Some of you reading this have likely either consumed unpasteurized milk, or know someone who has, and been perfectly fine for the experience.
Ditto for University of Guelph food scientist Prof. Art Hill, a leading authority on milk safety. Some 50 years ago on the family dairy farm on Manitoulin Island, he drank unpasteurized milk as a matter of course. That’s all he knew.
So why is he now suggesting people avoid it at all costs?
Well, that’s because he and other researchers have learned a lot about raw milk in the past five decades.
And as far as he can figure, raw milk is at least 1,000 times riskier to drink than its pasteurized counterpart.
Let me repeat that statistic: at least 1,000 times riskier.
At particular risk are our society’s most vulnerable individuals: young children, elderly people and immune deficient people. And yet we are still having the debate about whether Ontario should permit raw milk sales, and whether processed milk is any good. Why? Part of it may be a misunderstanding of agriculture and food production.
For example, as Canadians, we can easily grasp the idea of how in nature, cold — the kind of long, freezing cold we’re finally leaving behind — kills or controls a lot of nasty microorganisms that can cause significant plant, animal and human diseases.
Likewise for heat. In food processing, procedures such as boiling kill microorganisms.
The heating process for milk is called pasteurization, named after its founder French scientist Louis Pasteur.
There’s nothing sinister about pasteurization. Quite the opposite: Pasteurization kills harmful bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli. And that’s good, because these bacteria can cause deadly diseases, such as tuberculosis and Q-fever.
In fact, the incidence of these diseases dropped almost overnight here when pasteurization became mandatory here, way back in 1938.
So then, what about nutrition? Pasteurization’s critics say the process zaps milk of much of its natural goodness.
Well, it turns out there’s some truth to that accusation. Pasteurization depletes milk of about 20 per cent of its Vitamin C content, and 10 per cent of thiamin and vitamin B12. But milk is not a significant source of Vitamin C to begin with.
And milk already has high amounts of thiamin and B12. So missing a few per cent is not a calamity.
As well, milk is an excellent source of calcium, protein, riboflavin, vitamins A and D, phosphorous, and a good source of thiamin and B12 (even after pasteurization). Research has shown that calcium absorption remains unaltered through pasteurization.
But even with all this evidence, scientist Hill doesn’t like to close the door on possibilities in particular, the possibility of enhancing the understanding between people on both sides of the raw milk debate.
So on April 22, he and others are staging a one-day raw milk symposium at the university called Science to Policy.
To him, the big question – and one that is lurking more than ever in our do-right society — is whether science will be used as a basis for creating policy (such as the milk pasteurization policy in Ontario), or whether science should be damned and citizens be given the freedom to determine their own fate.
Maybe that’s the ultimate in democracy to some people. But to me, it’s a recipe for anarchy.
I’m sure the freedom of choice issue will come up at the symposium. One of the scheduled guest speakers is raw milk rock star Michael Schmidt, a small Ontario dairy farmer who in 2011 sold unpasteurized milk to Ontarians, and ran afoul of the law. His farm was raided, he was charged, he appealed his conviction and late last month the conviction was upheld.
Could that all have been avoided with better dialogue, less entrenched positions and a greater understanding by all parties of the challenges and – according to Schmidt and other advocates — the opportunities, of pasteurized milk?
We’ll never know, but Hill hopes the event will take the raw milk hysteria down a notch, and generally, lead to measured approaches to policy development.
Others who’ll speak about science-based policy for food and agriculture versus the alternative include a retailer, a dairy farmer and leading academics.
The symposium is open the public; registration costs $65 for the full day but there are other options such as a webinar, or attending the luncheon speaker only. Check it out at http://goo.gl/0tiKSr.
Attend or watch if you can. You’ll have a more informed position on whether the risk is worth it.
For more Real Talk, Real Action columns by Owen Roberts (a weekly feature here on RealAgriculture), click here.