How the fight to mainstream raw milk is bringing liberals and libertarians together

"The room is half full of libertarians and half full of very liberal Democrats. The bridge is food"

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published July 16, 2023 2:45PM (EDT)

Milk splash (Getty Images/HUIZENG HU)
Milk splash (Getty Images/HUIZENG HU)

Following Iowa's decision to allow the state's farmers up to ten animals for raw milk production starting on July 1, Mary McGonigle-Martin — who is the member of a working group that is "dedicated to the dissemination of accurate information regarding raw milk consumption" — told Food Safety News that "public health has lost the war on raw milk." 

The publication frames the countrywide proliferation of raw milk this way, as well; over the last decade, advocates of unpasteurized milk have pushed state legislators for its legalization all across the country with an uneven effect. 

Across the western United States, customers can purchase raw milk from retailers. In Colorado, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and North Carolina, raw milk is legal through herdshare programs. Throughout much of the Midwest — as well as New York, Georgia and Vermont — farmers can sell raw milk directly to customers. 

Currently, only Rhode Island, Washington D.C., and Louisiana have laws on the books making raw milk illegal.

"A basic coalition has often been successful in beating raw milk back in legislative chambers, but bills to loosen raw milk regulation are often repeated in the next legislative session," writes Food Safety News' Dan Flynn. "That's what happened in Iowa, where raw milk was kept more illegal than legal for years."

He continued: "Iowa's push-back in 2023 to allow up to ten animals for raw milk production is typical of how little openings are made for raw milk producers." 

These rulings don't come out of particularly splashy legislative sessions, but they're worth paying attention to simply for the unique bipartisan collaboration they've inspired. Leading the fight to mainstream raw milk are both libertarians, who are concerned about government overreach and personal autonomy, and health-conscious liberals

Standing opposed? The FDA and work groups like McGonigle-Martin's. 

But why does the government care about raw milk? 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the state of Michigan instituted the first statewide milk pasteurization requirement in 1947 after researchers found that the consumption of raw milk is linked to a "significant number of foodborne illnesses, some of which can result in serious complications and death." The consumption and distribution of raw milk then became a public health concern. 

Per the organization, these illnesses are attributed to a variety of pathogens, including: Escherichia coli, Campylobacter jejuni, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, and Brucella abortus

Then, in 1987, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued its final regulation on the mandatory pasteurization of all milk or milk products — with the exception of some cheeses — for sale or distribution in interstate commerce. Anything that is labeled as "milk" that is sold in interstate commerce must be pasteurized as well under FDA guidelines. 

These rulings don't come out of particularly splashy legislative sessions, but they're worth paying attention to simply for the unique bipartisan collaboration they've inspired. 

However, as Bill Marler, a products liability attorney who has been litigating foodborne illness cases in 1993, writes, the distinctions between "applicable state laws and individual states are bewildering," which meant that by the mid-2000s, the legality of unpasteurized milk in the United States was pretty scattershot. 

"In 2006, 25 states had laws making the sale of raw milk for human consumption illegal. In the remaining states, dairy operations may sell raw milk to local retail food stores or to consumers directly from the farm, or at agricultural fairs or other community events, depending on the state law," Marler wrote in "A Legal History of Raw Milk in The United States." 

He continued: "Restrictions vary from specific labeling requirements, to requirements that milk only be bought with personal bottles, to purchase of raw milk through cow shares exclusively, to permitting a sale only with a written prescription from a doctor, to sales of raw goat milk only, and to sales of a limited daily quantity only if made without advertising. Even in states that prohibit intrastate sales of raw milk, some people have tried to circumvent the law by 'cow sharing' or 'cow leasing.'"

Why do people — both libertarians and liberals — want to drink raw milk? 

In 2015, "Portlandia" — a sketch comedy series that spoofed the lives of various hipster characters in the city of Portland, Oregon — released an episode about raw milk. In it, a husband and wife duo (played by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein) are feeling a little listless. Their energy levels are low and they are plagued by various aches and pains. 

While a battery of doctor visits reveal that they probably just need to eat well and exercise, the duo decides that the way forward is getting a cow of their own after a back-alley seller tells them that "raw milk is the future." The two become convinced that the FDA is conspiring against the American public by keeping "vitamin-rich" raw milk under lock and key and finally decide to protest, cow in tow, in front of their local doctor's office. 

This sketch mimics reality in the sense that The Campaign for Real Milk — which was founded by raw milk activists in 1998 and launched as a website in 1999 — is packed with members who argue that "real milk that is clean, fresh, full fat, and unprocessed is a complete food and a source of a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and other important compounds." 

"After all, raw milk is Nature's exclusive food for infants, so it must supply every single nutrient that the infant needs," they write. "Milk is an important source for nutrients like fat-soluble vitamin A, D, E and K2; vitamin C; all the B vitamins, especially vitamins B2, B6 and B12; and minerals like calcium, phosphorus and zinc as well as essential trace minerals. Levels of these vitamins will be higher if the cow is on pasture eating green grass." 

"There definitely shouldn't be a law against allowing people to do what they want within the framework of the rule of law. Just be careful"

The contentious belief that raw milk may be healthier than pasteurized is a bipartisan one, however, it has captured the imagination of, as the Atlantic put it in a 2014 story, "urbanite foodies (read: progressives)." That same year, Joel Salatin, which the publication referred to as a "food and farm freedom celebrity," told Politico that it was nice to have some liberals join the fight for the mainstreaming of raw milk. 

"When I give speeches now," he said. "The room is half full of libertarians and half full of very liberal Democrats. The bridge is food." 

For libertarians, as one may imagine, their central argument for the legalization of raw milk hinges on concerns about personal liberty and government overreach. In 2016, when West Virginia decriminalized the consumption of raw milk, Modern Farmer categorized their motivation as distinct from those who believe raw milk can improve one's gut flora or decrease one's risk of cancer, statements government health departments dispute

"The West Virginia lawmakers involved here are a slightly different breed," the publication wrote. "They mostly push for legal raw milk out of a libertarian instinct that citizens should be able to decide what they eat and drink." 

At the time, Pat McGeehan, a Republican representative from the state's first district, told reporters that "there definitely shouldn't be a law against allowing people to do what they want within the framework of the rule of law. Just be careful."

He, however, was not. As Modern Farmer also reported, legislators celebrated the passage of the new raw milk law by taking shots of raw milk. All those who participated, including McGeehan, became "severely sick to their stomachs." 

While correlation doesn't equal causation, the spread of foodborne illness in this manner is what concerns exactly what the FDA and food safety experts amid the increased push for the mainstreaming of raw milk. There are more recorded outbreaks of milk-borne illness in states where raw milk is legalized than in states where it is not. As the CDC puts it, "the presence of germs in raw milk is unpredictable. People can drink it for a long time without getting sick, and then get sick if their milk is contaminated."

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Analysis Liberals Libertarians Raw Milk