While raw food advocates might not have any conclusive science behind their beliefs, all food lovers should be worried about the government's recent crackdown.
On June 30, armed federal agents stormed Rawesome Foods in Venice, California. Four officers had their handguns drawn, and video of the raid shows them skirting boxes of produce in a warehouse. The alleged perpetrators had put their stash in a back cooler. What was it? Raw milk, straight from the udder, and full of what one Rawesome employee said was vibrational nutrients.
News of the raid spread quickly. Perhaps it came as a particular affront because it happened in California, the front line for alternative healers, meditation gurus, and Juliano, the raw food poster boy and author of The UnCook Book. Or perhaps it was because federal agents had their guns drawn for a seemingly nonviolent raid on a vendor that had been operating without a Los Angeles food license for five years. Even libertarian U.S. Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) joined the fray, telling The Colbert Report,“People have a right in a free society to do stupid things.”
The fall-out continued later this summer when the Food and Drug Administration forced Morningstar Farms in Missouri to destroy 50,000 pounds of cheese after California officials reported finding contaminated samples of the farm's raw milk cheese in the Rawesome raid. With apologies to Ron Paul and Stephen Colbert, the latest in an ongoing battle over raw foods doesn't need to turn the country into any more of an idiocy spectacle. If anything, it’s time to reexamine the roots of raw food—and, if nothing else, at least consider how raw milk might lead to a better cheese culture.
Humans have come a long way from our hunting and gathering days, but raw foodists believe that we’ve suffered as a result of eating foods cooked at 104 degrees or higher. The ideology has taken hold among New Age types and Christian evangelists, who tend to frame raw foods as “natural” opposed to contaminated by human culture—recalling the structuralist views of the late anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss, who believed raw foods were symbolically closer to nature than are cooked foods. But, as Richard Wrangham argues in Catching Fire, learning to heat is what made us human. And just this week, scientists found evidence that Paleolithic humans in Europe cooked primitive grains, further dismantling the historical basis for a raw Paleo diet.
In fact, there’s little definitive food science that establishes the superiority of raw foods across the board. Food is just not that simple. Kidney beans are toxic when raw. Other foods become more palatable or nutritious. Spinach, for example, contains high amounts of oxalic acid, which can inhibit calcium absorption when eaten raw. All this may be beside the point to raw foodists, who cling to beliefs about the enzymatic and nutritional benefits. While raw-foodists represent an in?nitesimal fraction of Americans, the fad has gained momentum in the last two decades. For example, in 1975, The New York Times reported that only five certified dairies in the United States sold raw fluid milk. Clearly, that’s changed.
Raw milk and raw milk cheese were the focus of this summer’s raid. Each raises separate issues and each deserves more attention. While raw milk can be consumed safely provided proper care and attention is given to the health of a cow, milk can host Listeria, E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Salmonella. Milk once helped transmit typhoid and tuberculosis at the turn of the 20th century, and mandatory pasteurization was hailed as a major public health victory. Now, almost all milk is cooked (pasteurization heats it to 161 degrees and keeps it there for 15 seconds), and the Food and Drug Administration considers drinking raw milk like “playing Russian roulette with your health.” Although one recent study linked its consumption with lower rates of asthma and allergies, Bruce German, a food chemist at the University of California at Davis, told NPR that the study was far from conclusive, because it didn’t account for factors that could influence a person’s health—say, lifestyles associated with paying $6 a gallon for milk. He told me in an e-mail, “The health risks of raw milk are well documented in the scientific literature and the importance of pasteurization is not a subject of scientific controversy.”
Making cheese out of raw milk is another issue, but the FDA still bans the import and the sale of raw milk cheese less than 60 days old over similar concerns about bacterial pathogens. Given the right combination of salt, acidity, and microbes, these cheeses can be far safer than raw fluid milk and tastier. There’s well-documented body of research to support how this traditional food is essentially made safe by good microbes. Heather Paxson, the author of the scholarly paper “Post-Pasteurian Cultures,” told me there’s a major difference between the microbiological risks associated with raw milk and raw milk cheese. Still, the FDA’s pasteurization mandate persists, rather than considering how we can sort out helpful and harmful microbes and safely produce, packaged, and market raw milk cheeses.
The latest raids may have hit a raw nerve, but maybe not for the right reasons. It’s clear that the federal government should look out for our health, but it’s ludicrous that they went in with guns drawn to an unlicensed food distributor that sold milk to a couple hundred Californians, while two egg manufacturers whose raw eggs sickened 1,600 American never went under the gun. Still, all raw foods are not created equal. If there’s any lesson that comes out of this, let’s hope it’s more attention to delicious Brie, ricotta, or queso fresco, which everyone—raw and cooked food lovers alike—can get behind.