Raw Deal: Who's afraid of cowshared milk?

by Quinn MacDonald

Do you know what a cow is? It seems like a simple question. But have you really thought about it? (If you grew up on a farm, you’re disqualified.) A cow is a bovine female that is producing milk. That means she’s had at least one calf. Before that, she’s a heifer.

Similarly, you may not have considered the process milk goes through as it moves from a cow to your fridge. Pasteurization—heating raw milk to 72°C or greater for at least 15 seconds—has been around for more than a century. And for the last three decades in British Columbia, it’s been the law.

Raw milk is still widely available in many countries around the world, including in some European vending machines, but it cannot be legally sold or purchased in Canada, the only G8 country to outlaw its sale, as part of a 1990 emendation to the Food and Drug Act. Two years earlier, B.C. had passed a law that classified all raw milk as a “health hazard,” and the law persists as Section 2(a) of the Health Hazards Regulation under the Public Health Act.

The penalties for selling raw milk? Up to $3 million in fines and/or three years in prison. The only way to legally consume raw milk in Canada is to produce your own or bring back $20 worth from the U.S. per day.

With 545 dairy farms and 72,000 cows, B.C.’s dairy industry is the third largest in the country, behind Ontario and Quebec; in 2009, the province’s cows produced over 650 million litres of milk while B.C.’s dairy farms are some of the largest in the country, with an average of 135 milking cows. The industry employs more than 11,000 people and contributes over $1 billion to the economy. The Milk Industry Act regulates how that milk gets collected and pasteurized at one of 33 processors in B.C.

Raw milk now represents a conflict between personal freedom and social safety, as well as a tug-of-war between industrial farmers, raw-milk lobbyists, and their competing health claims. How do we strike a balance between access to a fresh source of nutrients that hasn’t been pumped out of an abused animal and pumped full of antibiotics while acknowledging potential dangers?

The BC Dairy Foundation (BCDA), a nonprofit society funded by the province’s dairy producers, includes a “Raw Milk Q&A” on its website with links to “real life stories” about what can go wrong. It claims pasteurized milk is a healthier choice “because you can enjoy all the nutritional benefits of milk without the concern of contracting harmful and possibly fatal diseases.”

And yet for all the warnings, people still drink raw milk. They just find ways around the law.

ONE AVENUE TO ACCESS raw milk is a cowshare. It’s a type of herdshare agreement in which consumers pay a farmer or “agister” a fee to board their cow (or a share of a cow), care for it, and milk it. You’d be forgiven for not knowing about cowshares: when it comes to finding raw milk, you need to know someone who knows someone in the know. And agisters often prefer to remain anonymous because of their quasi-legal status. “It’s a very closed society, secret handshakes and stuff,” says “Farmer,” a local agister located just outside Victoria who provides services for the owners of a cowshare.

Farmer, 58, speaks with a slight English accent. He arrived in Canada in 1997 to obtain a helicopter pilot’s license and ended up working with Medevacs in Victoria. Becoming a raw milk agister wasn’t part of his career plan.

“Three months before the cows arrived, I had no idea this was going to happen,” he says. On a hike in 2013, he met a nutritionist who suggested he drink raw milk, after which Farmer discovered how difficult it was to obtain. He had enough property and decided to help others, starting with a woman in Metchosin looking to get rid of her three cows, Audrey, LouLou, and Victoria.

“I hit the ground running,” says Farmer. “I made a lot of mistakes. I had to throw away a lot of milk.”

In September 2014, Mark McAfee, a raw-milk farmer and spokesperson for the Raw Milk Institute (RAWMI) in California, gave a talk at the University of Victoria that is available online. RAWMI was founded in 2011 because the U.S. also lacked standards for raw milk. The Institute’s guidelines act as a resource for regulators, farmers, consumers, and legislators. “You’ll never hear us say ‘guaranteed perfect’ because no food is guaranteed perfect,” McAfee told the audience. “In fact, the idea that pasteurized milk is perfect is far from true.” The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded 77 deaths associated with pasteurized cheese since 1972; there were zero deaths from raw milk during that time frame.

McAfee says that post-pasteurization milk is no longer milk but rather a milk product. Most people just don’t have anything to compare it to. “Unfortunately when you don’t have a market that’s mature, like the raw milk market isn’t mature, then people don’t know what they don’t have, so they won’t go and say, ‘Don’t take that from me!’”

Victoria, a brown jersey cow, waits by the farm gate with a field in the background
Victoria waits to be milked
How to Collect Clean Raw Milk

VICTORIA MEETS FARMER at the gate, but first he needs to feed the new calf, Solstice. Born on June 21, the calf will stay on the farm until she’s weaned in four or five months. Calves take around two years to mature enough to produce milk. That costs money. Farmer says it’s easier to buy a ready-to-milk cow on UsedVictoria.

In the milking parlour, Farmer gets a bucket of oats for Victoria and begins the cleaning process. Cleaning the udder has three purposes: it keeps the cow—and the milk—clean, while the massaging also triggers oxytocin production to “let down” the milk and to promote the health of the udder. Farmer uses a soapy towel, folds it in four, and double cleans all four quarters of the udder, flecking off bits of manure before cleaning around the teat.

The goal is to maintain the teats: remove the shit but keep the hundreds of types of beneficial bacteria that live on them. Farmer hoses away dirt, dries off the teats with paper towel and does the “stripping” by removing a few streams of milk by hand to check for abnormalities and encourage let down. The cleaning process takes more time than milking.

Fresh milk is warm and tastes slightly sour and more full than pasteurized milk. Farmer drinks the frothy liquid from a small container, something he always does out of respect for the cows. The commercial dairy industry can call milk “fresh” even though it might be kept in a vat for up to 30 days, so long as its stirred and refrigerated under 2°C.

The inconspicuous farmhouse where Farmer lives was built in 1913. The basement door looks onto the two acres of pasture, so he can keep an eye and an ear on the girls and his helpers while he carries out the next step in the milking process: filtering. Filtering determines whether or not the milk will go into people’s jars. Farmer pours the last of the can’s milk through the filter and inspects it. All clear except for a couple specks. “When I see things like that I think ‘Ehhhh, I didn’t do such a good job,’ but you know that’s totally okay, it’s a little grain of something.”

Just because Farmer is thorough doesn’t guarantee others will be—which supports the case to legalize raw milk rather than leave its production underground. “I know of other agisters that don’t even check their filters before they put the milk into the jars,” says Farmer.

Milk is tested for two main things: coliforms, a bacteria found in the digestive tract of animals (including humans), and standard plate count, the total number of bacteria in one millilitre of milk. There is also a routine yearly test for tuberculosis, a disease that no longer exists in B.C. Both Farmer and McAfee agree that showing consistently strong, safe test results is how to convince authorities to change the laws. Farmer tests every month and displays the results of the last two years on the fridge in the basement.

Farmer says the total coliform test results tells him how well he’s doing “out there” in the milking parlour, while the standard plate count number reflects how well he’s doing “in here,” where he does the filtering, bottling, and cooling. Cooling and storage affect test results. To keep bacteria rates low, milk needs to be chilled as quickly as possible as bacteria doubles every 20 minutes at room temperature. Farmer uses a converted freezer that he keeps at 1.5°C.

Since raw milk is illegal in B.C., the province has no test standards for it. Some commercial dairy farmers also keep high cleaning standards, but the milk from those who care and those who don’t all gets mixed together in one of the processors. Conscientious farmers don’t get compensated for the time spent keeping their operations clean.

Farmer feeds a calf from a bottle
Photos: Hannah Golding
A Different Kind of Herdshare

FARMER’S COWS CAME with roughly 30 clients. That has grown to a total of 70 shares, although some members have multiple shares and others have only half shares. (One share is equal to 4 litres per week.) As Farmer fills the cowshare members’ jars, he gestures to seven rows of wire shelves, one per day of the week, lined with name-tagged glass bottles. Members must provide and clean their own jars for the operation to remain legitimate. “The law allows that you can drink milk from your own cow, but I can’t sell it and I can’t distribute it,” he explains, “so if I was putting milk in my own jars then that would amount to distribution.” Farmer will reject any jar that appears contaminated.

Farmer doesn’t like the term “cowshare” because of its association with people who operate illegally. He calls himself a “bovine mechanic” and compares the process to doing an oil change for a car owner. This mentality sets Farmer apart from other would-be agisters, who own their cows. Because Farmer’s cows came with member-owners, he never developed a sense of control over them.

Farmer has also innovated how to run a cowshare. “I knew nothing about it,” he admits, “and it’s just a beginner’s mind: How should this be done?” He says his operation is now 95 per cent legal. Under the current contract, which covers both ownership and his services, he still has the final say over who can be a member; this power clouds clear ownership. He and the other members are working to turn the herdshare into a nonprofit, which will then handle shares and hire Farmer purely for his bovine mechanics. “It’s not tested in court,” he admits, “but I believe we can have an entirely legal operation here.”

A 2003 reply letter to the herdshare from the Ministry of Agriculture about enjoying a “dividend” from joint cow ownership explained that the Milk Industry Act “does not prevent you from consuming unpasteurized milk from a cow which you own.” What if someone owns a cow but lacks the space or ability to care for the animal and hires someone else to do so, can the owner still drink its raw milk? In a second letter, in 2015, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall pointed out that “raw milk is considered a health hazard” and suggested “the double boiler method for home pasteurization,” but, yes, the owner could drink it.

“So we know that the authorities agree that it can be done,” says Farmer. And yet the raw-milk trade remains illegal in B.C. “It is ridiculous how they’ve got these regulations structured.”

When asked directly, Kendall remains opposed to legalizing unpasteurized milk and would not promote a regulatory framework for its sale. Unpasteurized milk, he says, has health risks, mostly food poisoning, especially for children and seniors. Kendall hasn’t seen positive test results from raw milk farmers in B.C. and says that persuasive evidence would require a big data set. Based on test results from Quebec, which has a regulatory regime for raw-milk cheese, and from the U.S., where unpasteurized milk is regulated, Kendall has still observed unacceptable levels of bacterial contamination and a higher risk of human illness.

“You can’t test every product, every litre of milk from every cow, every time you milk them,” says Kendall. “I know people want to drink it. However, scientifically, I don’t think there’s much in the way of evidence to suggest it is beneficial.”

How to get raw milk legalized divides the raw-milk community. Farmer disagrees with outspoken advocate Michael Schmidt, the owner of Glencolton Farm in Ontario, who was convicted of distributing raw milk in 2011—and whose farm was raided again by authorities this fall. As a “loose cannon,” Farmer says Schmidt has brought attention to the issue but also created publicity blowback for other agisters.

Other raw-milk “mechanics” have copied Farmer’s less-confrontational approach. “I don’t have the baggage of people who’ve been doing it for decades and actually own the cows,” he says.

Getting operations quasi-legal, however, puts raw-milk producers in a paradox where the regulations don’t need to be changed. The status quo, however, doesn’t help anyone who wants raw milk but doesn’t want to belong to a cowshare. And it doesn’t help dairy farmers or cowshare members recover revenue by selling the extra milk.

“It can be done legally within the existing structure,” says Farmer. “But it would be better if we can change the regulations and make an honest living out of it.”

Raw milk is filtered into a jar

Cleaning up the Conditions

The final step in the milking process is cleaning up. Back in the milking parlour,

Farmer says his ability to ensure his equipment is clean distinguishes his farm from larger commercial dairies, which use miles of pipework and large amounts of equipment—making pasteurization necessary. He mops the rubber mats with diluted detergent and talks about how people are turning to raw milk herdshares to reconnect with the source of their food and know how the animals are treated.

“A litre of raw milk is a fair amount more expensive than the stuff you buy in the grocery store,” says Farmer. “But that’s a price they’re willing to pay.”

Farmer’s cows eat only non-GMO feed: grass from his field seven months of the year and hay for the rest. He plans to reseed his pasture next year with Indigenous grasses and legumes. As a treat during milking, his cows get a small amount of grain, using non-GMO pellets from a supplier in Duncan.

Farmer operates his cows on a milking lifespan of 10 years; anything after that is a bonus. The “girls” are between four and six-and-a-half years; the matriarch, LouLou, is nearing her peak. On commercial farms, the average lifespan is five years, as older cows are replaced by heifers and sold for meat. After 10 years, the volume of milk declines and the cows lose their value as producers, so the cowshare will decide as a group what to do then.

A row of glass jars on wire shelving

Testing the Health Benefits

At least 25 per cent of Farmer’s cowshare clients drink raw milk to benefit medical conditions, including Lyme disease, Parkinson’s, and gastric problem. Proponents of raw milk’s health benefits are often influenced by the “Campaign for Real Milk,” from the Weston A. Price Foundation. Founded in 1999, the foundation focuses on “real” instead of processed foods and lobbies for universal access to “raw milk.”

Linda Morken, the head of the Victoria chapter, got involved with the foundation while treating a chronically depleted immune system. “I had a chest cold that lasted for six weeks,” says Morken. “That was the turning point.” Her research led to information about gut flora, which can affect physical and mental health. As chapter leader, she informs members about local sources for farm-fresh foods.

Morken is quick to point out that she’s just a grandma, not a nutritionist. She gets constant requests from people seeking raw milk and passes along names to raw-dairy farmers. Because of the law, she never gives out information on her own accord. “There is more demand then there is supply,” says Morken.

Morken has written letters to the B.C. Minister of Health and editorials for local papers. “It’s a simple food-rights issue,” she says. She also believes raw milk should be legalized so it can be regulated. “I’d be afraid to drink raw milk that was not being raised according to standards that people who know how to keep raw milk safe have developed,” she says, citing the work of McAfee.

The evidence, however, for the health benefits of raw milk remains anecdotal. In July 2015, John A. Lucey, a professor of food science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the Wisconsin Centre for Dairy Research, published a review titled “Raw Milk Consumption: Risks and Benefits.” The article explains how “recent scientific reviews by various international groups have concluded that there was no reliable scientific evidence to support any of those suggested health benefits.”

The same review claims that pasteurization causes no changes in the protein quality, mineral concentration, and only minor losses of vitamins. However, non-pasteurization factors in the industrial dairy process—such as packaging material, light exposure, storage time and temperature, and type of feed—can impact the nutritional quality of the final milk product.

According to Dr. Perry Kendall, reviews commissioned by the Office of the Provincial Health Officer suggest there is a risk with no real benefit. He is also troubled by how online advocates promote the benefits of raw milk for children, who are at a higher risk for serious outcomes and who, unlike adults, cannot make their own informed decisions.

And what if proponents of raw milk one day sway politicians to legalize their drink of choice? “If the government did want to create a regulatory regime, I would like to be engaged in defining how strict it would have to be,” says Kendall. “It would have to be self-financing, and I would want a caveat that said you do not give this product to children.”

Linda Morken thinks more research can be done to understand bacteria’s role in human health. “I get disillusioned by the fact that our modern world thinks we have to prove everything in a reductionist kind of way,” she says, “when it’s already been proven by thousands and thousands of years of tradition where people didn’t have the illnesses we see today.”

Both she and McAfee talk about raw milk benefitting allergies and asthma. Lucey’s scientific review did not find any data to link pasteurized milk to an increase in respiratory allergies; however, he did cite epidemiological studies that suggest growing up on or near a farm can decrease the risk of allergies and asthma.

And here we get to the crux of the debate. As McAfee says, “We have city folk wanting to have immune systems like country folk.” A 2010 paper in Preventative Veterinary Medicine showed that nearly 90 per cent of Canadian dairy farmers consume milk unpasteurized. Maybe our disconnection from the land bothers modern urban consumers. We have learned where our other food comes from, so why not dairy?

People can switch to nut milks, but nut plantations have big ecological footprints, while dairy remains a high source of protein and fats. (And who really wants to trade cheese and ice cream for a nut-milk substitute?) While it might be hard to raise cows in the city, getting in touch with the source of our milk products can empower consumers to make better choices about their food. Until there’s a change in the regulatory framework of raw milk, however, that choice will remain out of reach for most of us.

FARMER TELLS A STORY of two girls from a nearby school who walked past a neighbour’s field where he had pastured his herd for the day. The girls stopped to take selfies with the animals. One of the girls asked: “Are these cows?”

“Of course, they are!” said her friend.

“Well, they’re not black and white.”

Farmer laughed. His three “girls” are tawny light-brown jerseys, favoured for raw milk because they have the highest milk fat content of any cow. The schoolgirls only knew the stereotypical black-and-white cow, usually a Holstein, like Daisy the Island Farms’ mascot. That was the animal you get milk from. In reality, a Holstein is a just one of 800 breeds around the world.

“It’s so out of touch. It’s crazy,” says Farmer. “And I think it’s true for so many people.”

This article appeared in our Fall/Winter 2016/2016 issue.

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