Humans have been raising cows and drinking their milk for thousands of years, and for most of that time there was only one form that the milk came in: straight from the cow. Different cultures developed ways of transforming that milk into other foods, from yogurt to cheese to butter, but the original liquid stayed the same.

However, when you visit an average supermarket in Europe or North America these days, you are faced with a plethora of choices in the milk aisle. You can have your milk homogenized, that is with the butterfat distributed throughout the milk, or you can buy only the cream skimmed from the top. You can have it in a low-fat or high-fat form, and you can buy it with part of the lactose removed for those who are lactose-intolerant.

Despite all these choices, there is one type of milk that you will be unlikely to find: raw, unpasteurized milk, or the kind that comes straight from the cow. It is now the standard for milk commercially sold to be pasteurized—heated to a high temperature to destroy pathogens—and in some cases, particularly in Europe, it may even undergo UHT (Ultra High Temperature) pasteurization. In fact, many states in the U.S. and governments in other countries do not allow the sale of milk that hasn’t been pasteurized, citing public health concerns. In response to this, consumers who prefer raw, unpasteurized milk have found a novel way to obtain it: through the practice of cow sharing.

A Raw Deal

Cow sharing, although different in many ways from car sharing, has some of the same principles. A group shares the benefits of a car or a cow without having individual responsibility for it. Cow sharing can take many different forms, but it usually involves a farmer selling “shares” in a cow, and as a kind of dividend, shareholders receive fresh milk at regular intervals. Many of these arrangements also require shareholders to pay additional fees for the upkeep of the cow—for its feeding, housing, and milking. The number of shares per cow varies; it is often dependent upon how much milk the cow can produce, and how much of that milk is tied to each share.

In areas where the sale of raw milk is prohibited, cow sharing can be a legal way for people to obtain it. There is usually no prohibition on dairy farmers consuming raw milk themselves, since they are not selling it, and in the same way, shareholders are not buying milk, but are owners along with the farmer. Even in areas where the sale of raw milk is allowed, cow sharing appeals to people who want a more direct connection with the source of their food.

And why is raw milk in such demand? Raw milk proponents claim that the process of pasteurization kills not only unhealthy organisms, but destroys beneficial enzymes and vitamins present in milk’s natural state. Some also argue that the pasteurization requirement favors large-scale dairy operations over small farms that would benefit from being able to sell directly to the public. Others are drawn to raw milk because of its versatility; they want to make their own butter or cheese, which isn’t possible with highly processed milk. Some simply think it tastes better.

The Heat is On

As passionately as raw milk proponents feel about the issue, there are similar strong feelings on the other side. Opponents of the consumption of raw milk point to statistics showing that it has caused outbreaks of E. coli and other food-borne illnesses, and argue that pasteurization is necessary to protect the public from these types of outbreaks. Several cases in recent years have highlighted the divisiveness of this issue, including that of Michael Schmidt, a dairy farmer in the Canadian province of Ontario. Schmidt, who runs a cow sharing operation, had his property seized in November 2006 and was charged with operating a milk plant without a license. His case gained a lot of attention when he went on a month-long hunger strike (broken only by a glass of raw milk daily) to protest the charges.

In my opinion, both sides in this controversy have valid points; it is important to maintain public safety when it comes to food products, but if people decide they still want to drink raw milk after hearing about its potential health risks, I don’t think they should be prevented from doing that. As for me, I can only be a bystander to this debate since I am lactose-intolerant; is there such a thing as raw soy milk? —Morgen Jahnke

More Information

The Web site for A Campaign for Real Milk provides information about the benefits of raw milk, where it is available, and how cow sharing arrangements work.

Articles about Michael Schmidt’s case can be found on the National Post Web site, the CBC News site, and on the Real Milk Web site.

Popular food blogger Pim Techamuanvivit writes about her cow sharing experience on Chez Pim.

A Maryland court case about cow sharing went to trial in July 2007.

USA Today looked at cow sharing in August 2006.

NPR ran a story about cow sharing in December 2004.

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