CAMBRIDGE - Milk is our first and most basic food. For years, there’s been a contentious and emotional debate over how we are allowed to consume it. Raw milk, unpasteurized and whole with its purported health and taste benefits, is on one side of the argument. On the other is pasteurized milk, the modern heavyweight champion of food safety.
Raw milk proponents have been portrayed as oblivious hippies who are tempting bacterial fate. Defenders of pasteurization, in turn, are cast as nanny-state corporatists with unsophisticated taste. Each side charges the other with misunderstanding health, freedom, parenting, and - among other issues - what it means to be American. Last Thursday night, Harvard Law School hosted a debate between leading thinkers on each side of the issue. It was not disappointing.
Outside the 160-seat Harvard auditorium the scene was chaotic. Ron Paul supporters passed out buttons, while Concord film director Kristin Canty promoted her documentary film, “Farmageddon,’’ an unflattering portrait of what she calls “milk enforcement’’ activities by the USDA. By the time host Jonathan Abrams of the Harvard Food Law Society called the evening to order, the hall - now equal parts law schoolers, raw milk ideologues, and foodie spectators - was standing room only. The debate was streamed live on the Internet to 2,400 viewers, who posted commentary on Facebook and Twitter.
Raw nutrition advocate Sally Fallon Morell and author David Gumpert (“The Raw Milk Revolution’’) squared off against food-safety attorney Fred Pritzker and Minnesota dairy inspection director Dr. Heidi Kassenborg. Each took to the podium to state their positions, followed by a debate driven by questions from the moderator and audience.
Fallon Morell, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Weston A. Price Foundation, presented a frightening series of photos of malnourished mice that had been fed only pasteurized milk contrasted by photos of healthy mice that had been sipping raw milk. A litany of scientific papers followed. Fallon Morell said they supported the common pro-raw claims that raw milk strengthens the immune system, and that pasteurized milk is linked to increases in allergies, asthma, and lactose intolerance. And don’t get her started on ultra-pasteurized milk. Her claims drew eye rolls from Pritzker but rapt interest from the crowd.
Raw milk is currently legal for retail purchase in 10 states. In 15 others (such as Massachusetts), only on-farm sales are allowed. Gumpert, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor at the Harvard Business Review, backed Fallon Morell with a more businesslike and moderate approach centered on food rights. He claimed - with a blizzard of statistics - that the 9 million people who currently consume raw milk in the United States have a low incidence of foodborne illness. Gumpert suggested that bacteria-contamination recalls for other foods - both widespread (cantaloupe, spinach, peanut butter) and frequent (eggs, oysters) - prove that risk is inherent in all foods. He presented a photo montage of farmers who face prison terms for selling raw milk. One such case has been the object of Stephen Colbert’s on-screen consternation.
Pritzker, whom audience members in later questioning insisted on addressing as “the lawyer’’ and who has been prosecuting foodborne illness outbreaks for the past decade, emphasized the potential for raw milk to sicken “or kill’’ with a variety of unpleasant-sounding bacteria. Transporting it over state borders turns out to be a federal violation. And, he stated, there are “no benefits to raw milk.’’ Minnesota dairy inspector Kassenborg disarmed the audience with cartoons that depicted the messy and unsterile nature of milking a cow. “The udder,’’ she said, “is right next to the anus. And cows poop a lot.’’
Panelists regularly interrupted one another to discredit and dispute. Gumpert peppered his comments with genteel attacks on Pritzker. Kassenborg’s manner suggested that the other panelists might never have seen a cow. The audience was no less contentious. Attendees used the microphone more to present viewpoints than ask questions. One woman said that raw milk cured her child’s chronic eczema. Many decried government intrusion into food choice. As the end of the night drew near and so many people in the audience hoped to speak or pose questions, some resorted to shouting.
The emotion and intransigence around raw milk are as persistent as the lack of national policy. The issues are made more complex by advances in technology and amplified by social media.
As the crowd filed out, Deborah Valenze, a professor at Barnard College and author of “Milk: A Local and Global History,’’ sighed as she offered her conclusion. “Now I’m more ambivalent than ever.’’
RAW MILK LAWS To find a state-by-state guide, go to www.farmtoconsumer.org/raw_milk_map.htm.