How Raw Milk Got a Bad Rap

by Nina Planck

Pasteurization has little to do with health and everything to do with practical matters. Without pasteurization, the transport, distribution, and sale of industrial milk and cheese as we know it would be impossible. This is a brief history of pasteurization in the U.S.

The push for pasteurization began in the late 1800s and the early 1900s. It was a response to an acute and growing public health crisis caused by inferior milk. At one time, milk came to the kitchen in buckets straight from the family cow or in glass jars from a local dairy farm, but with the rise of cities, urban dairies developed to supply the growing population. In cities from New York to Cincinnati, most milk came from crowded, urban dairies where cows were confined indoors. Owners put the dairies next to whisky distilleries in order to feed cows a cheap, unhealthy diet of spent mash called distillery slop. They were remarkably efficient. In 1852, three quarters of the milk drunk by the 700,000 residents of New York City came from distillery dairies.

'Slop milk' was so poor it could not even be used to make butter or cheese. Unscrupulous distillery dairy owners sometimes added sugar, starch, or flour to give body to the pale, thin milk. Others thinned it with water to make more money. Conditions were unhygienic. Bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis were common and cow mortality was high. The people milking cows were often dirty or sick.

As distillery dairies became common in the early 1800s, many deaths from diseases such as infant diarrhea, scarlet fever, typhoid, undulant fever, and human tuberculosis were caused by contaminated milk. Infant mortality (often due to diarrhea and tuberculosis) rose sharply, accounting for nearly half of all deaths in New York City in 1839. Reformers blamed the slop milk industry and some began to call for pasteurization, which kills pathogens such as tuberculosis that could be carried in contaminated milk.

At first, no one argued that raw milk itself was unsafe, according to Ron Schmid in The Untold Story of Milk. 'Demands for pasteurization allowed for the continued production and sale of clean raw milk,' he writes. 'No one was claiming that all milk should be pasteurized, as even the most zealous proponents of pasteurization recognized that carefully produced raw milk from healthy animals was safe.' In New York City an ordinance to ban raw milk was introduced in 1907 was defeated by a coalition of doctors, social workers, and milk distributors who argued that safe milk should be guaranteed by inspections instead of mandatory pasteurization.

For a short time, that view prevailed-but only briefly. Theodore Roosevelt appointed a panel of experts who concluded in 1908 that raw milk itself was to blame for food-borne illnesses. In 1914, New York required pasteurization of all milk except milk sold from certified dairies. In the Standard Milk Ordinance of 1924, the F.D.A. urged states to require pasteurization and by 1949, it was the law in most states.