How milk became the new culture war dividing America

Raw milk
Raw milk

For more than 130 years, Americans have been instructed that drinking milk that comes directly from a cow’s udder can be dangerous.

The US dairy industry spends millions of dollars each year heating its product to 70C before sale, to kill microorganisms that can make people ill.

But a growing number of consumers would rather they left it alone. No longer the preserve of farmers and hippies, “raw” milk is now on sale in corner shops and trendy health food stores across America.

Its proponents argue that it helps with weight loss, gut health and lactose intolerance. Gwyneth Paltrow, the actress and a longtime promoter of unorthodox health advice, takes it in her coffee every morning.

“I think there are schools of thought that drinking raw milk is better because once you process it and everything, that’s when the dairy becomes harder to tolerate,” she said in a recent interview.

Pasteurisation, once a consensus issue, has become the latest frontier in America’s never-ending culture war.

Public health officials say that drinking the milk is dangerous, and could lead to a spike in potentially deadly bacterial and viral infections.

But market data suggests there has been at least a 20 per cent increase in demand for raw milk in the last year nationwide, and state politicians are facing demands to liberalise decades-old food safety laws.

This week, the latest bill to repeal an outright ban on raw milk hit the governor’s desk in Louisiana, after similar efforts in West Virginia, Iowa, Georgia and North Dakota.

Gwyneth Paltrow
Gwyneth Paltrow takes 'raw' milk in her coffee every morning - Sebastien Nogier/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Politicians were heard mooing in the state legislature as the bill passed.

If the bill is signed, it will be possible from August 1 for Louisianans to buy raw milk from a normal shop – albeit with a warning, in capital letters, that it is “not for human consumption”.

Everyone, including the legislators, knows that instruction will be ignored.

The law changes are the product of an unlikely alliance between health food enthusiasts and the libertarian Right, which sees raw milk bans as yet another example of shady federal officials eroding the freedom of American consumers.

“The big push behind the raw milk campaign is that people want to be able to choose what they’re putting into their bodies,” said Judith McGeary, the founder of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance campaign group.

“There is a lot more understanding now than there was in the 1950s when pasteurisation became widespread about the benefits of unprocessed food and probiotic-encouraging foods, such as raw milk.

“This isn’t heroin. Some people are going to get it regardless. All you’ve done by banning it is make it really expensive and really difficult to buy.”

Since 1987, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that 143 deaths from various illnesses in the US have been linked to raw milk, and that diseases picked up by those who drink it can then be passed on to other people.

Committed anti-vaxxers

The milk can contain salmonella, E. coli and various other harmful bacteria that would normally be removed through pasteurisation.

The FDA and another federal agency, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued recent warnings that drinking raw milk could lead to the spread of bird flu.

Both agencies are widely distrusted by Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) wing of the Republican Party – some of whom are committed anti-vaxxers.

Others simply think that the Government has no business in demanding their milk be pasteurised – and that raw milk bans are the product of big dairy industry lobbyists operating in the “swamp”.

“Our citizens have the right to buy those products even though they have risks associated with them,” said Kimberly Coates, a Republican state representative, during the passage of Louisiana’s recent bill.

Danny McCormick, a GOP colleague, added: “I figure free people drink what free people want to drink. This is still America.”

In a world where health regulations are another front in the war on wokery, drinking raw milk has become an act of civil resistance.

Turning Point USA, a right-wing campaign group, sells t-shirts with the slogan “Got raw milk?” – a play on the long-running “Got milk?” advertising campaign by the dairy industry.

Far-right media outlets like InfoWars and The Blaze have been promoting raw milk, arguing that the pasteurisation process is a government conspiracy and that it is safe for consumers to drink.

Online, raw milk bootleggers share tips on how to smuggle it into places where it is banned.

In some states, it is legal to buy raw milk as pet food, which provides a loophole for those who want to drink it themselves. In others, people simply drive over state lines to buy it legally.

“I go to Arkansas to get mine. Best natural medicine you can drink,” said one pasteurisation sceptic on the Raw Milk For Louisiana Facebook page.

“Just like the Covid bulls***,” said another. “I don’t need metabolically unhealthy politicians and obese bureaucrats watching out for my health. They can’t even watch out for their own.”

Although it is technically against federal law to transport raw milk between states, the rules are not generally enforced against individual consumers.

Farmers who break the rules and sell to the public, however, are subject to criminal penalties if they are caught.

In January, an Amish farm in Pennsylvania drew national attention after it was raided by police who suspected, correctly, that it was selling unlicensed raw milk and eggnog.

Donald Trump Jr, the former president’s son, waded into the debate.

Donald Trump Jr
Donald Trump Jr spoke in favour of unpasteurised milk - AP/Carlos Osorio

“Imagine what law enforcement could accomplish if they went after oh I don’t know, say, members of elite paedophile rings rather than farmers selling to their neighbours???” he tweeted. “Can I be the only person sick of this s***?”

Public health experts have warned that the increase in consumption of raw milk is likely to lead to the spread of harmful diseases.

Prof Donald Schaffner, a food science expert at Rutgers University, said epidemiologists have not proven that the H5N1 virus – commonly known as bird flu – can be spread through milk, but there are already concerns about infected cattle.

“We have an ongoing situation with H5N1 influenza, which has gotten into some dairy herds in the United States,” he said.

“What we know is that when that virus infects a dairy cow, one of the localised sites of the infection is the udder of the cow. The milk that those cows produce is absolutely loaded with the H5N1 virus.”

A CDC report last month found that several cats had died of the virus after drinking milk from infected cows, and issued a warning to the public that “natural” milk is not safer.

“With respect to the question of food being natural – arsenic is natural,” Prof Schaffner said.

“Cyanide is natural. Sharks are natural. Those things can all kill you. So just because something is natural does not mean that it’s safe.”