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Commentary: Raw milk? For our health, say no

by on April 22, 2014 10:30 AM

Milk is the life’s blood of humankind, except when it is consumed in its most natural state without the bacteria-killing treatment of pasteurization. Then it becomes something entirely different and those who drink it are playing a form of Russian roulette. Sooner or later chances are good the hammer will come down on a chamber loaded with disaster.

At least that’s what I grew up being taught by a man who knew the dangers of untreated milk as well as anyone. My father spent most of his adult life as a public health official trying to clean up the nation’s milk supply at a time when infant, and for that matter, adult mortality was significantly higher than it is today — much of it brought about by unregulated consumption of milk and other products where pathogens lurk.

His credentials were substantial. He was a member of the World Congress for the Utilization of Milk, one of those who wrote the national 3-A Dairy Standards, commissioned in the U.S. Public Health Service, an inventor of testing equipment and the director of the International Association of Milk and Food Technologists. In the 1930s he was assigned by the Indiana State Department of Health to bring about a model plan that controlled the production and distribution of milk from the pasture and milking shed to the grocery store. It was called the Grade A program and it worked.

It was a long arduous task and often required severe measures including shutting off those producers who refused to comply. Dad was hardly a popular person under the circumstances, frequently facing angry groups of dairy farmers. But he put his skinny 6-3, 160-pound frame into the job with a fervor that undoubtedly saved untold numbers from diseases like undulant fever that were ravaging the country during the Great Depression, much of it because of “dirty” milk.

To say he took this job seriously is a huge understatement. I once saw him chase down a flatbed truck loaded with uncovered galvanized milk cans with milk slopping out at every bump. He managed to stop the truck and cite the driver and force the farmers using his service to find another transporter.

I am convinced the whirring sound I suddenly heard upon reading reports of a raw milk resurgence by libertarians who eschew pasteurization and are working overtime to get around laws requiring it was Dad spinning in anguish from beyond. “Are they nuts?” I could almost hear him shout. The answer is they just may be. The cases of raw milk-related disease have doubled in five years.

Despite the clear danger, the effort to do away with restrictions at the state and federal levels has been gaining ground, pushed by groups that contend the government should keep its nose out of the milk supply and stop the industrialization of nearly everything else.

These advocates, of course, are first cousins to all those people who oppose the vaccinations for children that have saved “gazillions” of lives from the scourge of diphtheria and polio-myelitis and other human tormentors.

Most of them undoubtedly weren’t around when much of the nation’s population, particularly the child part, was terrorized by what was called infantile paralysis. The restrictions on our activities, mainly during the summer, were as oppressive as the heat-filled days without air conditioning — stay out of groups, stay out the public swimming pools, stay out of the movie theaters, take a nap in the afternoon to avoid being overly tired.

Before there was a diphtheria vaccination, my baby sister almost died of the disease. My father, out pushing for a cleaner milk supply, came home to find himself shut out of the house by an ominous quarantine sign on the door and his frightened wife and children peering at him through the window.

Men like Dad whose dedication made life better for us all are not being well served by those who would turn back the clock to those fearful times. Those violating the laws as well as good sense by “moonshining” raw milk in glass jars across state lines should rethink what they are doing.

My father would consider it a terrorist act with good reason. It is, after all, much like trafficking in time bombs.



Dan Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, which distributes his column.
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