Continues Attacks on Small Raw Milk Dairy Farmers,” Health Impact News, accessed December 14, 2012,
Students with Cultivating Community on a Raw Milk Field Trip in November, 2012. Photo credit: Isaac Epstein
Bertha. Photo credit: Isaac Epstein

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