The raw milk debate: An interview with food activist David Gumpert

IN THE RAW: Author and food rights activist David Gumpert will speak at the upcoming Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville on the subject of raw milk.
IN THE RAW: Author and food rights activist David Gumpert will speak at the upcoming Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville on the subject of raw milk. Photo courtesy of David Gumpert

During his decadeslong career, journalist, editor and author David E. Gumpert has written about everything from food rights to entrepreneurship to family history. But in recent years, he’s focused on raw milk. His new book, The Raw Milk Answer Book: What You Really Need to Know About Our Most Controversial Food, addresses more than 200 questions in Q&A format, including: Is it risky to consume unpasteurized milk? Does raw milk have nutritional and health benefits? What does the debate over raw milk tell us about the power corporations have over our food system?

Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn against consuming unpasteurized milk, and selling it is illegal in many states, yet consumer demand seems to be growing. North Carolina bans the sale of unpasteurized milk for human consumption, yet there are Asheville residents who favor raw milk for various reasons (see accompanying story: “Raw deal? Asheville’s taste for unpasteurized milk.”). And on Sunday, April 12, Gumpert will give a talk at the Mother Earth News Fair titled “Raw Milk: A Catalyst for Fundamental Change in our Food System?” (see sidebar).

Xpress spoke with Gumpert recently; here are excerpts from that conversation:

Mountain Xpress: What got you interested in raw milk?

David Gumpert: In 2005 and 2006, I was writing about the business of health, and I began noticing these crackdowns on small dairies. I had never heard of raw milk and didn’t know people were drinking it. I also was unaware that government regulators had as much hostility toward raw dairies as there turned out to be. We have a long-term policy in this country of encouraging small business, and we even have a U.S. Small Business Administration that’s supposed to help support their interests. And here we were with the Food and Drug Administration in particular, but also with the Centers for Disease Control, really trying to put this segment — these small farms that are part of our heritage — out of business. It just was totally foreign to me. …

The reason that’s offered is that they’re producing a product that’s dangerous, yet the data doesn’t really bear that out. And if you look at the book, I do go through the data pretty carefully. There have been challenges, and there is a need for small dairies to improve on safety, but we don’t have a public health crisis by any stretch of the imagination when it comes to raw milk.

If the safety issue isn’t as big as some people say, why is there so much hostility toward raw milk?

I think there are two reasons. One is historical. We did have a serious problem with raw dairy back in the 1800s and early 1900s. The Industrial Revolution was going on, with millions of people moving from the country to the city, and we had some unscrupulous operators trying to satisfy the demand for milk in the city producing a really bad product. We also didn’t really understand how disease was transmitted and the importance of sanitation, so we had very serious outbreaks of disease, especially among children who were being fed this really unsatisfactory raw milk. So pasteurization came out as an industrial solution to that problem. …

The diseases then were much more dangerous and often fatal — things like typhoid and tuberculosis. The diseases you can get from raw milk today are the diseases you can get from any other food. There are usually four main pathogens of food-borne illness, and you can get them from cantaloupe, from bad hamburger and from bad pasteurized milk products.

The second reason is economic. We have this huge processing industry devoted to pasteurizing and homogenizing milk. I’ve seen accounts that say it’s worth something on the order of $130 billion, and increasingly they see raw milk as competition. Sales of pasteurized milk have shown a slow, steady decline over the past few years, and while we don’t have much data, from all indications the sales of raw milk are going up.

How can people find safe sources of raw milk?

Realmilk.com from The Weston A. Price Foundation provides the regulations in each state and lists dairies that are willing to be listed. Not everyone wants to be listed because of the crackdowns: They don’t want to be targeted. It gives the pro-raw milk case, and you can search in each state and find farms that produce it. These farms haven’t necessarily been evaluated as to their safety practices, but the Raw Milk Institute, which just started up in the last three years, does that. It has about eight to 10 listed members and a bunch of others ready to come onboard. To become a member, dairies have to be certified; they have to demonstrate that they’re operating under certain standards of cleanliness. If a farm is a member of the Raw Milk Institute, it’s a good sign that they’re following very safe practices. But since most dairies aren’t yet members, I give some guidance in my book as to how to do it yourself. … Look for a farmer who’s been doing it for a few years, not just someone who wants to make some extra money selling their milk raw. Because you can get sick from raw milk if it’s not produced correctly. The idea is to reduce that risk.

It seems like the demand for raw milk is growing. Is this because people believe it’s more nutritious than pasteurized milk?

There’s a huge demand. I think nutrition is a big part of it. Some large-scale studies out of Europe suggest that raw milk helps protect children from asthma and allergies, but it’s also part and parcel of the growing interest in unprocessed food, nutrient-dense food, locally produced food. Raw milk is seen as having health properties that pasteurized milk doesn’t have.

Do you think raw milk will be more accepted and less regulated in the future?

I think regulation is fine if it’s directed at producing a safer product, as opposed to banning the product. I’d also like to see more education, because the FDA and the CDC are intent on banning raw milk. They keep saying it’s inherently dangerous, that nobody should drink it under any circumstances, and therefore the regulation should be designed to put raw dairy producers out of business or to force them to just sell their milk for pasteurization. But clearly, lots of people are ignoring that.

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About Gina Smith
Gina Smith is the Mountain Xpress Food section editor and writer. She can be reached at gsmith@mountainx.com.

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7 thoughts on “The raw milk debate: An interview with food activist David Gumpert

    • Susan Hutchinson

      So over thirteen years, there have been less than 20 incidents reported per year across the entire nation. How many of this tiny number were from raw milk certified producers, and how many from milk taken from a bulk tank intended for pasteurization? Of the raw milk that is being handled with reasonable care, how many people are getting sick? I don’t know that anyone is tracking that, and for me that is the important number.

        • Classifieds Admin

          My understanding is that there have been no reported incidences in NC for the past 15 years, and the last cases reported in this state were traced to an employee stealing milk from a bulk tank intended for pasteurization into an unsanitized 5 gallon bucket. The diseases (brucellosis, etc) mentioned can be tested for and most have been largely eradicated. I test my animals. That’s not a raw milk problem; its a testing/regulation problem.
          My question still stands: How many people have gotten sick from responsible (i.e. regulated) raw milk producers? I assume there are some. What is that number? Raw milk does have some risk; there is a similar risk to eating raw veggies. More risk with cold cuts and sushi. There are even people who get sick sometimes from conventional pasteurized milk. We all need real information on what the real risk of raw milk is. Not scare tactics.

          • Shelley

            How many people have gotten sick? This week, or the last year. There’s at least two incidents with raw milk dairies this week, and there’s been several since the beginning of the year.

            And I don’t consider any raw milk producer to be “responsible”.

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