Whole Milk Ethics

Here’s a take-no-prisoners piece on the whole-milk debate, by Deborah Blum, writing for Slate: The Raw-Milk Deal.

Today, just about 0.5 percent of all the milk consumed in this country is unpasteurized. Yet from 1998 to 2008, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received reports of 85 infectious disease outbreaks linked to raw milk. In the past few months, physicians have treated salmonella in Utah, brucellosis in Delaware, campylobacter in Colorado and Pennsylvania, and an ugly outbreak of E. coli O157-H7 in Minnesota, which sickened eight people in June. Epidemiologists not only identified a rare strain of the bacteria but matched its DNA to those stricken, the cows on the farm that supplied them with raw milk, and manure smearing the milking equipment and even the animals themselves. When regulators shut down the dairy farm, supporters promptly charged them with belonging to a government conspiracy to smear the reputation of a hallowed food….

The standard reply (and perhaps the least-wrongheaded one) from whole-milk advocates (see the comments section under Blum’s article) is that whole milk is only dangerous when it comes from dirty farms where animals aren’t properly cared for, etc. The problem, of course, is that there are always going to be some dirty farms where animals aren’t properly cared for, etc. So clearly the public dairy system (the one that supplies most milk consumers) needs pasteurization. The question then becomes one of whether that’s consistent with allowing a subset of milk producers and consumers to exist outside of that regulated system. In essence, forcing pasteurization means forcing people to avoid risks that they’re willing to take in return for improved flavour (which is entirely subjective) and mostly-imaginary health benefits. Whether that makes sense depends on the answers to 2 questions:

  • 1. Social well-being: Are the diseases that result from pathogens found in unpasteurized milke diseases that are limited to people who actually drink such milk, or are they communicable diseases such that the general public should care about whether their neighbours are consuming such milk?
  • 2. Individual well-being: Are all (or enough of) the people who consume raw milk well-enough informed about the risks and benefits to make good decisions?

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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