Milk War!

Last week’s (June 7) 86’D at The Drake Hotel featured a screening of Canadian documentary Milk War, a recent James Beard Award winner.  Milk War chronicles Ontario farmer Michael Schmidt’s battle to be legally allowed to sell raw milk. I’d been following Schmidt’s story since the raid on his farm in 2006 and saw him speak at the Organic Food Grower’s conference in 2010. An engaging speaker and a fascinating issue that addresses health, government regulation, social responsibility and human rights (probably more too).

It’s a sensitive issue. “Milk war” actually describes own thoughts on the matter – my mind tends to view multiple perspectives on issues. Milk has kind of gone from “super food” to “super villain”.

I don’t drink milk but I’d be all for selling unpasteurized milk if it was guaranteed that all farms were clean and inspected. If I could get it at a farmer’s market, from a farmer I know who only has a few cows, I’d be all for it. I believe that milk is in its nature nutritious and that pasteurization kills some of that nutrition, only to re-add it – or “fortify” it. That doesn’t quite sit right with me.

Yes, pathogens in milk are a real threat but I don’t think it’s the threat it’s made out to be. They shouldn’t be there in the first place. To firebomb the place without knowing whether or not there’s something to burn, to kill cells because they might be cancerous (without testing being done) makes no sense. Those are analogous yet I (begrudgingly) admit that  pasteurization makes sense. It’s unfortunate. I don’t think that pasteurization has to be necessary and I think it’s an ass-backwards approach. Measures can be taken to control the risk. When meat and vegetables are recalled due to found toxins, it’s usually related to the bigger companies, those that are regulated and have supposedly been inspected. I have yet to hear about toxins in vegetable from a small local farm- though Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Co in Picton Ontario recently had an issue with listeria that they quickly and effectively dealt with. I suspect that when you’re dealing with a small family farm that raises a small number of cows, naturally, and limits the amount of calving, you end up with safer product.  Responsible farmers shouldn’t have problems with toxins in their product and if they do, they deal with it and try again. (And sure if it happens repeatedly, shut them down because those aren’t responsible farmers.)

Beyond that, I don’t believe that adult humans need milk. From what I understand, our ability – or lack of – to deal with lactose is an indication that our body is rejecting something it doesn’t need, so why do we fight evolution? (That’s the rational part of me, alongside the nutritionist-wannabe. Another part answers, “Because some of it is so tasty!”)

Milk is the number one food allergen in the US.  So many adults are sensitive or intolerant to lactose.  A little lesson: Lactose is a sugar that makes up around 2-8% of milk (by weight). Lactose intolerance is the inability to metabolize lactose, because of a lack of the required enzyme, lactase, in the digestive system. In the absence of lactase, lactose present in ingested dairy products passes intact into the colon. Then you have the gut bacteria going to work on the lactose. Things ferment in the stomach, gas happens, and now because you ate that tasty ice cream or cheese, with indigestible milk sugars, you’ve got bloating and cramping and you’re farting like crazy and hoping that no one notices. (Just me?) Other potential effects: Stomach cramps, nausea, acid reflux. This happens with other unabsorbed sugars as well. Fun!

In a study done in 2000, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, it was estimated that 75% of adults worldwide show some decrease in lactase activity during adulthood. The frequency of decreased lactase activity ranges from as little as 5% in northern Europe, up to 71% for Sicily, to more than 90% in some African and Asian countries. Generally humans and other mammals experience reduced lactase production at the end of the weaning period (a species-specific length of time). In humans, in non-dairy consuming societies, lactase production usually drops about 90% during the first four years of life, although the exact drop over time varies widely.

BUT I would try raw milk and if my body were okay with lactose I might even make it a regular smoothie ingredient. As I said, it’s nutritious. I can believe that in its natural state it’s a “superfood” because it’s the only food that mammal infants consume until they can eat solids. The odd time I buy milk (such as for baking) I buy organic. Hormone and drug free.

One thing in the film that struck me for many reasons: The filmmakers only found one case of someone made sick by raw milk, the case of a boy from Barrie in 2005. No one else in the family who drank the milk got sick. The medical experts at the hospital insisted that it was the milk that got him sick. He insists that it was a fast food hamburger. He claims to have been eating an organic, clean diet other than that lapse. I see all this as inconclusive proof. One person who watched it with me believes that fast food meat is cooked so much that all pathogens are killed, and that’s possible, but it’s also possible that the boy (now in his 20s, I’m assessing from the interview in the film) is right. The boy also could have consumed contaminated sprouts or spinach in his “clean diet”. However, raw milk is an easy scapegoat. It’s also an example of medical professionals adamantly insisting on a diagnosis (illness, cause) that might not be correct, and a patient listening to their instinct. That insistence is what bothers me, when the proof is inconclusive.

The film is worth looking at, and with a critical eye.

Also see

Finally, check out what’s coming up at 86’D by keeping an eye on the Facebook group. Next week it’s a watermelon eating contest.

Eat well, be well

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