The last couple of months I’ve been on a raw milk crash course because I’m volunteering at the Fresh Milk Food Politics Conference this Saturday, April 6th. Every single speaker at the conference is covering a topic that I’m interested in, so I’m really looking forward to it! The speakers will be discussing the hottest food politics issues in BC, including raw milk, fish farming, GM foods, food security and sustainable agriculture.
Prior to this recent “crash course”, I knew a little bit but had never fully delved into the topic and never even tasted raw milk (non-human that is) until a month ago! Raw fresh milk is a wonderful thing, but it’s a rare commodity because of the current federal and provincial regulations. Selling or giving away of raw milk is illegal in Canada and we are the only G8 country where this is the case. British Columbia has the additional problem that our Public Health Act declares all unpasteurized milk as a health hazard, pushing raw milk herdshares underground.
My mom drank only fresh unpasteurized goat milk from a neighbour in Surrey when she was pregnant with me and while breast-feeding me. She has fond memories of going to get her milk which was milked on demand. The goat lady would call a goat to the raised milking platform and a goat would happily jump up and patiently wait while its teats were first washed and then milked. I only discovered goat milk thirty years later when I decided to buy it instead of cow milk for home use since it felt good in my tummy. I like the taste (I only notice a goatie taste if it’s old), in its whole form it’s not as intensely rich as whole cow milk, and goat milk is somewhat homogenized, making it smoother, in its natural state. Plus…I think goats are awesome!
For some mysterious reason, I get very agitated when I hear about government regulations that make life difficult for farmers and people who care about the food they eat (crazy, right?). So, when Slow Food Vancouver hosted a talk in February with Michael Schmidt (of Ontario raw milk fame) and Alice Jongerden (of Chilliwack’s “Our Cows” Herdshare) I was intrigued and I now believe wholeheartedly in the food freedom movement. The public’s health does need to be protected, but when the regulations turn a large group of thoughtful citizens into criminals, it becomes a civil liberties issue which will inevitably create conflict.
There is plenty of controversy surrounding raw milk in North America, but not so much in the rest of the world. Millions of people around the world rely on milk from their animals as an important part of their diet and it’s a rarity that someone who milks an animal for their own use would bother to pasteurize it. Traditionally, cheese-making is a way of storing milk and famous European cheesemakers would never even consider using pasteurized milk – the flavour will rarely be exceptional like it can be with fresh milk.
Urban Huntress Tip: Check out Kootenay Alpine Cheese for a taste of local raw milk cheese. It’s legal in Canada to make hard cheese from raw milk. My favourite is Alpindon. Track them down at the Farmer’s Market to sample all their cheeses.
In England, you can buy direct from farmers at town markets, while in some European countries you can even buy it from vending machines. In the US, state law dictates regulations on the availability of raw milk and some states (like Washington) allow it to be sold in retail stores, while some allow purchases directly from the farmers, and then others allow herd-shares where people can own a share of a cow or goat herd and therefore have access to their own property – the milk.
All countries that allow the sale of raw milk have some form of testing and trace-ability (labels must include farm details), so why can’t we? It’s an important market for small dairy farmers (see David Gumpert’s article A Crack in the United Front? Here’s Why US National Farmers’ Union Raw Milk Endorsement Is a Big Deal), so why can’t we allow them to meet some of the demand? No one can argue that there are potential risks to drinking raw milk as it can carry harmful pathogens, but people want the right to choose their food producers. Increasingly, consumers want to have a direct relationship with their farmers. With regular large listeria outbreaks and criminal conspiracies to defraud consumers (like the 2012 meat adulteration scandal in Europe), there are good reasons to mistrust faceless food production conglomerates.
There are many small cow and goat herd shares in BC, but the largest one, in Chilliwack, was closed down in 2011 and a new herdshare called ‘Our Cows’ replaced it producing raw milk for cosmetic purposes for its members (what members choose to do with these cosmetic products when they get them home…is only known by them). Health Canada is fine with this “cosmetics” business model, which is still a herd-share and no sales are made to the public. However, local Health Authority Fraser Health still insisted on taking, farmer and agister (one who cares for another’s animals), Alice Jongerden to court. Check out this interview with her in The Bovine. Herdshares make perfect sense as a way for conscientious consumers to get access to raw milk, but they are not actually legal. This is a problem.
Urban Huntress Tip: Alice will be the opening speaker at the Fresh Milk Food Politics Conference this Saturday, April 6th and she will also be doing a free evening talk at Banyen Books & Sound on Thursday April 18th., 2013.There is a lot of new and exciting research into the human microbiome supporting our need for a complex variety of bacteria in our bodies for proper functioning of all systems (reproductive, cognitive, digestive, immune, etc). Raw milk, whether it’s cow, goat or human, has the bacteria needed to create a healthy gut flora and digest the milk. It makes a lot of sense to me that many people with serious health and digestive issues improve dramatically when they start including raw milk or other bacteria rich foods (sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, etc.) in their diets. In fact, the latest research into the human microbiome is revealing the dramatic effect our gut bacteria has on our mental health and overall physiology, supporting the benefits reported by so many parents when they introduced raw milk and made other changes to their autistic children’s diets.
What to Buy
Fresh raw milk is the way to go for real unprocessed milk, but as we know that’s not easily available. You can buy it retail in Washington state and it’s perfectly legal to bring it home across the border, which I’ve done twice after buying raw cow and goat milk at Bellingham Co-op.
If possible, avoid mechanically homogenized milk. It is a processed food. The fat particles are broken apart to make the fat content even throughout large vats of milk, but these tiny particles might be the cause of digestive upset. There is a strong possibility that what is often identified as “lactose intolerance” is actually a sensitivity to these smaller particles (they can pass into the blood stream through the gut wall more easily). Non-homogenized milk may be easier to digest, you get that yummy cream on the top, and if you ever want to try making cheese you will need it or the curds won’t clump properly. If you try non-homogenized cow milk you’ll be surprised to discover it’s not as rich and creamy as homogenized…..because it’s..well..not..homogenized. That’s right! The cream floats to the top, so the milk you drink is actually nothing like “homo” milk, especially if you don’t shake the cream back in. “It’s too rich and creamy for me”, isn’t a very good excuse for all you skim milk drinkers out there. Just give it a try!
You also want the whole fats, so avoid skimmed milk. Why would you want to pay for milk flavoured water anyway! If you do find whole milk too rich, just dilute it. Don’t pay full-fat pricing for low-fat milk – it’s a rip-off.
I know, I know. You’re thinking, “Jeez! How the hell am I supposed to make all these changes!” Don’t panic. I’ve listed out a few local options for non-homogenized cow and goat milk below if you’re thinking of changing things up. Do your own ‘anecdotal’ study!
If you don’t manage to track down and join a local cow or herd share, here’s the full-fat on some of your local non-homogenized retail milk options:
Gort’s Gouda: Yes, they are famous for the delicious cheese, but you can also buy their milk! Their cows are naturally grazed and grass fed in Salmon Arm. This is important because it’s a healthier, more natural diet for the cows and improves the nutritional value of the milk. Their milk is non-homogenized making it easier to digest and you get that yummy cream on the top. They also make chocolate milk (imagine a chocolate cream-top!) which looks absolutely killa yum. Available at Whole Foods – 1.89 Litre glass containers for $5.59 for regular, $5.99 for chocolate.
Avalon Dairy: Avalon is the oldest continuously operating Dairy in BC, so big points there! The milk labelled “Standard” from Avalon is non-homogenized. They sell a conventional and an organic option which are available loads of places. The 1 Litre glass bottles usually for about $2.59 for conventional, $3.59 for organic. Personally, I find them a bit expensive but the bottles make excellent vases.
Goat milk is quite different from cow milk (more essential fatty acids, less lactose and casein alpha-1, more bio-available calcium) and many people allergic to cow milk find goat milk to be hypoallergenic and goes down easy. For some info on what makes goat milk different, read this 2011 study from University of Granada. I would love to see a study comparing raw milks – that would be great.
Goat’s Pride Organic Dairy: This is a rich creamy organic-certified milk made from a mixed breed herd of goats in Abbotsford. Available at Choices, Whole Foods and other organic grocers. 1 Litre is $6.69 from Spud.ca. Don’t have the Whole Foods price handy.
The Farmhouse Natural Cheeses: Like Gort’s Gouda, Farmhouse is a well-established cheese maker which is also selling its milk at Whole Foods. Their milk is a new addition to the range at Whole Foods and I’m grateful for the alternative, because their milk is less expensive than Goat’s Pride. All of the milk comes from their own herd in Aggasiz, so there’s no pooling of milk from multiple farms – that’s what “farmhouse” means. Available at Whole Foods – 1 Litre $4.69, 2 Litres $7.69, 4 Litres $13.99
Happy Days Goat Dairy: I have been buying Happy Days for several years because it’s tasty and it’s the least expensive ($5.79 at Save-On-Foods and No Frills), but I found out recently that their milk is pooled from many farms in BC and Alberta and the farmers that sell to them are paid very little (according to a couple of local farmers I spoke to). They have processing plants in Salmon Arm, Chilliwack and Alberta. They have the widest distribution of goat milk in Vancouver making it easy to find. Many stores sell the 2 Litre bottles for more than $7 which makes it the same price as Farmhouse, so I’ve now switched to Farmhouse because I prefer to know where the milk is coming from. I do love the Happy Days chevre, though, and regularly buy it from Les Amis du Fromage.
Think the Raw Milk fight doesn’t affect you? It’s the thin end of a wedge of local food politics that affects us and our farmers. It’s about food freedom and our right to thoughtfully care for ourselves and our families without being labelled criminals. If you’re passionate about local food sustainability and access to healthy real food, now is the time to demand your right to choose who produces your food!
Want to know more? Interested in supporting herdshares in British Columbia? Join BC Herdshare Association, a new non-profit organization working hard to change the laws in BC and ensure high-quality farm fresh milk is produced. The legal situation in our province regarding raw (farm fresh) milk is complicated and multi-layered, and BCHA’s website has all of the details, so check it out.
Psst. They need volunteers, so join up now. I’m doing my part.