Soil Scientist, Author Joseph Heckman Examines the State of Raw Milk Dairying & Challenges to Consumer Choice
Joseph Heckman, Ph.D. is a tireless advocate for common sense and good science regarding producing, selling and drinking fresh, unprocessed milk. A professor of soil science at Rutgers University, he teaches courses in soil fertility and organic crop production. He conducts research and extension programs on optimizing nutrition and soil quality in support of plant, animal and human health. He has served as chair of several professional organizations including the Council on History, Philosophy, and Sociology of Soil Science, the Committee on Organic and Sustainable Agriculture, and the Organic Management Systems Community of the American Society of Agronomy. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Farm to Consumer Foundation. Dr. Heckman was the lead author of the Soil Fertility in Organic Farming chapter for the agronomy society’s book, Ecology of Organic Farming Systems. Most recently he co-authored Fresh Milk Production, The Cow Edition and Fresh Milk Production, The Goat Edition. Heckman’s determined insistence on sanity, science and sense has done a great deal to lift the reputation of raw milk in this country.
Interviewed by Chris Walters
ACRES U.S.A. Dr. Heckman, how did you find your way to the subject of fresh, unprocessed milk and all the science, politics and controversy around it? Did you arrive at this debate via research, personal background, or lucky happenstance?
JOSEPH HECKMAN. As a soil scientist, the concept of “fresh food from fertile soil” strikes a chord with me. And long before as a child I got to see the big picture — a flow of energy from soil to grass to milk into the glass. So your question is a great place to begin. By profession I am a professor of soil science with responsibility for soil fertility research, teaching and extension. In 2006, when I initially became embroiled in this controversy, I had no idea that working to correct the reputation of carefully produced fresh unprocessed milk — commonly referred to as raw milk — would evolve into an academic odyssey. At Rutgers’ New Jersey Agriculture Experiment Station, I work with numerous dairy farms and vegetable farms across the Garden State conducting on-farm soil fertility research. My earlier research contributed to the development of in-season soil nitrate testing as a way to decide if supplemental nitrogen fertilizer should be used on corn. This soil test for nitrogen was especially advantageous to dairy farmers because it often showed them that they had fertile soil and could significantly reduce their input cost. Vegetable growers were soon asking if they could use this same soil testing approach for predicting need for nitrogen fertilizer. Indeed our research soon extended use of this soil test to sweet corn, cabbage and other vegetable crops. However, the savings were far less common in the case of vegetable farms. These growers do not utilize the same soil fertility building livestock-legume-sod-crop rotations. It was soon obvious that dairy and other farms with livestock manures and legume crop rotations found the greatest cost savings from use of this soil nitrogen test. Doing this kind of soil fertility research on both livestock farms and vegetable farms made it apparent that the very nature of dairy farming builds soil fertility in ways that vegetable production does not. Soil fertility textbooks long ago arrived at the same conclusion: pastures with cows go together and build soil organic matter and fertility. Our research and extension programs showed farmers how to reduce off-farm inputs, and it demonstrated what land grant cooperative extension programs could do to benefit farmers and the environment. Following this success I wondered how else we might help dairy farming. After all, New Jersey was rapidly losing its dairies. In 1990, there were about 250 dairy farms statewide, while today only about 50 remain.
ACRES U.S.A. How did your background inform your work?
HECKMAN. Conducting research with the goal of helping dairy farms prosper came natural to me as I was raised on a small farm in Darke County, Ohio. Like any child growing up on a dairy farm, drinking truly fresh milk was completely normal. Our family farm was a highly diversified operation which included milking shorthorns for dairy, steers raised for beef, hogs pastured in the woods and poultry with access to pasture. Shortly after returning to the farm after World War II, my father became interested in alternative agriculture and around 1950 began farming organically. I was born in 1956; the year Organic Gardening & Farming magazine ran a cover story about how one could travel across the United States and to see 150 organic farms. Listed in that article as being open to visitors was a description of our family’s organic farm. Also, I should add that my father was a longtime subscriber to Acres U.S.A. My brother now continues to operate an organic dairy on the same Ohio farmland. I went to college to study agronomy and to grad school to become a soil scientist. During my college years (late 1970s and ’80s) I intuitively knew that my interest in organic agriculture was too radical for open discussion with my professors. Even in 1990, the year the Organic Food Production Act was signed into law, organic agriculture continued to be shunned within land grant universities. But the world of agriculture has undergone some remarkable changes. Today nearly every agricultural university has active research and teaching programs in organic agriculture at some level. At Rutgers University I now have the pleasure of teaching several college courses in organic agriculture.
ACRES U.S.A. What are some of the topics you explore?
HECKMAN. As a witness to a significant historical period of growth and mainstreaming of organic agriculture I have published several articles on the history of this movement. From family background and work experience I gradually became aware of the many parallels between organic agriculture and the raw milk movement. My most recent article, published with Cambridge University Press, is entitled, “Securing fresh food from fertile soil, challenges to the organic and raw milk movements.” (A web search of that title will give you access to all 14 pages). My publication examines the raw milk movement as a result of a storm of controversy that surrounded a seminar series I organized and hosted at Rutgers University. The program specifically focused on raw milk and informed consumer choice. Speakers included an organic raw milk dairy farmer, a lawyer, a professor of food safety, a journalist and two medical doctors. As a way of navigating through the controversy, I collected and read up on the relevant scientific, historical, legal and political aspects of producing and consuming unpasteurized milk. In my publication I provide what I believe is a unique scientific and social analysis of the raw milk movement. Before we move on to the next question, let me say that I am here expressing my opinion about raw milk as an independent scientist, and it does not represent the position of my employer. I do not advocate consumption of any particular food by any person, but rather as a scientist and educator I support the position of informed consumer choice.
ACRES U.S.A. What are some of the parallels you see in the growth of the organic or sustainable food movement and the drive to rescue raw milk from legal and practical limbo?
HECKMAN. The similarities between the raw milk and organic farming movements are numerous. The early pioneers of the movement spoke out strongly about the vital importance of fresh unprocessed food. For example, when Lord Northbourne outlined seminal concepts of organic farming in his 1940 classic Look to the Land, he pointed out that pasteurizing of milk was good industrialization but not good for human nutrition. In 1946, Albert Howard declared “fresh food from fertile soil” the “birthright of humanity.” And J.I. Rodale explicitly staked out a position against pasteurization. In a 1958 article entitled “What Does Organic Mean” he wrote, “It is not organic to produce milk organically, and then to pasteurize it.” Eve Balfour, known as the Voice of the Organic Movement, was also a vigorous opponent of compulsory pasteurization. Current research provides strong evidence that organic milk has a superior nutritive food composition when compared to conventional milk. This is largely because organic dairy farming is required to obtain a minimum of 30 percent of dry matter intake from pasture across a grazing season lasting a minimum of 120 days. Although organic standards prohibit treatment of organic food with irradiation, there are no other provisions to prevent organic milk from being treated differently after it leaves the farm than with the conventional system. People who want to drink raw milk strongly favor organic feeding practices, especially pastured.
ACRES U.S.A. Is there a growing demand for raw milk among consumers?
HECKMAN. In many cases, soon after a farm transitions to certified organic, consumers start showing up at the farm gate wanting to buy raw milk before it gets shipped off to the processor. This has happened so often that the Organic Valley Cooperative has prohibited its members from selling milk off of the farm to any other buyer. Clearly there is a significant market demand for USDA Certified Organic Milk as raw milk. Organic Pastures Dairy produces and sells raw milk all across California. Interestingly, Organic Pastures is the third-leading brand of organic milk in the United States. The raw milk movement is at a place in history where the organic food and farming movement was about 30 years ago. Before passing of the 1990 Organic Food Production Act the USDA and Land Grant Agricultural Universities wanted nothing to do with organic farming. It was like a Cold War. In 1980 there was a brief thaw with publication of the USDA Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming. In that report the secretary of agriculture called for research, education and communication to gain an understanding of organic farming systems. What would happen if government officials applied a similar approach to fresh unprocessed milk? I think that the market success of the organic movement shows what is possible when all parties listen, learn and work together.
ACRES U.S.A. The Pure Food & Drug Act passed in 1906, and the FDA didn’t assume its current form — more or less — until circa 1930. The early decades of the last century saw sloppy practices, chiefly in urban processing and delivery on the part of quick-and-dirty distributors, creating serious health problems. This gave impetus to the call for pasteurization. But was the pasteurization push after World War II also motivated by economic consolidation?
HECKMAN. The FDA has prohibited the interstate sale of raw milk since 1987. It does not, however, regulate sale or distribution of raw milk within a state; that is for the state to decide. The FDA has a history of opposing many kinds of health freedom and food choice. Economics plays a role, but I think there may be more to this story. A physician attending a raw milk seminar I hosted described what might explain the motivation in a blog entitled “Government vs. Raw Milk,” which you can read at orgonomist.blogspot.com. It certainly is useful to know some history to understand the competing pathways of certified raw milk versus pasteurization. For a good summary I recommend the book The Untold Story of Milk by Dr. Ron Schmid and Sally Fallon. The journalist David Gumpert also has several good books on this subject, starting with The Raw Milk Revolution. But long before the raw milk movement emerged as an alternative to pasteurization, there was a Certified Milk movement. One could say that the Certified Milk movement began in 1893. It started with a legal agreement between a pediatrician, by the name of Dr. Henry Leber Coit, in Newark, New Jersey, and a dairy farmer in Caldwell, New Jersey. The contract specified details about how to maintain cleanliness in all aspects of dairy practice and handling for the purpose of producing pure milk, which became known as “Certified Milk.” Dr. Henry Coit, M.D., founded the Medical Milk Commission in response to high rates of infant mortality associated with unsanitary milk. Medical Milk Commissions were soon established in many states and in Europe to supervise how to carefully produce but not pasteurize the milk. In most places Certified Milk was only a small fraction of the overall milk market. A large Walker Gordon Dairy in Plainsboro, New Jersey, produced and sold Certified Milk for about eight decades. There was never a recorded case of illness connected to its Certified Milk. It ceased operation in 1971 for economic reasons. Certified Milk was about twice as expensive to produce as pasteurized milk.
ACRES U.S.A. It was legal, though?
HECKMAN. Certified Milk and pasteurized milk were allowed to coexist in many states, but by the mid-1940s a campaign got underway to pass state laws to force pasteurization. Articles appeared in popular magazines such as Readers Digest, Ladies Home Journal and others. A 1945 article in Coronet magazine was boldly entitled: “Raw Milk Can Kill You.” That article used fiction — without telling readers it was fiction — to describe an outbreak from raw milk that never really happened in a town called Crossroads USA, which does not exist. In 1947, Jean Bullitt Darlington attempted to correct the record with a series of three articles appearing in The Rural New Yorker: “Why Milk Pasteurization?: Sowing the Seeds of Fear;” “Why Milk Pasteurization?: Plowing Under the Truth;” and “Why Milk Pasteurization?: The Harvest is a Barren One.” Michigan was the first state to legislate mandatory pasteurization of all milk in 1948. Others followed with restrictions that vary from state to state. New Jersey legislation made raw milk distribution illegal in 1964. Reversing exiting law is not easy. A concerted effort to legalize raw milk sales in New Jersey has been underway since 2006. Interestingly, Certified Milk (unpasteurized) continued to be available for sale in New Jersey at least up until 1971, even after raw milk distribution was declared illegal. With regards to economics, readers wanting more information should search on the web for, “What Raw Milk Sales Would Do for New Jersey.”
ACRES U.S.A. Farm families were drinking unadulterated milk centuries ago and many, if not most of them, never stopped. They know from experience it tastes better and promotes good health. What kind of hard, scientifically valid evidence emerged over the past decade or so to move fresh milk’s benefits out of the anecdotal realm?
HECKMAN. Surveys have shown that the number one motivation for drinking fresh unprocessed milk is taste! This is very important because dietary health benefits can only come from foods people are willing to eat. While demand for fresh milk has been increasing, consumer demand for pasteurized milk has been on a steady decline for over three decades. Evidence that drinking raw milk provides protection from allergies, asthma and respiratory infections has been accumulating from a steady stream of published peer-reviewed scientific literature, since about 2007. Much of the evidence for health benefits in this modern era is based on epidemiological research conducted in Europe. What exactly is it about drinking raw milk that protects against allergies, asthma and respiratory infection is not so well understood. Scientists typically like to take natural things apart and try to isolate the active components. However, the organic-minded ecologist or the functional thinker would rather look at the whole system. In 2012, a report from the Michigan Fresh Unprocessed Whole Milk Workgroup described the situation this way: “Milk fresh from the cow is a complete, living, functional food … the full benefits … are only realized when all of these components function as a complex interdependent and balanced process.” Numerous health benefits associated with consuming raw milk have been documented in the scientific and medical literature for well over a century. In my review article I list over 20 supporting references. In the early 20th century, medical doctors believed, based on clinical experience, that pure fresh milk ensured superior nutrition and health. Beginning in 1917, heat treatment of milk was found to be a contributing cause of infantile scurvy.
ACRES U.S.A. How far back does the history of dairy reach?
HECKMAN. Dairy farming with cows or goats on pasture may be older than seed saving and row crop agriculture. Archaeological evidence shows that some human populations have been consuming milk unpasteurized for well over 10,000 years. This food gave these peoples a major selective advantage. Populations flourished because they had more fertile offspring. Contemporary opponents to consuming raw milk have been very slow to acknowledge any of this scientific evidence and always argue that the risks of food-related illness and the possibility of death far outweigh any potential health benefit. Most often public health officials are in complete denial about any unique health benefits associated with unpasteurized milk.
ACRES U.S.A. For as long as anyone can remember, the shibboleth invoked against fresh milk was safety, safety, safety. You speak in public at panel discussions and the like. Has the attack changed as evidence mounts as to health benefits and farmers prove they can keep the milk clean and safe?
HECKMAN. Yes, slowly with education the tide against fresh unprocessed milk is changing. First of all it is important to recognize the fact that pasteurization in itself cannot guarantee food safety. Proponents of pasteurization would like you to assume it guarantees safety. For example, in the scientific literature one can find such statements as this: “In order to guarantee its microbial safety and prolong its shelf-life, milk is heat treated.” When a major newspaper called me about a question similar to yours, my statement made front-page news. “If you’re going to criticize raw milk on the basis of safety, then let’s look at pasteurized milk and its record. It’s not a perfect record,” I told the New Jersey Star-Ledger in 2011.
ACRES U.S.A. It’s always more or less presumed to be faultless. What are the facts?
HECKMAN. To be completely accurate and truthful it is useful to quote a professor of food safety who acknowledges, “There is no way to guarantee the safety of any food.” To illustrate that point, we should look at some examples of where pasteurization failed to protect: In 2007 a Listeria outbreak from pasteurized milk was linked to three deaths. An article about that outbreak published in Journal of American Medical Association noted, “Records indicate that pasteurization methods at the dairy were adequate.” Interestingly, a study out of Cornell University found using higher pasteurization temperatures actually makes pasteurized milk a more risky food. This may be because raw milk has antimicrobial properties that are destroyed by heat. In their research model they found that increasing pasteurization temperature by 10 degrees would increase annual listeriosis deaths from 18 to 670. It is often said that there are more outbreaks linked to unpasteurized milk. An important thing to know about outbreaks is the actual number of illnesses per outbreak. For fresh unprocessed milk, illness numbers per outbreak tend to be relatively limited and traceable back to a single dairy farm. But in the case of pasteurized milk, they can be very large. An article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1987 was entitled, “Massive outbreak of antimicrobial-resistant salmonellosis traced to pasteurized milk.” In that outbreak more than 168,000 people were sickened with salmonellosis. As with any food, we need to consider both the risks and benefits. As noted previously, among the health benefits of drinking raw milk may be protection against asthma. In the United States, there are over 3,000 asthma-related deaths annually. Asthma is a serious disease. And some of the FDA approved drugs used to treat asthma have troubling side effects. I imagine there might be interest in the health benefits associated with raw milk if pharmaceutical companies could figure out a way to patent or profit from it. When we acknowledge that “there is no way to guarantee the safety of any food” it begs this question, why is less than perfectly safe a manageable risk for every kind of food except in the case of fresh unprocessed milk? Why is only fresh milk held to the impossible standard of a perfect safety record?
ACRES U.S.A. Good question. What is the best answer?
HECKMAN. A veterinarian speaking at the Harvard Raw Milk Debate suggested that problem was due to cow anatomy — the position of anus and udder made it almost impossible to keep fecal matter and pathogens out of milk. But the udder and teats can be cleaned and washed before milking. In 2016, when I participated in the Raw Milk Debate (web search IAFP Raw Milk Debate), sponsored by the International Association of Food Protection, I pointed that out and also that there is no anus on a lettuce plant and yet food safety is still a challenge. Until recently lettuce has been considered uniquely different with respect to food safety. It was said that lettuce can be washed whereas milk, because it is a fluid, cannot be washed. However, research has shown that pathogens can get inside lettuce plant tissue — probably making them impossible to wash off. Raw milk is not in the list of Top Ten Most Risky Foods. At the top of the list is “Leafy Greens” — a raw food from plants. Using CDC data, there are on average about 163 illnesses from raw milk per year (for years 2007-2012). When we assume adjustments for same number of consumers, eating leafy greens is still several times more risky than drinking raw milk. Let me quote from the New York Times, Jan 5, 2018: “At least two people were killed and dozens sickened by E. coli outbreaks in Canada and the United States that the authorities in Canada have linked to romaine lettuce.” But did anyone call for a ban on selling or eating raw leafy greens? On the contrary, much educational effort is going into teaching vegetable farmers about how to produce a safe product. By comparison there has so far been limited effort going toward teaching fresh unprocessed milk dairy farmers about how to improve safety. With increasing demand for fresh milk there is naturally a need for training dairy farmers. Get to know the facts. In this way everyone supporting freedom of food choice can become a teacher and work toward correcting the reputation of fresh unprocessed milk.
ACRES U.S.A. Where do we stand on legalization?
HECKMAN. Over the last decade or more the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund and other like-minded groups began having some success in reversing state restrictions for consumer access to raw milk. As of today, 43 of the 50 states allow access to raw milk by some means: shared ownership of the dairy animal, on-farm sales and in some states as retail sales in grocery stores. In Europe fresh milk is available in many countries from raw milk vending machines. Canada, however, has complete prohibition.
ACRES U.S.A. Which of the states currently takes the most enlightened stance toward fresh or raw milk, and does it point to a way forward as conventional milk sales decline and fresh milk acquires commercial luster for more farmers?
HECKMAN. States are sometimes called “laboratories of democracy.” This means that they can try out various novel social and economic experiments and the rest of the country can see how a certain policy might work. As I respond to your question I am looking online at the Raw Milk Nation Interactive Map at RealMilk.Com. It is fair to say there are different workable pathways for access to raw milk. There is retail, on-farm sales, cow shares and legal sales as pet food. Retail sales are permitted in California, Washington, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. On-farm sales are popular in many states. In some states where they are allowed, there are hundreds of dairies operating successful cow shares. Sources suggest to me that all of these state models are an effective way to sustain the economic viability of many dairy farms. Michigan, the first state to mandate pasteurization, has since gone on to become an example of enlightenment. After six years of monthly meetings between a group of dairy farmers, producers, consumers, scholars and food safety regulators they have published a report entitled, “Michigan Fresh Unprocessed Whole Milk Workgroup.” In addition to providing this valuable publication, their efforts cleared a pathway for cow shares in Michigan. What is clearly not working is keeping raw milk illegal in the remaining seven states. Raw milk is of course legal everywhere by keeping a family cow, but it’s just not practical with every lifestyle. One of the major downsides keeping raw milk illegal in a certain state is that people drive over to the neighboring state to get what they want. And driving out-of-state is rather challenging for people living in Hawaii. But otherwise keeping raw milk sales illegal is a failed state policy since people get the food they want one way or another.
ACRES U.S.A. Can you give us some examples?
HECKMAN. Let me use New Jersey to illustrate the absurdity and unsustainability of the current illegal status. What I have observed is that thousands venture over to Pennsylvania to buy real food as if the Garden State is not allowed to feed itself. They just need to cross over the Delaware River, which flows north to south and serves as a state line, and raw milk dairy farms are close by or in some cases farms make arrangements to deliver to customers at parking lots just over the bridge on the Pennsylvania side. This steady parade of coolers filled with fresh milk stowed away in cars crossing that river from west to east represents a huge economic loss for New Jersey agriculture. It is probably close to about $100 million in lost agricultural revenue annually for dairy alone. But the loss must be much greater because raw milk is such a magnet for other food sales. Busy moms and dads like to do one-stop shopping for farm fresh food and typically drive on by our local New Jersey farms that are producing Jersey Fresh vegetables, meat, eggs, etc. Pennsylvania is a great state for raw dairy, but we would love to do more to support our local farms. I even know of an organic farmer who farms land in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey. West of the Delaware River he produces and sells organic raw milk, but on the East side sales are illegal. In the laboratory of democracy what could better illustrate such political absurdity? Eating is said to be an agricultural act with political consequences. Current trends show that what people want to eat is challenging the usual agricultural-industrial complex. There are questions and concerns about fresh locally grown vs. imported foods; organic vs. conventional; hydroponic vs. grown in living soil; livestock in CAFO confinement or raised outside on sunny pasture; pesticide residues vs. clean food; and of course raw dairy vs. pasteurized. The point is that food isn’t just food. Good farming practices matter, and smart people want real food choices to nourish their family. Raw organic is the real organic milk.
ACRES U.S.A. How can readers best keep up with the evolving situation?
HECKMAN. A peaceful food activist and mom in Maryland, Liz Reitzig, writes about food freedom challenges on her blog called “Nourishing Liberty.” Also David Gumpert runs a popular blog called “The Complete Patient.” I visit these blogs often as a way to keep up with raw milk news and events in the various states.
ACRES U.S.A. Where do you see yourself in this arena?
HECKMAN. Rather than an activist, I see my role as scientist and teacher. But I have this one idea that could be a fun illustration in the laboratories of democracy. It could put the economic loss to New Jersey on public display. At the site where George Washington crossed the Delaware River on December 25, 1776 there are state parks on both the Pennsylvania and New Jersey sides in commemoration of this historic crossing. When Washington and his army crossed the river it was nighttime and a very risky venture that succeeded in changing the course of the American War for Independence. There is a reenactment of this historic crossing every year around Christmastime. Today there is no need to take the risk of crossing the Delaware by boat since there is now a pedestrian bridge for easy crossing. Imagine a very long parade of coolers filled with fresh milk from farms on the Pennsylvania side and walked across that bridge — coolers pulled by families from New Jersey. Also, maybe some Jersey cows or dairy goats could be walked across that bridge too. Imagine the attention this could generate. They could also march onto Trenton, following in the footsteps of George Washington and his troops, to bring about historic change — a raw milk revolution.