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Risk And Raw Milk

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, June 14, 2007

We have paid some attention to the issue of selling raw milk in articles such as Raw Milk And Dirty Produce: Perfect Together and a follow-up piece that looked at the issue and tied it together with irradiation — you can read that piece here.

Now we find The Flint Journal profiling the fact that a Local Woman Finds Her Niche In Cow Shares. The title references the fact that since raw — unpasteurized — milk is illegal for sale in most places but is not illegal to drink, advocates of raw milk are getting around the law by “selling” shares in cows. Then, as an “owner” of the cow, the owner gets the milk as a kind of dividend:

Kris Unger found there is a market for raw milk — milk that has not been homogenized or pasteurized.

But there’s only one way she and eight other dairy farmers around the state, where it is illegal to sell raw milk, can provide it — by selling shares of cows and have those who buy the shares get the milk themselves.

Unger’s herd of 26 Jersey and Milking Short Horns are there for the taking — one share equals 1/25th of a cow — at Dairy Delight Cow Boarding, a farm near the apex where Genesee, Shiawassee and Livingston counties meet.

She opened for business in January and has already sold 115 shares with much more room to grow on 126 acres south of Byron and north of Howell in Livingston County’s Cohoctah Township.

“I can handle 500 to 600 shares,” Unger, 51, said.

Share owners come from miles away for fresh milk with a tall head of cream. They drive from Dearborn Heights, Farmington Hills, Utica, Chelsea and closer by like Fenton and Linden.

“A Canadian man drives 84 miles one way for his milk,” she said. He fills several containers and freezes it. She said those who make the effort are committed to a healthy lifestyle and environment.

“They are very concerned,” she said. “A lot of them home school, are spiritual, they just care.”

One share guarantees the owner one gallon of milk a week. The share costs $60 and the boarding fee is $21.50 a month. The cost of a gallon figures out to about $5.

“It’s so much better for you,” Unger said. “All the nutrients, enzymes and good bacteria are all there.”

Unger said the government went too far when it outlawed raw milk in the name of safety from disease. She said if people would educate themselves, do their own research, they’d find risk is minimal.

“You can get sick from any food product,” she said, citing the E-coli contaminated spinach shipped nationally from California last winter. “We disasterized the food system,” she said. “How dare the government tells us we can’t drink raw milk.”

How dare indeed. This issue of risk and to what degree consumers should be free to pursue it is a question that all food safety discussions have to confront.

Interesting enough, while this is going on in the U.S., a related story is brewing in France. The headline there is French Surrender Exclusive Camembert Status:

The fate of one of France’s best-loved cheeses is in question after the two biggest manufacturers of “real Camembert,” the traditional variety made with untreated “raw” milk, stopped production, citing health risks for the consumer.

To the fury of purists, Lactalis and the Isigny Cooperative, who together supplied 90 percent of “lait cru” (raw milk) Camembert made in the northwest region of Normandy, have switched to using treated milk for their top brands on the grounds that it is safer.

In so doing they have had to surrender the coveted “Appellation d’Origine Controlee” status, which is normally seen both as a certificate of authenticity and a vital boost for sales. It is the first time ever in France that a cheese producer has voluntarily withdrawn from an AOC.

Spokesmen for the companies said the reason for the unprecedented move is the impossibility of eliminating the health threat from bacteria in milk that has not been subjected to heating or “microfiltration”.

“This was an extremely difficult decision to take. ‘Lait cru’ Camembert is in our genes,” said Luc Morelon, communications director at Lactalis, the world’s biggest manufacturer of dairy goods.

“So why did we do it? Because consumer safety is paramount, and we cannot guarantee it 100 percent. We cannot accept the risk of seeing our historic brands disappearing because of an accident in production.”

But food campaigners are up in arms because they say Lactalis and Isigny Cooperative are acting out of purely business motives. And they fear the companies may yet use their commercial weight to get AOC regulators to change the rules, placing the future of traditional Camembert in real jeopardy.

“They talk about a supposed danger to health, but they know it is nonsense. Their real reason is that they want to step up production, and it is impossible to do that using ‘lait cru’,” said Gerard Roger, president of the newly-created Defence Committee for Authentic Camembert.

“What this is all about is the limits of mass marketing. A behemoth like Lactalis cannot answer to the needs of the real Camembert, which is not just a cheese but part of our culture,” he said.

For cheese-lovers, the difference between a genuine Normandy ‘lait cru’ Camembert and the common supermarket variety made with pasteurised milk is like the difference between vintage wine and a mass-produced “vin de table.”

“Camembert does not exist unless it is made with untreated milk. ‘Lait cru’ is what gives the richness, the taste, the originality. If you heat the milk, you’ll still have a cheese, but it won’t be Camembert,” said Roger.

We can’t know if the motivation is a sudden fastidiousness on food safety from these two large companies or a desire to seek a commercial advantage by changing the regulations to include heat-treated or non-filtered milk.

Here though is the key point: True raw milk Camembert is sold every day in Europe, yet no one who hasn’t left America has ever eaten it — it is illegal to sell here because it is aged less than 60 days.

Is our culture so risk-adverse that because of a tiny risk we want to deny Americans the right to eat foods that are common in Europe? Does this make sense?

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