Raw Milk: A Healthier Alternative?

October 1, 2010

The day after I visited Alice Jongerden at her Chilliwack dairy, I found myself rushing into hospital. A few hours before, my daughter had turned pale and started vomiting. No one—not the nurses, not the paramedics—could explain what was obviously a violent reaction to her 18-month vaccinations. “She’s still breathing!” the nurse said, as if this were the only concrete reassurance she could give. Driving the winding highway into the emergency department—we’d insisted on the ambulance and this trip—I found my mind wandering back to Jongerden. Blame it on anxiety.

A happily married mother of five and devout Christian, Jongerden has the laugh of a woman who doesn’t care if you’re laughing with her. With the help of two full-time workers, some part-time staff, and her husband Bert, she spends between 70 and 80 hours a week tending a 22-strong herd on 40 leased acres in the heart of Chilliwack dairy country. In exchange for feeding and milking the cows, and bottling and distributing their milk, Jongerden—or, more properly, her Home on the Range Dairy—receives $18.50 per gallon from each member of the cow share that owns them, on top of money for whatever extras (butter, yogurt) she makes from the leftovers. Profits have been slim, with upfront expenses for equipment and maintenance fees and cows (a new cow goes for between $1,500 and $2,000), but member contributions allowed Bert to quit his job two years ago to take care of maintenance, deliveries, and quality control and for the Jongerdens to focus on the cow share and on home-schooling their two oldest full-time.

It may seem that the family is living out a perfectly scripted Fraser Valley farming story, but the reality is something different. Home on the Range Dairy distributes milk that hasn’t been pasteurized, and Jongerden—its lead farmer—has become the face of a small but growing movement of British Columbians preparing for an all-out battle with the provincial government over their right to consume their milk raw.

Across North America, there are dozens—if not hundreds—of similar cow shares, most set up to get around the prohibition of raw-milk sales in their region. In B.C., there are at least two others that Alice knows of—smaller, but growing fast. Jongerden grew up on a dairy farm north of London, Ontario, and even though their milk was sent for pasteurization, her family drank its own milk raw. About four years ago, in her mid 30s, she decided she wanted her family to drink raw milk also. She wanted her children to have the same strong bones and good health she had growing up.  It was a mother’s wish, but with sales prohibited across the country, she couldn’t find raw milk. So she bought a cow. Any excess milk, she shared with friends. Soon other families wanted in. She used the proceeds to buy more cows. In three years, she was delivering raw milk to over 400 families from Chilliwack to Whistler.

 “I didn’t set out to take on the government,” she said, standing outside her milking parlour in overalls and gumboots. “It’s just been one decision after another.”

On December 12, 2009, health authorities showed up at Home on the Range’s raw-milk depots in Kitsilano, North Vancouver, East Vancouver, Burnaby, Abbotsford, and Langley. They dumped most of the milk down the drain, and confiscated the rest, along with butter and yogurt, for laboratory testing. Without waiting for results, Fraser Health showed up on Jongerden’s doorstep with a cease-and-desist order, threatening legal action that would shut Home on the Range down if she continued to distribute raw milk in the Lower Mainland. Jongerden refused to listen. As far as she saw it, the government had oversight only over milk that was for sale; she was simply providing raw milk from cows that her membership already owned.

A few weeks later, Fraser Health sent out a press release claiming a child from a family with a Home on the Range membership had come down with Campylobacter, a food-borne illness that could be linked to bacteria coliforms detected in the test samples taken from the Home on the Range milk depots. A high bacteria coliform count could mean one of two things: cow feces somehow got in the milk,  or the milk was mishandled during processing or testing. The press jumped all over the story—and who could resist: modern technology tracks a food-borne illness back to a dairy farmer with a herd of 22!—and the public was warned again and again in articles, radio shows, and TV spots about the dangerous coliform bacteria lurking within raw milk. Vancouver Coastal Health went so far as to warn of “bloody diarrhea, kidney failure and death.” The Fraser Health Authority took Jongerden to court. Despite an Ontario ruling in favour of a raw-milk dairy farmer running a similar cow share out East that same month, the B.C. Supreme Court’s Madam Justice Miriam Gropper ordered Home on the Range to stop operations. Gropper rested her March 18 verdict on the argument that Jongerden was “willingly causing a health hazard” by supplying her members with unpasteurized milk.

Jongerden kept on milking, kept on bottling, and kept on delivering raw milk to her members. More surprisingly—considering the dire warnings from public-health officials about the results of the tests—her members kept on drinking it. Or did they? The day I visited, a few weeks after the court order, Jongerden swung open her cooling fridge to show her latest batch, dozens of rows of full one-litre Mason jars—cream line and all—each with an openly tongue-in-cheek label warning: “Not for Human Consumption.”

“I complied,” Jongerden said, barely suppressing a smile. “I gave my membership a list of 20 other things they could do with their property.”

 “But what about the child who got sick?” I asked, knowing this “property” was going to families to be drunk, not to polish their silver or clean the leaves on their rubber plants. Drunk by children who could potentially end up in the hospital with bloody diarrhea or kidney failure or… Surely no parent wants their child to get sick. If raw milk can make a child sick, it’s an open-and-shut case. Isn’t it?

She looked at me with raised eyebrows. “What child?”

My child, I thought on my way to the hospital the next day. What have I done to my child?

Jongerden’s raw-milk crusade and my daughter’s vaccinations are linked in more ways than you might think. Both trace their lineage back to the same man. The inventor of pasteurization, Louis Pasteur, is also one of the scientific minds behind our modern practice of vaccination. The French microbiologist and chemist, along with German physician Robert Koch, convinced a skeptical Europe through multiple experiments and papers that micro-organisms were the cause of many diseases. Pasteur’s “germ theory” is now a cornerstone of public health around the world. Vaccinations ensure that our immune systems can resist a specific germ in the event we encounter it. And pasteurization—in the case of milk, this involves heating it to between 61º and 63º Celsius for at least 30 minutes—kills these germs before we meet them.

More than anything, it’s the statistical success of Pasteur’s discoveries that has secured his position atop the public-health pyramid. “Pasteurization of raw milk has prevented thousands of illnesses and deaths,” the BC Centre for Disease Control claims. “It is one of the greatest advances in public health of the 20th century.” Who can argue? The 20th century was a scary time for public health—especially when it came to milk. City populations exploded and farmlands shrank. Dairy farmers had to team up with industry to meet the growing demand. Before this, milkmen went door to door with milk from farmers they knew personally. If there was a bad batch, you could be sure the farmer found out about it. But with increased urbanization, companies began collecting raw milk from dozens of farmers and distributing it through their own networks. Typhoid, scarlet fever, and tuberculosis epidemics in cities across North America and Europe were invariably linked back to these shady operations. “Pasteurization, if properly carried out,” a 1953 World Health Organization book on milk pasteurization reads, “can virtually abolish the danger of infectious or epidemic diseases whose causative organisms are conveyed by raw milk.”

 Pasteurization worked—as, it could be argued, did vaccinations—for public health. But what about personal health? Lost in our mainstream obsession with Pasteur’s germ theory (think of today’s ubiquitous antibiotics, from antibacterial soap to household bleach, and you get the picture) is another theory that emerged at the same time: the “milieu intérior theory.”

Claude Bernard, a French microbiologist and colleague of Pasteur’s, argued that it wasn’t the germ’s fault that we humans got sick, but the state of our “internal environment.” In other words, if our immune system is strong, the bad germs don’t matter. Sparks flew in the microbiology community, prompting endless debates with no real resolution. Except this: “germ theory” worked better on a large scale; and by the mid 20th century, milk was large scale. Where there was a typhoid epidemic, health officials weren’t thinking about how to strengthen immune systems; they were thinking about how to stop the epidemics. Bernard’s theory got buried—at least in the public-health sphere—only to re-emerge years later in the guise of holistic nutrition, Cold F/X, and, here in the Lower Mainland at least, Alice Jongerden’s raw milk.

Press releases, websites, and medical journals—preferred haunt of the public-health official—are filled with studies, statistics, and undisguised pleas from medical health officers proving the indisputable fact that pasteurized milk is much safer to drink than raw. “It is important that all British Columbians be aware of the serious health risks associated with consuming unpasteurized milk,” Dr. Perry Kendall, B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer, wrote in an open letter to Victoria’s Times Colonist in the wake of the Home on the Range story. “Any perceived health benefits are most certainly offset by the serious risks of illness, disease or even death that can result.” Robin Smith, executive director of the B.C. Dairy Foundation, goes one step further. “If someone drinks raw milk and gets sick,” he says, “they shouldn’t use the public health care system—if you want to take risks, maybe you shouldn’t ask the public system to take care of you.”

At the same time, the blogosphere—preferred haunt of the raw-milk advocate—is stuffed with anecdotes and opinions reporting the health benefits, even miraculous cures, of switching their asthmatic child, their allergic friend, their lactose-intolerant self from pasteurized to raw milk. “Raw milk literally saved my life,” writes a Michigan woman after hearing that her local raw milk farmer might be shut down. “Four years ago I was deathly ill with a chronic digestive disorder that threatened to end my career and my life. I was able to rebuild my health to a vibrant state.” Dona Bradley, a registered holistic nutritionist from the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition, doesn’t find this hard to believe. “Pasteurized milk is a dead food,” she claims. “There are no enzymes, no probiotics—or beneficial bacteria. Raw milk is a live whole food. Raw milk tends to help build the immune system.” There are bacteria in the raw milk that our immune system needs, she explains; pasteurization kills these bacteria, leaving us vulnerable to our modern disease epidemics (such as asthma, allergies, and lactose intolerance).

 Somehow Jongerden’s voice rises above the din of these raw-milk wars playing out on blogs, in newspapers, and in courtrooms across North America. Jongerden with her 22 cows and two steer she’s helping her children raise. Jongerden with her half a ramshackle red barn she shares with her landlord, and her milking room the size of a suburban ensuite. Once you spend an hour or so with her—as she takes a call every 15 minutes from her children, one needing attention,  another wondering what’s for dinner (“There’s a roast in the crock-pot, it’s falling off the bone”)—she turns from raw-milk-bacteria-wielding rebel to the kind of mother you’d trust with your child in a heartbeat; the kind of parent you hope you can be.

“My own personal long-term dream?” Jongerden asked, unprompted, leaning against her truck in the driveway. “I’d love to teach people how to take care of one or two cows; for people to go back to a simpler time.”

Later, I’m home with my daughter (who flies around the house like a wasp; amazing creatures, these 18-month-olds) and I’m no closer to understanding her violent reaction to the vaccine. Faced with the enormity of the stakes, I can’t help but admire Jongerden’s certainty. She is certain that feeding her children raw milk is the right thing, the healthy choice. What’s more: she’s the one doing it. Most of the disease-causing bacteria found in raw milk, she insists, are the result of industrial farming practices where the farmer isn’t even in the room when the cows get milked. She and her helpers milk each cow themselves, ensuring the cows aren’t diseased and the milk is kept clean.

“No one should be able to tell me how to consume my food,” she said. “If I go to McDonald’s three times a day, no one’s going to tell me it’s a health hazard.” Or refuse her access to a hospital. There’s a simplicity to this reasoning—an irony, too, that is pleasantly reassuring after my head-first dive into the paranoia-inducing world of vaccinations gone wrong. This doesn’t mean I’m planning on switching to raw milk or that we’re going to stop vaccinating our daughter. Jongerden just lays out the dilemma in cold hard terms: what might be a health hazard on a public scale (raw milk) might just be the remedy we’re searching for personally; what might be a hazard to my daughter’s personal health (vaccinations) could be necessary for the health of society as a whole.

Jongerden and Home on the Range await the next move from the Fraser Health Authority. She believes she’s obeying the judge’s decision by informing her members that raw milk is a health hazard and labelling their jars “Not for Human Consumption.” It’s up to the FHA to decide whether to follow this up with more court action. In the meantime, she’ll keep on taking care of her herd and providing members and her family with their weekly dividends. What she does with it, as far as she’s concerned, is her own business. VM

 

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