This week’s question comes from a client who is in Canada from Africa for study purposes. He approached me because he suspects the difference in his exposure to sunlight here is impacting his mood and energy levels.
As we all know, the sun is much less intense this far North of the equator and sunlight is our primary source of vitamin D. But did you know that supplementing does not do for us what natural sunlight does? This could be because sunlight is not only important for the vitamin D it stimulates. Red and near-infrared light are also parts of natural sunlight and they are equally valuable for optimal health.
What is red and near infrared light and why is it important?
Red and near infrared light refer to a specific spectrum of light from 600nm to 700nm (red) and 700nm to 1,100nm (near-infrared). The 600-700nm spectrum is visible to our eyes as red light. The 700nm and up spectrum is not visible to our eyes but has a special ability to penetrate our body more deeply than other spectrums of light. Some wavelengths of this light have been more studied than others, especially the 630-680nm and 800-880nm for their therapeutic benefits.
There have been thousands of studies on red and near-infrared light therapy (photomodulation) over the past 20 years. The studies show benefit for many health issues from ageing to athletic performance to injury recovery to immunity. More specifically, there has been significant benefit shown for Hashimoto's disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. You can read more about the benefits of red and near-infrared light here.
We also know exposure to sunlight, including red and near infrared light, increases the release of nitric oxide (NO) which is extremely beneficial for health. To better understand the role of NO go here.
What about Melanoma?
It’s a myth that regular, judicious exposure to sunlight increases the risk of melanoma.
“There's a bunch of studies comparing outdoor workers to indoor workers, showing that outdoor workers have lower rates of melanoma despite three to nine times more sun exposure." Ari Whitten, author of "The Ultimate Guide to Red Light Therapy
Whitten goes on to explain that how often we’re exposed to sunlight mitigates - or increases - our risks of developing skin cancers from it. When we’re exposed occasionally we get higher risk than when we are exposed routinely. This is because of melanin in the skin that helps the skin adapt to protect from DNA damage with UV light exposure.
He suggests we view light as a nutrient because it’s actually necessary for normal cellular function. Our bodies are programmed to have evolved with regular exposure to natural sunlight in order to function properly.
Blue Light and Sleep
There are a variety of wavelengths in sunlight. Blue and green wavelengths are also important. They enter through our retinas and travel through our nerves to signal our brains that it is daylight and time to wake. This in turn regulates our sleep/ wake cycles. When we are exposed to blue light disproportionately at night, when we should be exposed to red, our internal clock (circadian rhythm) gets disrupted. This has a lot to do with sleep disorders and lack of energy during the day. Almost all our electronic devices and interior lights emit blue lights into our eyes during the time of day when our eyes actually need dimmer, red spectrum light to signal that it’s time to sleep.
And this, in turn, has profound impacts on all the hormones in our bodies.
What about vitamin D?
Well, for starters, it’s technically not even a vitamin. And it’s not singular. It’s a group of hormone precursors, very similar in structure to steroid molecules. As many readers may already know, the most important players in this group (as we currently understand it) are vitamins D2 (ergocalciferol) and D3 (cholecalciferol).
Vitamin D3 is so essential for our health that we have a built in mechanism to ensure we get enough, irrespective of dietary intake. It’s actually manufactured by our bodies when our skin is exposed to UVB rays from the sun. This synthesis requires our own cholesterol and activation by our liver and kidneys. It’s unique among vitamins, not only because we generate it from the sun, but also because almost every cell in our bodies has a vitamin D receptor, which has the ability to impact the expression of our genes. This is science we are just starting to understand, but it indicates this little secosteroid is essential in a way no other nutrient is.
Animal foods are the best source of vitamin D3, but dietary consumption alone is not enough to reach optimal levels. It’s present in certain fish, fish oils, liver, and quality egg yolks, quality butter, and - dare I speak it - raw, whole fat milk from grass fed cattle. I mention this because raw milk contains every known fat and water soluble vitamin, all 18 fatty acids, and multiple enzymes and probiotics to aid digestion - all of which are almost completely destroyed by pasteurization. But selling raw milk is illegal in Canada so let’s do forget I said that and keep moving along.
We can get vitamin D2 from mushrooms that have been exposed to UV rays, fortified foods, and lower quality supplements. But it’s not the desired form of this hormone group for therapeutic value. You can check the label of your dairy and baby formula products to see which form of vitamin D they contain, and then take that with a grain of salt. According to this study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, we don’t really know how much vitamin D - or which form - is being added to our fortified products. Note that most of the infant formula tested contained 200x or more vitamin D than was on the label. With fortified foods it’s hard to know what exactly you’re getting.
What does vitamin D do?
Vitamin D is best known for its role in bone and dental health. Without adequate vitamin D children can develop rickets, and adults are at risk of premature bone ageing and resulting fractures, as adequate vitamin D is needed for calcium, phosphate, and magnesium absorption and regulation. These play a direct role in bone growth and density, as well as neuromuscular function, immunity, and inflammation. Additionally, vitamin D helps regulate hormones and has a positive impact on mood, concentration, learning, and memory.
Vitamin D also helps keep abnormal cells from multiplying in breast and colon tissues. Isn’t it interesting how these cancers have proliferated since the campaign to push sunscreen? Vitamin D synthesis can’t happen in the presence of sunscreens with SPF 15 or higher. There is additional data to support that vitamin D deficiency increases our overall risk of cancer and our risk of melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer. Low vitamin D levels are associated with a number of serious diseases:
“A growing number of studies point to vitamin D deficiency as a risk factor for heart attacks, congestive heart failure, peripheral arterial disease (PAD), strokes, and the conditions associated with cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure and diabetes,” according to John Hopkins Heart and Vascular Institute.
How much do we need?
The Canadian government Dietary Reference Intake for vitamin D is between 600-800IU on the low end to 4000IU on the high end for adults. But serum 25-hydroxy-vitamin-D testing is still the best way to know your vitamin D status. The upper end of the optimal range is 50nmol/L. <30nmol/L means you’re suboptimal and between those two you may need to supplement accordingly. To give you an idea of safety, levels >125nmol/L are considered a possible reason for concern.
Certain populations are known to be more likely to be deficient in vitamin D and should be supplementing with the guidance of a professional and annual testing to determine blood levels. At risk populations include:
It’s estimated that in the U.S. up to 90% of those with darker skin tones and 75% of those with lighter skin are deficient in this key hormone, so in Canada we are likely to be even more deficient, due to our latitude and cold winters.
Are there any safety concerns?
Yes. Fat soluble supplements are stored in the tissues so they build up over time. As such, toxicity can develop and it’s best to stay below the safe upper limit and have your physician test your levels annually as part of your check up.
How do I best get it?
It’s almost always best to get vitamin D from sunlight - as we were designed to. Research on supplementing with vitamin D has not demonstrated the same protective benefits as we theorize that it should. It may be possible that supplementing does not do what sunlight does for us, especially if the other wavelengths are necessary for activating or working synergistically with vitamin D. There could be unrecognized cofactors we need for optimal conversion and utilization. In addition sunlight has many other benefits for our health, as the research on red and near-infrared light shows.
My preference when I do advise clients to supplement is to use quality, sustainable cod liver oil (CLO) as this is a whole food supplement with vitamins A and D in the proper ratios (4-8x the A to D), as well as EPA and DHA omega 3s for maximal benefit. It’s theorized that this A:D ratio helps protect against vitamin D toxicity. Add a daily dose of vitamin K2 in the form of Emu oil or natto and you have done more to protect your bones and hormones than anything else you can do.
I also recommend time outdoors as much as possible, with unfiltered year round exposure to natural sunlight, including at sunset and sunrise, when the red spectrum is strongest.
As always, if readers have a health or nutrition related question, I welcome you to write to me at [email protected]. And if you’re looking for more specific health information check out my website at hopenotdope.ca, where you can contact me directly. I provide 1:1 health coaching, family health plans, and a variety of webinars online to help people better manage their health holistically. Happy
Butter, Vitamin D and the X-Factor of Dr Price : by Royal Lee
Dr. Royal Lee, scientist, inventor and nutrition researcher, is probably best known as the founder of Standard Process Laboratories, which specializes in the formulation of natural vitamins derived from food sources. This article, from the Lee Foundation for nutritional Research, comes from the collection of Joseph Connolly, late husband of Patricia Connolly and one of the founders of the Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation.
The special nutritional factors present in butter as known up to 1942 are without question. It was shown that butter has the following characteristics of superiority over other fats and oleomargarine imitations:
The nation?s best source of vitamin A
Unit for unit, the vitamin A in butter was three times as effective as the vitamin A in fish liver oils. The natural vitamin D in butter was found 100 times as effective as the common commercial form of D (viosterol). Butter, prescribed by physicians as a remedy for tuberculosis, psoriasis, xerophthalmia, dental caries, and in preventing rickets, has been promptly effective.
Butter carries vitamin E in sufficient quantity to prevent deficiency reactions. Since that time, new and important evidence has accumulated which indicates other nutritional functions supplied by butter. This evidence appears to revolve around the physiological ramifications of the effects of the vitamin E complex. Up to the present, vitamin E has been considered a tocopherol, and its function analyzed as nothing more than a physiological anti-oxidant.
It now appears evident that the real vitamin E is that factor in the E complex that is being protected from oxidation by the tocopherol group, and that the same mistake has been made in attributing E activity to tocopherols as in the case of the promotion of pure viosterol as vitamin D, ascorbic acid as vitamin C, niacin as the anti-pellagra vitamin, pyridoxine as B6, or folic acid as the anti-pernicious anemia fraction of liver. In each case the isolation of one factor as the ?vitamin? in question has embarrassed the discoverer, in his assumption that he had discovered the ?pot of gold? at the rainbow?s end, by the attribution of vitamin activity to some synthetic or pure crystalline component of a natural complex. No reasonable student of nutrition can today deny the axiom that all vitamins are complexes and cannot exert their normal physiological effect other than as the complete complex, as found in natural foods.
The true vitamin E is found in the chromatin material of the germinal tissues of plant and animal, and in young plants that are in a state of rapid growth. It seems to be a phospholipid carrying a special fatty acid in combination that has heretofore traveled under the cognomen of vitamin F. (Vitamin F was first discovered as a part of the wheat germ oil vitamin complex; at least the term vitamin F was first used to designate the essential fatty acid fraction.)
The fact that an unsaturated fatty acid as vitamin F is a part of the E complex, probably in molecular combination, explains the close relationship between the two vitamins in their synergistic support of cell division in reproduction, in maintenance of epithelium (where cell division is also predominant), and in kidney and liver metabolism, both epithelial activities. It explains the fact that both are factors in calcium metabolism, vitamin E deficiency resulting in bone resorption8 just as vitamin F deficiency results in less calcium available to bone.
Tocopherol administration in excess also results in bone-calcium loss, just as is caused by a deficiency of vitamin E. So again we have more evidence that tocopherol is NOT the vitamin E, but rather a protector that can in excess reduce the availability of traces of the real vitamin. Now, just what IS the real function of the real vitamin E complex?
? A factor in young grass is apparently the same one as described by Dr. Weston A. Price, in the second edition of his book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, which he called ?Activator X? and was found only in butter from cows fed spring grass. ?Activator X? seemed very susceptible to oxidation, being lost in the butter within a few months after its production. ?Activator X? was shown to promote calcification and health of bones and teeth in human patients. It inhibited the growth of the caries bacillus (facto-bacillus acidophilus) completely, one test showing 680,000 salivary bacterial count before the use of ?Activator X? and none after.
[Research shows] that this grass factor SUPPORTS THE DIFFERENTIATION OF SEXUAL DEVELOPMENT. Animals not getting the grass factor (but getting TOCOPHEROL) required 23% MORE time to become sexually mature.
It is highly interesting to find that tests of oleomargarine feeding to human subjects in comparison with commercial butter (having relatively low content of the fragile ?X? factor), HAD THE SAME EFFECT of failing to bring out the secondary sex characteristics: not only a delay, but a failure to promote sex changes in toto. Here are the results for children with ages up to 17 years:
160 Children were fed oleo, 107 butter, over a period of two years.
Average gain in weight on oleo for girls, 8.2 pounds. Yearly average growth in height, 2.2 inches. Girls on butter gained 6.3 pounds per year, grew 0.9 of an inch. Boys on oleo grew 2.2 inches per year, gained 8.1 pounds. On butter, boys gained 6.7 pounds, grew 1.6 inches.
A characteristic effect of castration of the child is a stimulation of growth and greater height. The investigators say the results vindicated oleo. What do YOU say?
? We all are what we are ? men, women, white, black or yellow ? simply because our growth and development is guided every minute by certain chemical factors in our cells, reproduced exactly in the chromosome, the real blueprints of our bodies. These factors ? determinants to the geneticist ? are protected by wrappings or insulating layers of a fatty nature that prevent the enzymatic digestion or damage, otherwise inevitable, to which these factors are exposed. It is well known that chromosomes are destroyed and liquefied in vitamin E complex deficiency.
These determinants even seem to be secreted into the mouth in the saliva (that probably is how it happens that salivary gland cells have extraordinarily large chromosomes) to start the alteration of food factors into tissue as quickly as possible. It is quite analogous to the attachment to a lot of incoming steel as it enters a factory, of the blueprints that direct how it is to be processed to become the finished product?.
It is obvious that any interference by vitamin or other deficiency with the determinant cycle will delay or impair the normal plan of development.
Do you wonder that your instincts demand butter over oleo?
Do you wonder that since yellow butter contains more ?Activator X? than pale butter, people prefer the yellow kind that comes from spring grass feeding to the cow?
It is very interesting to note how nutritional experts and ?scientists? have always been found to exstole oleomargarine as equal to butter as a food. As far back as 1886, when oleo was first made, before vitamins were thought of, scientists testified that oleo was equal to butter in food value. They are still testifying, without knowing what new factors might still be found in butter which cause people to prefer it to oleo (over any period of time) even after milk and butter flavors have been added to oleo to create the best possible imitation of real butter.
Animal tests have shown oleo to better advantage than such human feeding tests as reported by Drs. Leichenger, Eisenberg and Carlson. This is, no doubt, because milk proteins have always been used in any test diet along with oleo. Milk proteins carry the trace factors peculiar to milk that oleo lacks, and these cushion the deficiency reactions. The tests are about as honest scientifically as those on aluminum salts in baking powder, where the animals given the toxic aluminum salts were also fed an antidote ?sodium silicate?? under the guise of ?mineral supplement.? Dr. H. J. Deuel, testifying before the House Committee on Agriculture in connection with hearings on oleomargarine in 1948, was quizzed on this point.
Oleo has other drawbacks. It is a synthetic product, being hydrogenated vegetable fat. The hydrogenation destroys all associated vitamins or phospholipids. As it comes from the hydrogenator, it is admittedly unfit for food, has a vile odor and must be ?refined.? The oleo, after the bad odors have been removed, and after flavoring with milk products to imitate butter, must then be preserved with a poisonous chemical, sodium benzoate, to keep it from again developing a bad flavor.
The use of sodium benzoate as a preservative in oleomargarine is brought to light in testimony before the official hearings on the oleomargarine tax repeal. ? Note should be made that natural foodstuffs, such as butter, contain naturally occurring anti-oxidants such as the protector of vitamin E, alpha tocopherol. Presence of this anti-oxidant in butter makes it unnecessary to add synthetic and poisonous preservatives such as sodium benzoate. Oleo, however, being a synthetic product, is lacking in these natural preservatives; hence the necessity for the addition of the chemicals. No doubt the addition of vitamin E to oleo would preserve the product far better than the sodium benzoate. Vitamin E, however, is far more expensive than sodium benzoate, which explains the use of the latter instead.
Such poisonous preservatives are not
commonly permitted in foods, but the flour industry and the oleo industry seem
to be specially favored. It
is well known that Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, the first head of the Food and Drug
Administration, lost his job in 1912 because he refused to be ?reached? by food
manufacturers like the oleo people, who could not exist without special
permission to violate the law. When
he told the entire sordid story of the unspeakable corruption and malignant
chicanery that exists in the food and drug operations in Washington in his
book, The History of a Crime Against the Pure Food
Law, and published it at his own expense in 1930, little attention was paid
to the matter by the newspapers. Since his death a year later, the books have
been eliminated from circulation, and his still-surviving widow, by her
ownership of the copyright, is ?sitting on the lid? by refusing to permit
reproduction or quotation of any part of the book.
The penalties for using a synthetic, imitation, chemically-embalmed substitute for butter seem to be quite drastic. Some appear to be:
· Sexual castration for the growing child, in more or less degree, with oversized females fatter and taller than the boys. (Remember, meat animals are castrated for the purpose of making them fat.)
· Loss of ability to maintain calcified structure such as teeth and bones. Dental caries, pyorrhea, arthritis, etc., would be logical end results that would inevitably follow, especially in view of the added influence of other refined and devitalized foods. Dr. Price?s experience in curing arthritis, dental diseases and lowered resistance with good butter directly bears out this conclusion.
· Evidence is accumulating to show that multiple sclerosis is a result of deficiencies in which vitamin E complex (as found in butter) is vitally involved. Further, vitamin E is now found to be a remedy for the disorders of menopause, showing how these deficiency diseases follow their victim through life.
This list could be extended almost without limit ? but we feel we have established our case.
Dr. Price cites the case of an
Eskimo woman, ?who had had twenty children so easily that she did not bother to
wake her husband when the birth occurred at night. The daughter? had very
narrow dental arches and a boyish type of body build. Unlike her mother, she
had a very severe experience in the birth of her only child and insisted she
would not take the risk of another?. Deformity due to the poor (nutritional)
status of the parents may, of course, be a mild or severe character. The narrow
arches, nostrils and hips, and the susceptibility to dental caries which Dr. Price found among primitive
peoples who had shifted from a good tribal food pattern to a poor civilized
food pattern should be rated as mild deformities, since they handicap the
individual?s ability to function without destroying his social
Is the World?s Best Butter Worth 50 Dollars a Pound?
Alex Halberstadt scores a bag of the creamiest, most coveted stuff on earth and ponders a question: can you put a price tag on outstanding dairy?
If you've never been in the presence of a day-old calf, they happen to be disconcertingly large. Recently I followed one?the color and size of a golden retriever?as it stumbled around Diane St. Clair's barn, bleating loudly. Rain pounded on the roof, my boots were spattered with mud, and my neck ached after a five-hour drive. But it hardly mattered. I'd come to this sparsely populated corner of western Vermont to taste the country's most sought-after butter.
In a tiny creamery just off the barn, St. Clair reached into a refrigerator and took out a pound of her product?four dandelion-yellow balls in a large Ziploc bag. A former New Yorker with no experience in food production, she began making butter almost by accident, after buying a pair of Jersey cows. Wanting an expert opinion, she mailed unsolicited samples to Thomas Keller; he called back to say he wanted to buy all of it, and eventually asked her to acquire more Jerseys. As of 2017, outside several fine-dining restaurants, St. Clair's Animal Farm butter is only available once a year at the Middlebury Natural Food Co-op and at Saxelby Cheesemongers in New York. The butter comes in the same Ziploc bag, costs $50 a pound, and sells out within hours.
For most of my life I've been preoccupied with butter. Of course there are those culinary Bartlebys who believe it to be nothing more than a baking ingredient or, worse, a condiment. Nutritionists continue to dispute its merits. Oh, I could tell you that Tibetans make it into sacred sculptures and the ancient Finns were buried alongside barrels of it, but I won't. I will tell you, though, that for diehards like me, butter is the purpose of mashed potatoes, scones, and summer corn, the reason that bread exists, the very fulcrum of eating. What moves me about butter is that unlike cheese or pastry, its essence isn't confected but comes directly from the land. Elaine Khosrova, the author of Butter: A Rich History, described it to me as "a pure presentation of man, land, and beast." Like oysters and wine, it's one of the perks of being born on this planet.
My obsession with butter began among identical rows of tenements on the outskirts of Moscow where I grew up in the late 1970s. The groceries in our sparsely populated supermarket aisles ranged from unexciting to barely edible; one of the few exceptions was the fresh rye bread sold every morning in bakeries across the city, especially the dense, chocolate-hued loaves topped with coriander called Borodinsky. Naturally, they required butter. This became the best part of my midday meals, eaten in the school cafeteria under portraits of jowly Politburo chiefs. The slightly sour bread was the foil for the Platonic butter of my memories that opened with bright, creamy sweetness and, after a tangy sour note, faded in a long, lightly nutty finish. The mouthfeel was firm and unctuous but never greasy.
Somehow, as an adult, I began to forget butter. I ate supermarket brands and assumed that my longing was a figment of childhood nostalgia. Then, several years ago, while in Reims, I tasted a butter that obliterated the memory of the very worthwhile Champagnes on the table. It was made by Jean-Yves Bordier in Brittany, and was not imported to the United States. But the experience of Bordier stayed with me. In time, it ignited a determination to recapture the taste I remembered.
Finding a stand-in for the bread of my childhood took no time at all. The crusty miche from Bien Cuit, a bakery near my home in Brooklyn, was a delicious substitute for the Borodinsky. But replicating the butter proved slippery and enigmatic. First, I visited New York's Russian-Jewish enclave, Brighton Beach, for several specimens made in the land of my birth. I found them in a store with smooth jazz on the speakers and the delightful name of Gourmanoff. Unfortunately, these items turned out to be mixtures of butter and vegetable oil with the texture of margarine. Premium and imported brands from the grocery store didn't approach the experience I remembered either. Most tasted waxy, grainy, or dull, with no discernible finish.
St. Clair with one of her 11 Jersey cows on her Vermont property. Photo by Colin Clark.
I knew it was time to get serious. So, several months ago, I delved into the surprisingly contentious thickets of butter connoisseurship. I wanted to understand what drove the most obsessed of its producers, and which criteria they prized. I ate more of it than might be medically advisable. I'd assumed I knew my butter, but here's what I learned: Sometimes the thing we love is the one we know least of all.
The further I waded into what makes for great butter, the less tractable my search became. Many aficionados insist that culturing?the extra step of allowing the cream to ferment before it's churned?is the key to deep flavor. Certainly the best cultured butters (sometimes labeled "European-style") possess a subtle tangy note that can add complexity, but the process does not assure a superior product. Some of the butters I enjoyed most happened to be of the uncultured, or the "sweet cream," variety.
Some brands tout fat content as the key to quality and print it prominently on their labels. In the U.S., federal regulations require butter to be at least 80 percent fat, a level some insist is too low. But to my surprise, several expensive high-fat butters tasted bland and oily. "As you ramp up fat content, you squeeze out more milk solids," explained Aaron Foster, owner of the Brooklyn specialty food shop Foster Sundry. "The fat itself is relatively mild, so you get richness at the expense of flavor."
Then there is the dilemma of salting. There are partisans on both sides; a lack of consensus exists even among the butter illuminati. Diane St. Clair doesn't make a salted variety. "I believe that the flavor shines through better without salt," she said. Grant Harrington of Ampersand Butter Culture in Oxfordshire, who furnishes some of London's top restaurants, considers the pink Himalayan salt he uses to be essential. I happen to side with St. Clair. Maybe it's only because the bureaucrats in charge of the Soviet Union's food production didn't believe in salting butter, but what palate isn't shaped by personal history?
Dandelion-yellow and uncommonly expensive, St. Clair's butter is served at Thomas Keller's restaurants and is only available once a year to consumers. Photo by Colin Clark.
I'd learned about Harrington online; butter nerds in the UK plotzed over his product. According to them, the soap-opera-handsome former chef, who toiled under Gordon Ramsay, practices his dark art while listening to the Wu Tang Clan. His butter isn't available in the U.S., but Harrington agreed to mail me an unsalted sample of his work. Some friends I roped into tasting it grew quiet and nodded soulfully?the stuff was stupendously rich, with unexpected briny notes of iodine and oysters. Harrington attributes the deep yellow color to the Jersey cows that produce the cream he uses. Jerseys give less milk than the more popular Holsteins?the black-and-white cows of children's books?but theirs is richer and darker because of the way they process the carotene in grass. This, my friends' faces seemed to say, was butter.
Harrington believes the key to a great butter lies in extreme culturing. ?By fermenting the cream with a specific lactic bacteria that produces a blend of butyric acid and diacetyl?flavors our brains associate with butter?I aim to make it taste as buttery as possible," he said. He sources the bacteria from a lab in Scandinavia and ferments his cream for nearly a week.
At this point, I knew it was time to revisit Bordier. My beseeching emails and calls to Brittany went unheeded. I heard that an acquaintance had smuggled some home from France, but he sounded about as eager to share it as to volunteer for a root canal. And so it came to pass that a fellow butter zealot who works in Saveur's test kitchen knew someone helpful in Paris. A huge FedEx bill later, the airlift was complete.
I'm happy to report that the diminutive brick in the plain paper wrapper tasted as breathtaking as I remembered?a vast array of flavors and aromas blended into a seamless whole in the manner of a well-aged burgundy. After churning, Bordier's butter is kneaded in a 19th-century metal-and-teak contraption called a malaxeur (massager); this unusual extra step is the reason for its mouthfeel, as silky as foie gras. And then there's Bordier's uncommon balance of elegance and richness. No wonder the French phrase for making a prosperous living is faire son beurre.
By this time I'd spent too long in butter's thrall, and thinking about it passively at home was no longer an option. I'd read rapturous reports about St. Clair's butter but never tasted it. And so while the White Mountains blazed crimson and gold in mid October, I raced up Route 91 to see her.
After I met the 11 buff Jerseys grazing behind her 19th-century farmhouse, it became clear that for her they were not livestock but pets, or possibly oversize children. While talking in St. Clair's living room, which looks out onto her pasture, she fixed one cow with a worried stare. Her husband, Alan, a large-animal veterinarian, sat beside her. "Does she look upset to you?" St. Clair asked him.
Her butter was the most intense I'd tasted. It had a consistency reminiscent of great vanilla ice cream and a long, worrying finish. Like many artists, behind a nonchalant façade St. Clair happens to be competitive and proud, and alongside her butter she brought out a stick from a well-known Vermont creamery. Comparatively, it tasted like a votive candle. "There's no secret technique to doing this," she said. She believes that a good butter is nothing more or less than a reflection of its time and place, "a seasonal product that proudly proclaims where it was made." Butter churned in spring?when cows graze on new grass?has the deepest color and flavor. In autumn the cows consume hay as well as grass, making for a muted but richer product.
"I wanted to make a butter as close as I could get to what was produced before the advent of the modern creamery in the early 1900s," St. Clair told me. Though she affected the unflappable manner of a New England farmer, her eyes shone when she spoke about butter, a substance she's called "the elixir of the human race." I asked whether for her butter was an obsession.
"Milking every single day, twice a day?" she answered. "And when I'm not milking I'm separating, pasteurizing, churning, bottling buttermilk, moving fences, feeding cows, and making hay? I'd say it's an obsession or insanity." She paused for a moment, and then asked, "Is there a difference?"
This post originally appeared on Saveur
and was published March 14, 2017. This article is republished here without permission.
from Vancouver Magazine October 2010
The day after I visited Alice Jongerden at her Chilliwack dairy, I found myself rushing into hospital. A few hours before, my daughter had turned pale and started vomiting. No one?not the nurses, not the paramedics?could explain what was obviously a violent reaction to her 18-month vaccinations. ?She?s still breathing!? the nurse said, as if this were the only concrete reassurance she could give. Driving the winding highway into the emergency department?we?d insisted on the ambulance and this trip?I found my mind wandering back to Jongerden. Blame it on anxiety.
A happily married mother of five and devout Christian, Jongerden has the laugh of a woman who doesn?t care if you?re laughing with her. With the help of two full-time workers, some part-time staff, and her husband Bert, she spends between 70 and 80 hours a week tending a 22-strong herd on 40 leased acres in the heart of Chilliwack dairy country. In exchange for feeding and milking the cows, and bottling and distributing their milk, Jongerden?or, more properly, her Home on the Range Dairy?receives $18.50 per gallon from each member of the cow share that owns them, on top of money for whatever extras (butter, yogurt) she makes from the leftovers. Profits have been slim, with upfront expenses for equipment and maintenance fees and cows (a new cow goes for between $1,500 and $2,000), but member contributions allowed Bert to quit his job two years ago to take care of maintenance, deliveries, and quality control and for the Jongerdens to focus on the cow share and on home-schooling their two oldest full-time.
It may seem that the family is living out a perfectly scripted Fraser Valley farming story, but the reality is something different. Home on the Range Dairy distributes milk that hasn?t been pasteurized, and Jongerden?its lead farmer?has become the face of a small but growing movement of British Columbians preparing for an all-out battle with the provincial government over their right to consume their milk raw.
Across North America, there are dozens?if not hundreds?of similar cow shares, most set up to get around the prohibition of raw-milk sales in their region. In B.C., there are at least two others that Alice knows of?smaller, but growing fast. Jongerden grew up on a dairy farm north of London, Ontario, and even though their milk was sent for pasteurization, her family drank its own milk raw. About four years ago, in her mid 30s, she decided she wanted her family to drink raw milk also. She wanted her children to have the same strong bones and good health she had growing up. It was a mother?s wish, but with sales prohibited across the country, she couldn?t find raw milk. So she bought a cow. Any excess milk, she shared with friends. Soon other families wanted in. She used the proceeds to buy more cows. In three years, she was delivering raw milk to over 400 families from Chilliwack to Whistler.
?I didn?t set out to take on the government,? she said, standing outside her milking parlour in overalls and gumboots. ?It?s just been one decision after another.?
On December 12, 2009, health authorities showed up at Home on the Range?s raw-milk depots in Kitsilano, North Vancouver, East Vancouver, Burnaby, Abbotsford, and Langley. They dumped most of the milk down the drain, and confiscated the rest, along with butter and yogurt, for laboratory testing. Without waiting for results, Fraser Health showed up on Jongerden?s doorstep with a cease-and-desist order, threatening legal action that would shut Home on the Range down if she continued to distribute raw milk in the Lower Mainland. Jongerden refused to listen. As far as she saw it, the government had oversight only over milk that was for sale; she was simply providing raw milk from cows that her membership already owned.
A few weeks later, Fraser Health sent out a press release claiming a child from a family with a Home on the Range membership had come down with Campylobacter, a food-borne illness that could be linked to bacteria coliforms detected in the test samples taken from the Home on the Range milk depots. A high bacteria coliform count could mean one of two things: cow feces somehow got in the milk, or the milk was mishandled during processing or testing. The press jumped all over the story?and who could resist: modern technology tracks a food-borne illness back to a dairy farmer with a herd of 22!?and the public was warned again and again in articles, radio shows, and TV spots about the dangerous coliform bacteria lurking within raw milk. Vancouver Coastal Health went so far as to warn of ?bloody diarrhea, kidney failure and death.? The Fraser Health Authority took Jongerden to court. Despite an Ontario ruling in favour of a raw-milk dairy farmer running a similar cow share out East that same month, the B.C. Supreme Court?s Madam Justice Miriam Gropper ordered Home on the Range to stop operations. Gropper rested her March 18 verdict on the argument that Jongerden was ?willingly causing a health hazard? by supplying her members with unpasteurized milk.
Jongerden kept on milking, kept on bottling, and kept on delivering raw milk to her members. More surprisingly?considering the dire warnings from public-health officials about the results of the tests?her members kept on drinking it. Or did they? The day I visited, a few weeks after the court order, Jongerden swung open her cooling fridge to show her latest batch, dozens of rows of full one-litre Mason jars?cream line and all?each with an openly tongue-in-cheek label warning: ?Not for Human Consumption.?
?I complied,? Jongerden said, barely suppressing a smile. ?I gave my membership a list of 20 other things they could do with their property.?
?But what about the child who got sick?? I asked, knowing this ?property? was going to families to be drunk, not to polish their silver or clean the leaves on their rubber plants. Drunk by children who could potentially end up in the hospital with bloody diarrhea or kidney failure or? Surely no parent wants their child to get sick. If raw milk can make a child sick, it?s an open-and-shut case. Isn?t it?
She looked at me with raised eyebrows. ?What child??
My child, I thought on my way to the hospital the next day. What have I done to my child?
Jongerden?s raw-milk crusade and my daughter?s vaccinations are linked in more ways than you might think. Both trace their lineage back to the same man. The inventor of pasteurization, Louis Pasteur, is also one of the scientific minds behind our modern practice of vaccination. The French microbiologist and chemist, along with German physician Robert Koch, convinced a skeptical Europe through multiple experiments and papers that micro-organisms were the cause of many diseases. Pasteur?s ?germ theory? is now a cornerstone of public health around the world. Vaccinations ensure that our immune systems can resist a specific germ in the event we encounter it. And pasteurization?in the case of milk, this involves heating it to between 61º and 63º Celsius for at least 30 minutes?kills these germs before we meet them.
More than anything, it?s the statistical success of Pasteur?s discoveries that has secured his position atop the public-health pyramid. ?Pasteurization of raw milk has prevented thousands of illnesses and deaths,? the BC Centre for Disease Control claims. ?It is one of the greatest advances in public health of the 20th century.? Who can argue? The 20th century was a scary time for public health?especially when it came to milk. City populations exploded and farmlands shrank. Dairy farmers had to team up with industry to meet the growing demand. Before this, milkmen went door to door with milk from farmers they knew personally. If there was a bad batch, you could be sure the farmer found out about it. But with increased urbanization, companies began collecting raw milk from dozens of farmers and distributing it through their own networks. Typhoid, scarlet fever, and tuberculosis epidemics in cities across North America and Europe were invariably linked back to these shady operations. ?Pasteurization, if properly carried out,? a 1953 World Health Organization book on milk pasteurization reads, ?can virtually abolish the danger of infectious or epidemic diseases whose causative organisms are conveyed by raw milk.?
Pasteurization worked?as, it could be argued, did vaccinations?for public health. But what about personal health? Lost in our mainstream obsession with Pasteur?s germ theory (think of today?s ubiquitous antibiotics, from antibacterial soap to household bleach, and you get the picture) is another theory that emerged at the same time: the ?milieu intérior theory.?
Claude Bernard, a French microbiologist and colleague of Pasteur?s, argued that it wasn?t the germ?s fault that we humans got sick, but the state of our ?internal environment.? In other words, if our immune system is strong, the bad germs don?t matter. Sparks flew in the microbiology community, prompting endless debates with no real resolution. Except this: ?germ theory? worked better on a large scale; and by the mid 20th century, milk was large scale. Where there was a typhoid epidemic, health officials weren?t thinking about how to strengthen immune systems; they were thinking about how to stop the epidemics. Bernard?s theory got buried?at least in the public-health sphere?only to re-emerge years later in the guise of holistic nutrition, Cold F/X, and, here in the Lower Mainland at least, Alice Jongerden?s raw milk.
releases, websites, and medical journals?preferred haunt of the public-health official?are filled with studies, statistics, and undisguised pleas from medical health officers proving the indisputable fact that pasteurized milk is much safer to drink than raw. ?It is important that all British Columbians be aware of the serious health risks associated with consuming unpasteurized milk,? Dr. Perry Kendall, B.C.?s Provincial Health Officer, wrote in an open letter to Victoria?s Times Colonist in the wake of the Home on the Range story. ?Any perceived health benefits are most certainly offset by the serious risks of illness, disease or even death that can result.? Robin Smith, executive director of the B.C. Dairy Foundation, goes one step further. ?If someone drinks raw milk and gets sick,? he says, ?they shouldn?t use the public health care system?if you want to take risks, maybe you shouldn?t ask the public system to take care of you.?
At the same time, the blogosphere?preferred haunt of the raw-milk advocate?is stuffed with anecdotes and opinions reporting the health benefits, even miraculous cures, of switching their asthmatic child, their allergic friend, their lactose-intolerant self from pasteurized to raw milk. ?Raw milk literally saved my life,? writes a Michigan woman after hearing that her local raw milk farmer might be shut down. ?Four years ago I was deathly ill with a chronic digestive disorder that threatened to end my career and my life. I was able to rebuild my health to a vibrant state.? Dona Bradley, a registered holistic nutritionist from the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition, doesn?t find this hard to believe. ?Pasteurized milk is a dead food,? she claims. ?There are no enzymes, no probiotics?or beneficial bacteria. Raw milk is a live whole food. Raw milk tends to help build the immune system.? There are bacteria in the raw milk that our immune system needs, she explains; pasteurization kills these bacteria, leaving us vulnerable to our modern disease epidemics (such as asthma, allergies, and lactose intolerance).
Somehow Jongerden?s voice rises above the din of these raw-milk wars playing out on blogs, in newspapers, and in courtrooms across North America. Jongerden with her 22 cows and two steer she?s helping her children raise. Jongerden with her half a ramshackle red barn she shares with her landlord, and her milking room the size of a suburban ensuite. Once you spend an hour or so with her?as she takes a call every 15 minutes from her children, one needing attention, another wondering what?s for dinner (?There?s a roast in the crock-pot, it?s falling off the bone?)?she turns from raw-milk-bacteria-wielding rebel to the kind of mother you?d trust with your child in a heartbeat; the kind of parent you hope you can be
My own personal long-term dream?? Jongerden asked, unprompted, leaning against her truck in the driveway. ?I?d love to teach people how to take care of one or two cows; for people to go back to a simpler time.?
Later, I?m home with my daughter (who flies around the house like a wasp; amazing creatures, these 18-month-olds) and I?m no closer to understanding her violent reaction to the vaccine. Faced with the enormity of the stakes, I can?t help but admire Jongerden?s certainty. She is certain that feeding her children raw milk is the right thing, the healthy choice. What?s more: she?s the one doing it. Most of the disease-causing bacteria found in raw milk, she insists, are the result of industrial farming practices where the farmer isn?t even in the room when the cows get milked. She and her helpers milk each cow themselves, ensuring the cows aren?t diseased and the milk is kept clean.
?No one should be able to tell me how to consume my food,? she said. ?If I go to McDonald?s three times a day, no one?s going to tell me it?s a health hazard.? Or refuse her access to a hospital. There?s a simplicity to this reasoning?an irony, too, that is pleasantly reassuring after my head-first dive into the paranoia-inducing world of vaccinations gone wrong. This doesn?t mean I?m planning on switching to raw milk or that we?re going to stop vaccinating our daughter. Jongerden just lays out the dilemma in cold hard terms: what might be a health hazard on a public scale (raw milk) might just be the remedy we?re searching for personally; what might be a hazard to my daughter?s personal health (vaccinations) could be necessary for the health of society as a whole.
Jongerden and Home on the Range await the next move from the Fraser Health Authority. She believes she?s obeying the judge?s decision by informing her members that raw milk is a health hazard and labelling their jars ?Not for Human Consumption.? It?s up to the FHA to decide whether to follow this up with more court action. In the meantime, she?ll keep on taking care of her herd and providing members and her family with their weekly dividends. What she does with it, as far as she?s concerned, is her own business. VM
Inside the raw-milk underground By Nathanael Johnson
The agents arrived before dawn.
They concealed the squad car and police van behind trees, and there, on the road that runs past Michael Schmidt?s farm in Durham, Ontario, they waited for the dairyman to make his move. A team from the Ministry of Natural Resources had been watching Schmidt for months, shadowing him on his weekly runs to Toronto. Two officers had even infiltrated the farmer?s inner circle, obtaining for themselves samples of his product. Lab tests confirmed their suspicions. It was raw milk. The unpasteurized stuff. Now the time had come to take him down.
Schmidt had risen that morning at 4 A.M. He milked his cows and ate breakfast. He loaded up a delivery, then fired up the bus. But as he reached the end of the driveway, two cars moved in to block his path. A police officer stepped into the road and raised his hand. Another ran to the bus and banged on the door. Others were close behind. Eventually twenty-four officers from five different agencies would search the farm. Many of them carried guns.
?The farm basically flooded, from everywhere came these people,? Schmidt later told me in his lilting German accent. ?It looked like the Russian army coming, all these men with earflap hats. ? The process of heating milk to kill bacteria has been common for nearly a century, and selling unpasteurized milk for human consumption is currently illegal in Canada and in half the U.S. states. Yet thousands of people in North America still seek raw milk.
Some say milk in its natural state keeps them healthy; others just crave its taste. Schmidt operates one of the many blackmarket networks that supply these raw-milk enthusiasts. Schmidt showed men in biohazard suits around his barn, both annoyed and amused by the absurdity of the situation. The government had known that he was producing raw milk for at least a dozen years, yet an officer was now informing him that they would be seizing all the ?unpasteurized product? and shuttling it to the University of Guelph for testing.
In recent years, raids of this sort have not been unusual. In October 2006, Michigan officials destroyed a truckload of Richard Hebron?s unpasteurized dairy. The previous month, the Ohio Department of Agriculture shut down Carol Schmitmeyer?s farm for selling raw milk. Cincinnati cops also swooped in to stop Gary Oaks in March 2006 as he unloaded raw milk in the parking lot of a local church. When bewildered residents gathered around, an officer told them to step away from ?the white liquid substance.?
The previous September an undercover agent in Ohio asked Amish dairyman Arlie Stutzman for a jug of unpasteurized milk. Stutzman refused payment, but when the agent offered to leave a donation instead, the farmer said he could give whatever he thought was fair. Busted.
If the police actions against Schmidt and other farmers have been overzealous, they are nevertheless motivated by a real threat. The requirement for pasteurization? heating milk to at least 161 degrees Fahrenheit for fifteen seconds? neutralizes such deadly bacteria as Campylobacter jejuni, Listeria monocytogenes, Escherichia coli, and salmonella.
Between 1919, when only a third of the milk in Massachusetts was pasteurized, and 1939, when almost all of it was, the number of outbreaks of milk-borne disease fell by nearly 90 percent. Indeed, pasteurization is part of a much broader security cordon set up in the past century to protect people from germs. Although milk has a special place on the watch list (it?s not washable and comes out of apertures that sit just below the orifice of excretion), all foods are subject to scrutiny. The thing that makes our defense against raw milk so interesting, however, is the mounting evidence that these health measures also could be doing us great harm.
Over the past fifty years, people in developed countries began showing up in doctors? offices with autoimmune disorders in far greater numbers. In many places, the rates of such conditions as multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, and Crohn?s disease have doubled and even tripled. Almost half the people living in First World nations now suffer from allergies. It turns out that people who grow up on farms are much less likely to have these problems.
Perhaps, scientists hypothesized, we?ve become too clean and aren?t being exposed to the bacteria we need to prime our immune systems. What we pour over our cereal has become the physical analogue of this larger ideological struggle over microbial security. The very thing that makes raw milk dangerous, its dirtiness, may make people healthier, and pasteurization could be cleansing beneficial bacteria from milk.
The recent wave of raw-milk busts comes at a time when new evidence is invigorating those who threaten to throw open our borders to bacterial incursion. Public-health officials are infuriated by the raw milkers? sheer wrongheadedness and inability to correctly interpret the facts, and the raw milkers feel the same way about them. Milk as it emerges from the teat, it seems, is both panacea and poison.
Schmidt responded to the raid on his farm by immediately going on a hunger strike. For a month he consumed nothing but a glass of raw milk a day. He milked a cow on the lawn outside Ontario?s provincial parliament. This was a battle, he said, for which he was prepared to lose his farm. He was ready to go to jail. Actually, he?d been awaiting arrest for more than a decade. For all that time, he told me, he?d carried a camera with him so that he could take pictures when the authorities finally came to shut him down. ?And I upgraded. You know, first it was still, then video, then digital came along.?
The fifty-three-year-old Schmidt doesn?t have the demeanor of a rabblerouser. His temperament, in fact, is not unlike that of the cows he tends. A large man, he moves deliberately, reacts placidly to provocation. He has thin blond hair, light-blue eyes, and pockmarked cheeks. On the farm he invariably wears black jeans, a white shirt, and a black vest. In the summer he dons a broad-brimmed straw hat; in the winter, a black newsboy?s cap.
When Schmidt emigrated from Germany in 1983, he wanted to start a farm that would operate in a manner fundamentally different from that of the average industrial dairy. Instead of lodging his cows in a manure-filled lot, he would give them abundant pastures. Instead of feeding them corn and silage, he?d give them grass. And instead of managing hundreds of anonymous animals to maximize the return on his investment, he would care for about fifty cows and maximize health and ecological harmony. If he kept the grasses and cows and pigs and all the components of the farm?s ecosystem healthy, he believed the bacterial ecosystem in the milk would be healthy, too.
Schmidt bought 600 acres three hours northwest of Toronto. There he built up a herd of Canadiennes, handsome brown-and-black animals with black-tipped horns. Most cattle farmers burn off the horn buds? a guarantee against being gored ?but Schmidt believes it?s better to leave things in their natural state whenever possible.
The dangers posed by the horns (like the dangers of drinking unpasteurized milk) weighed less heavily on him than the risk of disrupting some unknown element of nature?s design. The farm flourished under his hand. Schmidt set up a cow-share system whereby, instead of purchasing raw dairy, customers leased a portion of a cow and paid a ?boarding fee? when they picked up milk. People were technically drinking milk from their own cows. The animals were, for all practical purposes, still Schmidt?s property, but the scheme made the defiance of the law less flagrant, and health officials could look the other way. Then, in 1994, the Canadian Broadcasting Company aired a documentary about Schmidt and his unpasteurized product.
A few months later he was charged with endangering the public health.
Because Schmidt believed that his style of biodynamic farming actually secured the public health, he decided to fight the charges. Newspapers began quoting him on the salubrious powers of raw milk and the detriments of industrial dairy. At this time, strange things started happening around the farm. Vandals broke into his barn. Schmidt found two of his cows lying dead in the yard, apparently poisoned. Then an unmarked van ran his cousin?s car off the road. Men jumped out of the van?s back and forced him inside, holding him there for two hours.
Schmidt hadn?t been prepared for the struggle to take this turn. He sent his cousin back to Germany, agreed to plead guilty in court, and sold all but 100 acres of his farm to pay the government fines and cover his lost income.
Schmidt is a man of Teutonic certainty, but as he walked into the field soon after he?d sold the land, he was filled with doubt. The morning sun had turned the sky red, and mist hung around the legs of the cattle. While he twitched a stick at his bull, Xamos, to turn him away from the cows, Schmidt wondered whether it was even possible to run a farm in the manner he wanted. If he started selling his milk at industrial prices it would erode his meticulous style of farming. He would lose the direct connection to his customers. He?d have to push his cows to produce more milk. He?d be compelled to adopt the newest feed management strategies and modernize his equipment.
Schmidt didn?t see Xamos coming, just felt the explosion as the bull struck him. Even as he hit the ground, the animal was on him, bellowing. It stabbed with one horn and then the other, tearing up the earth and ripping off Schmidt?s clothes. One horn sank into Schmidt?s belly, another ripped into his chest and shoulder, grazing a lung. Only when his wife charged into the field, flanked by the couple?s snarling dogs, did Xamos retreat. Another man might have taken this attack as a sure sign, a demonstration of the folly of seeking harmony with nature. As Schmidt lay there bleeding into the earth, however, he felt only humility. ?Nature is dangerous, yes,? he would tell me later. ?But I can?t control it, and I can?t escape from it. I can only learn the best way to live with it.?
By the time Schmidt could walk again, almost six weeks later, he?d decided to continue farming on his own terms. He announced his intentions publicly, but the regulators must have felt that they?d made their point. For years he continued farming quietly, as an outlaw, until the morning that government agents descended on his dairy. After the hunger strike and the other public acts of protest, Schmidt settled in for the long fight. He hired a top defense lawyer in hopes of overturning Ontario?s raw-milk ban.
In the twenty-five years that Schmidt has operated the dairy, no one has ever reported falling sick after drinking his milk. Yet raw-milk illnesses do crop up.
the Centers for Disease Control, the
United States averages seventy cases
of raw-dairy food poisoning each
year. In the fall of 2006, for instance,
California officials announced that
raw milk tainted with E. coli was responsible
for a rash of illnesses. It is
legal to sell unpasteurized dairy in
California, and the tainted milk
came from Organic Pastures, in Fresno,
the largest of several farms that
supply the state?s health-food stores.
Tony Martin had agonized over buying
the raw milk. He?d never brought it
home before. He knew that milk was
pasteurized for a reason, but he?d also
heard that the raw stuff might help his
son?s allergies. ?There was a lot of picking
it up off the shelf and putting it
back,? he said. Chris, his seven-yearold,
drank the Organic Pastures milk
three days in a row over a Labor Day
weekend. On Wednesday, Chris woke
up pale and lethargic. On Thursday he
had diarrhea and was vomiting. That
night he had blood in his stool, and the
Martins rushed him to the hospital.
Shortly afterward, several other children
checked into southern California
hospitals. All of them had drunk Organic
Pastures raw-milk products, and
they all were diagnosed as being infected
with a virulent strain of E. coli
known as O157:H7. Some of the children
recovered rapidly, but two, Chris
Martin and Lauren Herzog, got progressively
worse. The O157:H7 strain
releases a jet of toxins when it comes
into contact with antibiotics, so doctors
face the difficult decision of allowing
nature to take its course or intervening
and risking further damage. Chris?s
doctors administered antibiotics, Lauren?s
did not, yet both children?s kidneys
shut down. While Chris was on dialysis,
his body became so swollen that his
father said he wouldn?t have recognized
him if he passed him on the street. Chris
was in the hospital fifty-five days. Lauren
went home after a month but then
relapsed and had to return. Both children
eventually recovered but may have
suffered permanent kidney damage.
The illnesses didn?t stop raw-milk
sales. Even as the state ordered store
managers to destroy the milk on their
shelves, customers rushed in to buy whatever they could. Several Organic Pastures customers said regulators had simply pinned unrelated illnesses on the milk. They pointed out that siblings and friends of the sick children had drunk the same milk from the same
bottles and didn?t get so much as diarrhea.
Tests for E. coli in one of the milk
bottles in question had also turned up
negative. Although it seemed implausible
that the state would frame Mark
McAfee, the owner of Organic Pastures,
it certainly was possible that regulators
were predisposed to declare raw
milk guilty. When state veterinarians
came to search Organic Pastures for E.
coli, they were surprised to see that the
manure they pulled from the cows? rectums
was watery and contained less
bacteria than usual. Patrick Kennelly,
chief of the food-safety section at the
California Department of Health Services,
confronted McAfee with these
facts in an email, writing, ?Not only is
this unnatural, but it is consistent with
the type of reactions that an animal
might have after being treated with
high doses of antibiotics. . . . Why were
your cows in this condition, Mark??
McAfee does not use antibiotics on
his organic farm. The state tests all
shipments of his milk for antibiotics
residue and has never found any. Allan
Nation, a grazing expert, offered another
explanation: the cows had been
eating grass. Grass-fed cows carry a lower
number of pathogens, he said. And
for a few days in the spring and fall,
when the weather changes and new
grass sprouts, the cows ?tend to squirt,?
as Nation put it. But grass-eating cows
have become so rare that, to California
health officials, they seemed unnatural.
The norms of industrial dairying
had become so deeply ingrained that a
regulator could jump to the conclusion
that all milk is dirty until
pasteurized. Around the time that Chicago
passed the first pasteurization law in
the United States, in 1908, many of
the dairies supplying cities had themselves
become urban. They were crowded,
grassless, and filthy. Unscrupulous
proprietors added chalk and plaster of
paris to extend the milk. Consumptive
workers coughed into their pails,
spreading tuberculosis; children contracted
diseases like scarlet fever from
milk. Pasteurization was an easy solution.
But pasteurization also gave farmers
license to be unsanitary. They knew
that if fecal bacteria got in the milk, the
heating process would eventually take
care of it. Customers didn?t notice, or
pay less, when they drank the corpses
of a few thousand pathogens. As a result,
farmers who emphasized animal
health and cleanliness were at a disadvantage
to those who simply pushed
for greater production.
After a century of pasteurization,
modern dairies, to put it bluntly, are
covered in shit. Most have a viscous
lagoon full of it. Cows lie in it.
Wastewater is recycled to flush out
their stalls. Farmers do dip cows?
teats in iodine, but standards mandate
only that the number of germs
swimming around their bulk tanks
be below 100,000 per milliliter.
When I was working as a newspaper
reporter in Cassia County, Idaho, a local
dairyman, Brent Stoker, had wanted
to raise thousands of calves on his
farm and sell them to dairies as replacements
for their worn-out cows.
Stoker?s neighbors, incensed by the
idea of all that manure near their houses,
stopped the project. Stoker wasn?t
an especially dirty farmer?dairy associations
showed off his farm on
tours?but, to survive, dairies must
produce a lot of milk, which means
producing a lot of feces. I called Stoker
recently, to talk dairy and catch up.
He was in the middle of another fight
with the neighbors. This time he wanted
to build a large organic dairy. I said
I hadn?t taken him for the organic type.
?Pay me enough and I am,? he said.
Organic may mean no antibiotics and
no pesticides, but it doesn?t necessarily
mean grass-fed. When it comes to
making milk, grass-fed cows simply can?t
compete. Stoker?s current herd of nonorganic
cows produce a prodigious
eighty pounds of milk per day. That?s
mostly because they are fed like
Olympic athletes. They eat a carefully
formulated mix of roughage and highenergy
grains. ?If you were to try to pasture
them, you?d lose production down
to about forty pounds,? Stoker said. ?Of
course, the cow would last a lot longer.?
Cows are designed to eat grass, not
grain. Unlike mammals that can?t digest
the cellulose in grass, ruminants
are able to access the solar energy
locked in a green pasture by enlisting
the aid of microbes. These bacteria are
cellulose specialists and turn grass into
the nutrient building blocks that cudchewing
animals need. In return, cows
provide a place for bacteria to live?
the rumen?and a steady supply of
food. This relationship shifts when a
cow begins eating grain. The cellulose
specialists lose their place to bacteria
better suited to the new food supply but
not necessarily so well suited to the
cow. The new bacteria give off acids,
which in extreme conditions can send
the animal into shock. Pushing too
much high-energy feed through a cow
can twist part of its stomach around
other organs. This kink backs up the
digestive flow to a trickle. The cow
will stop eating, and sometimes you
can see the knotted guts bulging under
the skin. Other disorders also result
from the combination of high-energy
feeds and high production: abscessed
liver, ulcerated rumen, rotten hooves,
inflammation of the udders.
It is in a farmer?s interest to keep a
cow healthy?but not too healthy. If a dairyman decreased the grain portion of a cow?s rations to a level that eliminated health problems, he would lose money. A balance must be struck between health and yield. It?s not surprising, then, that farmers end up sending grain-fed cows off to the hamburger plant at a much younger age than their pastured counterparts. On average, dairy farmers slaughter a third of their herds each year. As Brent Stoker put it, ?We?re mining the cow.?
There are other bacterial opportunists that move in when a cow?s gastric environment is disturbed by a change in diet. Tired cows and ubiquitous feces combine to create conditions that are ideal for the transmission of pathogens. In a 2002 survey of American farms, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found Campylobacter in 98 percent of all dairies and E. coli O157:H7 on more than half of farms with 500 or more cows. When the milk at these large farms was tested, the researchers discovered salmonella in 3 percent of all bulk tanks and Listeria monocytogenes in 7 percent.
If that milk were shipped to supermarkets without pasteurization, a lot of people would get sick. Healthy cows with plenty of energy are less likely to take on pathogens. I asked Stoker if he?d ever considered returning to a smaller, healthier style of farming. ?If I had a way to provide for my six kids and have a comparable standard of living I would do that,? Stoker said. ?The way it is now, I?m more stressed, the animals are more stressed, our crops are probably more stressed. There?s nothing I would like more than to go back to that, but I?m too stupid to figure out how.?
The problem isn?t Stoker?s intelligence; it?s what he calls the ?dishonesty of the market.? Advertisers promise that consumers can have the healthiest possible food from happy animals in idyllic settings at current prices. This obviously is a lie, but it?s a lie that most people accept. Although American consumers are periodically outraged by the realities of modern agriculture, they never stop demanding cheaper food.
Stoker doesn?t mind playing the hand he?s been dealt. He?s good at producing cheap food. But, he acknowledged, ?cheap food makes for expensive health care.?
The people who buy from Michael Schmidt are atypical consumers. They pay a premium for food they believe will keep them healthy. In their estimation, Schmidt has a biological formula working for him that will be to their benefit. The elements of a dairy farm?the cows, plants, microbes, and humans?have been together long enough to have sorted out their differences. By working within this system, Schmidt can take advantage of some natural efficiencies.
Although the life expectancy of a conventional dairy cow is a little under five years, Schmidt?s cows are eight, nine, and twelve years old; they are glossy-coated and solid on their feet. Schmidt told me that he hasn?t needed to have someone trim his cows? hooves in fifteen years.
The cows produce only around
twenty-five pounds of milk daily,
one third the production of Brent
Stoker?s animals, but Schmidt
doesn?t have to pay much for veterinary
service. He doesn?t have to slap
haunches to roust exhausted animals
from their beds; his cows actually
line up on their own for milking.
There?s a little trick he likes to show
off when it?s time for them to return
from the fields.
?Watch this,? Schmidt said, and
he pulled open the door. The cows
came jogging in, each one peeling
out of line to take her place, unprompted,
in the barn beneath a
white placard bearing her name:
ANNA, SOPHIA, CANTATE, LAURA.
They buried their heads in the hay.
He beamed. So far the microbes that
end up in Schmidt?s milk have been
benign, possibly beneficial. He says
biodynamic farming doesn?t open up
new niches for unfamiliar forms of
bacteria, and it encourages the ones
people have adapted to.
It turns out that black-market
buyers aren?t the only ones who
think germ-infested milk is healthy.
The yogurt giant Dannon has invested
heavily in understanding the
benefits of bacteria, and the company
now sells dairy products stocked
with healthy, or ?probiotic,? microbes:
DanActive, ?an ally for your
body?s defenses,? which comes in a
small pill-shaped bottle and provides
a dose of an organism owned
in full by Dannon called L. casei Immunitas;
Danimals, a more playfully
packaged bacteria-infused drink, designed
to appeal to children; and
Activia, a yogurt containing a bacterium
the company has named
Bifidus regularis, which ?is scientifically
proven to help with slow intestinal
transit.? Both Michael
Schmidt and Dannon may be working
to reintroduce bacteria into the
modern diet, but Schmidt labors
under a principle of submission. He
accepts the presence of unknown
microbes and tries to make his customers
healthy by keeping the
creeks that run through his farm
clean, by maintaining the stability
of his ecosystem. In contrast, Dannon?s
is a philosophy of mastery.
Milk comes to Dannon?s Fort
Worth processing plant in tanker
trucks, arriving wild, full of its own
diverse bacteria. It leaves the factory
civilized and safe, in four-ounce
cups. It takes a lot of machinery to
accomplish this domestication:
miles of stainless-steel pipes, huge
fermentation vats, and dozens of
workers. Although the process is intricate,
the concept is simple: kill the bacteria, then add bacteria. Workers pasteurize the milk not once but twice. All yogurt is made when benign bacteria are mixedinto milk. But Dannon also adds
probiotic bacteria, and when I visited
the plant last year, this is what I
asked to see. Dannon employees
looked at one another nervously.
The bacterial strains are proprietary,
and so are the methods surrounding
their use. My public relations minder,
Michael Neuwirth, exchanged a
few words with J. W. Erskin, the
plant manager, then nodded.
?We can see the place where it?s
done,? Neuwirth said.
The room was lined with freezers.
Neuwirth opened one, and frost billowed
out. Inside were stacks of what
looked like one-quart milk cartons,
encrusted with ice. ?This is for Activia,
right?? Neuwirth asked.
?Yep,? Erskin said. ?Regularis.?
The Dannon workers explained
that each carton contained thousands
of tiny pellets consisting of
frozen milk and bacteria. You can
buy non-proprietary yogurt-making
bacteria for about $40 a bottle from
several suppliers. No one at Dannon
would tell me the price of the company?s
proprietary strains, but Erskin
said, ?When our little friends die, it?s
Workers wait for the moment
when the milk reaches the ideal
temperature, then add the bacteria.
Lactobacillus bulgaricus, a yogurtmaking
bacterium, acts first, converting
sugar to acid; Streptococcus
thermophilus is next. These prepare
the substance for the probiotic
strains. Every bacterial move is
choreographed. Although the Dannon
people wouldn?t show me how
the healthy microbes fit into this
process, they did take me next door,
to the bottling room, where the precision
continued, though in engineering
rather than biochemistry.
The most beautiful machine there
was the one filling little bottles with
DanActive. The bottles moved
across the ceiling, propelled by
compressed air along a metal track,
halting, then scooting forward, like
a line of penguins. When the bottles
reached the machine, an auger
caught them in its threads, sending
them spinning in an endless line
around gears and carousels. The machine
cleaned the bottles with acid,
zapped them with sterilizing UV
light, filled, sealed, boxed, and
stacked them?in scherzo?at 460
containers per minute.
Erskin stood beside me, watching
through the Plexiglas window.
?It?s like a ballet,? he
said. Dannon?s new lines of products
lend some credibility to the claims of
bacterial necessity made by Schmidt
and other raw-milk advocates. Albeit
cautiously, scientists have also
begun weighing in on whether such
technologies as pasteurization have
purged necessary bacteria from our
food. When I started talking to milk
experts, several told me I needed to
speak to Bruce German. A food
chemist at U.C. Davis, German realized
early in his career that if he
could determine what a food perfectly
suited to our DNA looked like, he
would have a Rosetta Stone with
which to solve the puzzle of dietary
well-being. He would be able to examine
each molecular component of
this food to understand what it was
doing to make people healthy. No
plant would do as a model, since
evolutionary pressure tends to favor
plants that can avoid being eaten.
The model food would be just the
opposite: something that had
evolved specifically to be a meal,
something shaped by constant Darwinian
selection to satisfy all the dietary
needs of mammals. That Urfood,
of course, is milk.
The day I visited German, he was
hosting a reception in honor of Agilent,
a company that had helped develop
a machine able to analyze
oligosaccharides, sugar polymers found
in breast milk. As we walked across
the U.C. Davis campus, German
brought me up to speed. He?s a slight,
energetic man, with smile lines creased
into his face. His excitement for his
work is infectious. Oligosaccharides
make up a large portion of human milk,
in which they are about as abundant as
proteins. The curious thing about them,
German said, is that they are indigestible.
Which means, he said, one hand chopping the air, that they are there to feed the bacteria living inside a baby?s gut, not to feed the baby. As far as scientists know, only one microbe thrives on this sugar, a bacterium named Bifidobacterium infantis that has
a fairly unique genome.
?There?s a lot of evidence that we
coevolved with this organism,? German
explained. ?It?s really specialized
to us and vice versa. Mothers recruit
this entire life form to help the process
Chemists have identified numerous
other compounds in milk that are there
not just to nourish babies but to create
a specific microbial ecosystem. Lactoferrin,
lysozyme, and lactoperoxidase
kill off only harmful bacteria, not beneficial
bacteria. (These selective bactericides,
along with oligosaccharides,
are also in cow?s milk, though in lower
concentrations.) Consider, German
said, what it means that milk, the model
food, has evolved such a sophisticated
chemical system that caters not
to us but to our microbial friends. It
means, he said, raising his eyebrows,
that ?bacteria are tremendously important
to us??so important that researchers
studying the microbes living
inside us say it?s unclear where our
bodily functions end and the functions
of microbes begin.
By any rational measure, this world
belongs to microbes. They were mastering
the subtleties of evolution three
billion years before the first multicellular
organism appeared. They continue
to evolve and adapt in a tiny fraction
of the time it takes us to reproduce
once. They flourish in polar ice caps, in
boiling water, and amid radioactive
waste. We exist only because some of
them find us useful. Ninety percent of
the cells in our bodies are bacteria. The
entirety of human evolution has taken
place in an environment saturated with
microbes, and humans are so firmly
adapted to the routine of sheltering allies
and rebuffing enemies that the removal
of either can devastate our defense
For the past century, however, we?ve
done our best to wall ourselves off from
microbes. In 1989, David Strachan put
forward the ?hygiene hypothesis,?
which posed that this separation could
be causing the increased incidence of
immune disorders. As the years have
passed, many studies have helped refine
his proposal. Scientists found that hygiene
itself wasn?t a problem. People
who never used antibacterial soap were
just as likely to have asthma as those
who scrubbed obsessively. In a 2006
study of thousands of children living on
farms in Shropshire, England, Strachan
and another scientist, Michael
Perkin, found that raw-milk drinkers
were unlikely to have eczema or to react
to allergens in skin-prick tests.
?The protective effect of unpasteurized
milk consumption was remarkably
robust,? Strachan and Perkin
wrote. Then, in May of 2007, a group
of scientists published a paper after
surveying almost 15,000 children
around Europe. They found that children
who drank raw milk were less
likely to have any among a wide range
of allergies. Either there?s something
about industrial milk that?s harmful,
Perkin wrote in a commentary that
accompanied the paper, or there?s
something in raw milk that?s beneficial.
None of these findings mean that
raw milk is safe. Every single study contains
the caveat that raw milk often
harbors pathogens. From an epidemiological
perspective, Bruce German
told me, advising raw-milk consumption
at this point ?would be crazy.?
Health officials certainly should have
a high level of confidence before approving
anything risky. But in light of
the new evidence, it was becoming
harder to deny that something beneficial
was being lost during pasteurization.
And health offiicials also have an obligation
to ensure that they are not
outlawing what makes
us healthy. Last March I drove to Fresno to
meet Organic Pastures owner Mark
McAfee and see how he had fared
since the E. coli outbreak. The dairy
is made up of a few prefabricated
double-wide trailers on 450 acres of
pasture extending out into the hazy
flatness of California?s Central Valley.
When I arrived, some 200 cows
were chewing their cud on thirty
shadeless acres of closely cropped
grass. McAfee culls about 14 percent
of his herd each year, far below the
industry?s average but still above Schmidt?s. When you have fewer than fifty cows, like Schmidt, it?s different, McAfee said. ?You have time to give each one a foot rub every night. You can do yoga with them every morning.?
After walking through the dairy, we sat down in McAfee?s office. Lab results
had found the exact same sub-strain of
E. coli O157:H7 in almost all of the
children who fell ill after drinking unpasteurized
dairy. Yet McAfee remained
unfazed. How did it help to
show that the bacteria from each patient
matched, he asked, when one
patient, an eighteen-year-old in Nevada
City, claimed he hadn?t drunk the
milk? The disease trackers I talked to
explained this by saying that sometimes
germs move indirectly. Someone
else in the family spills a little
milk. You wipe it up. Then you wipe
your mouth. But there was another
theory I?d been hearing from scientists
working to explain why O157:H7 had
burst onto the scene in the 1980s with
such virulence. Maybe, they said, it
wasn?t that the bacteria had changed
but that we had changed. In Brazil
outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 are unheard
of, though the bacteria exist
there. A pair of recent studies show
that Brazilian women have antibodies
protecting them against O157:H7
and that they pass these antibodies to
their children through the placenta
and their breast milk. I found this interesting,
especially in light of the fact
that in every case I learned about, the
victims of the Organic Pastures outbreak
had just started drinking
McAfee?s milk. Perhaps those who had
been drinking the milk longer had developed
?It?s an old story,? McAfee said.
?You see it again and again in the lists
of outbreaks. City kids went to the
country, drank raw milk, and got sick;
country kids didn?t get sick.? But, I
pointed out, this explanation still implicates
Organic Pastures. McAfee
shook his head. ?Look, if I made four
kids sick, I made four kids sick. But
show me the 50,000 kids I made
healthy. We don?t guarantee zero risk.
We aren?t worried about the .001 percent
chance that someone will get
sick; we are worried about the 99 percent
assurance that you are going to
get sick if you eat a totally sterile,
anonymous, homogenous diet.?
The problem for McAfee is that the
.001 percent is shocking and visible.
A dying child will make people change
their behavior. The diseases that
might stem from a lack of bacteria are
much more subtle. They come on
slowly. It?s difficult to link cause and
effect. Businesses that contribute to
chronic disease often flourish while
businesses that contribute to acute
disease get shut down. McAfee, now
clearly incensed, dismissed this line
of reasoning. ?If my milk gets someone
sick, I deserve some blame, but not
all of it. People have to take responsibility
for maintaining their own immune
systems. And we have to look at
an environmental level too. Where
did these germs come from? E. coli
O157:H7 evolved in grain-fed cattle.
It?s amazing to me that we?ve sat by as
factory farmers feed more than half
the antibiotics in the country to animals
and breed these antibioticresistant
bacteria at the same time the
food corporations are destroying our
immune systems. I believe our forefathers
would have grabbed their muskets
and gone and shot someone over
this. They would have had a tea party
Instead of grabbing his musket, McAfee is expanding. He?s building a $2 million creamery, complete with a raw-milk museum. He expects to finish construction in 2009. I asked what he?d do if regulators come to shut that down. ?I have an email list of 8,000, ready for immediate revolutionary action,? he said. When the California legislature quietly passed a law late last year
with such strict standards that it constituted a de facto ban on raw milk, McAfee mobilized these forces. In January hundreds of people packed into a committee chamber in Sacramento carrying their children and wearing black GOT RAW MILK? T-shirts. A legislative study group is now
working to come up with new standards.
Aside from the revolutionaries and reactionaries, what are the rest of us to do? When Schmidt?s case goes to trial this spring, his lawyer, Clayton Ruby, will challenge the constitutionality of mandatory pasteurization.
In Canada, Ruby is one of those lawyers people threaten to hire in the same way people in the United States used to say they were going to hire Johnnie Cochran. He?s sure to argue eloquently, but the judge?s decision on milk will leave unanswered the larger question of how we should mend relations with our microbial friends. The court won?t tell us whether raw milk is good for people or how Schmidt has managed to distribute it for twentyfive years without making anyone sick. Someday scientists may answer these questions. But until then, we will have to conduct our own calculations to determine what constitutes clean and healthy food.
When I sat at Schmidt?s breakfast table early one morning, glass in hand, I understood the possible consequences of my choice. All the competing science was there, along with the stories of epic sickness I?d heard. And I have to confess, the thought crossed my mind that if I got sick it would make a hell of a story. But when it comes down to it, here?s why I drank the raw milk. The
sun had just come up, and we?d already finished three hours of work in the barn. I was filled with a righteous hunger. The table was laden with eggs from the chickens, salami from the pigs, jarred fruit, steaming porridge, cheese, and yogurt.
Although dairy isn?t for everyone, I come from the people of the udder: my ancestors relied so heavily on milk that they passed down a mutation allowing me to digest lactose. For many generations my forefathers sat down to meals like this after the morning milking. It felt unambiguously right. This, of course, is the very definition of bias: the conflation of what feels right with what is scientifically correct. But as it was, I could only hope that my biases were rooted in something more than nostalgia. Perhaps they were. The way a place feels won?t tell you anything about whether bacteria have breached the wall of sanitation, but it does reveal something about the overall health of an ecosystem. Humans have relied on such impressions to assess the quality of their food for most of history. Someday the uncertainties of dietary science will fall to manageable levels, but until then I will rely on my gut. I drained my cup and poured thick clabbered milk and apple syrup on my porridge. If any bacteria disagreed with my body, the conflict was too small to detect. n