There are no arguments, scientific or otherwise, that will ever convince a raw milk enthusiast that the practice is dangerous. My own mother-in-law scoffed at the notion her milk cow posed any risk to her grandchildren and she dismissed any talk of pasteurization. It was a subject the two of us learned to avoid and she tolerated the jug of store-bought milk I brought with us on every visit.
Steven B. Johnson’s new PBS series the Extra Life Project, documents how human life spans improved over the last century and he gives the credit for this astonishing advance to our understanding of germ theory and our efforts to make food and water systems safer. We didn’t make people live longer – we just helped them survive childhood. In the 19th century nearly a third of children did not make it to age 21. That figure dropped dramatically in the 20th century. Global human life expectancy went from the mid-30s to over 70 in the space of only three generations.
Louis Pasteur identified microbes as the probable cause of disease in cow’s milk in 1862 and he explained how to make milk safe by heating it. But it took 40 years for the medical establishment to get on board with his idea. Germ theory would not take hold in medicine until two complete generations of doctors and scientists had died off and allowed fresh thinking into the room. Doctors don’t like to change their minds any more than dairy farmers, or liberals, or conservatives, or mothers-in-law for that matter. None of us like change to change our minds about anything.
The British doctor who discovered the cause of a cholera epidemic and stopped it by getting the pump handle removed from a contaminated communal well was rewarded with a reprimand from the city of London’s medical board and his theory denounced as nonsense. For decades to follow, water and milk continued to kill thousands every year, mostly children – typhoid, dysentery, cholera in the water and tuberculosis, scarlet fever and diphtheria in the milk. But the small group of believers who read the work of scientists like Pasteur, John Snow and Robert Koch began to work and meet and preach the gospel of public health until they became a small army.
My great-grandfather was one of those believers. Walter Massey, the last family president of Massey-Harris, founded several businesses including the Toronto City Dairy in 1901. He developed a process for sterilizing milk commercially at his experimental dairy farm in East Toronto and by the time the company opened he had a product that would keep on the shelf sealed in bottles for weeks. In its first year, City Dairy was turning out 250 bottles of ‘certified milk’ for infants every day. The city would not make pasteurization mandatory until 1914 and despite regular typhoid and diphtheria outbreaks the province refused to act, largely because of the vigorous opposition of dairy farmers. Harry Nixon, the senior minister in the Liberal government cabinet and the son of a dairy farmer himself, quietly faced down a delegation of farm leaders in 1938 by observing how many of the men in the room had lost children of their own to tainted milk. There was silence, the protesters went home and the legislation passed.
Ironically, my great-grandfather died at 37, the same year he founded City Dairy, of typhoid after drinking contaminated water on a business trip to Ottawa. His older brother had died of the same disease 10 years before and his younger brother died of tuberculosis at age 20. My grandmother lost her hearing at 19 from scarlet fever. Her baby brother died of diphtheria. We now have a dozen doctors and vets in the family. Needless to say, none of them are terribly excited about the health benefits of raw milk.
One omnibus study after another has concluded that there is no miracle food out there just as there is no evidence that eating saturated fats, dairy, gluten, salt or anything else in moderation is directly related to anything in particular. Healthy adults with good immune systems prob- ably can get away with drinking raw milk, but it remains a roll of the dice. If you guess wrong, the results can be truly awful. Children and old people should never drink it for the same reasons we knew about 125 years ago: Listeria and e-coli is in the grass we walk on.
Really too bad about my ancestor. If young Walter had lived to my age, I would never have had to work my fingers to the bone on this keyboard trying to amuse an audience of opinionated and skeptical readers. But then, without any useful occupation, I would probably have succumbed to a cocaine overdose long ago.