Real, unadulterated, whole, raw milk. People have consumed this versatile, satisfying and nutritious food for thousands of years. That is, up until about 100 years ago, when it fell out of favor and was replaced by the highly processed and allergenic alternative that is found in today’s supermarkets. Although it’s growing again in popularity, raw milk and its producers are mistrusted by government officials, the mainstream media and the vast majority Americans. Several raw milk dairies in America have recently closed their doors due to the intense scrutiny and harassment they’ve endured from state health departments. But Mark McAfee, head of America’s largest retail raw milk producer, is far from letting anyone get in the way of pursuing his dream of improving the health of this country by providing informed consumers with access to “mother nature’s perfect food.”
In this interview, Mark gives me the inside scoop on the very public pathogen outbreaks that have been associated with his dairy. He answers the hotly debated question of whether humans should be consuming the milk of another species. He talks about government corruption. And he tells me about a new enterprise he has launched, which aims to bring greater transparency and standardization to raw milk production.
How did you get into the dairy-farming business?
“As a child, I tended to my father’s dairy farm. You know, feeding the calves, milking the cows and such. But it wasn’t my dream to stay in this business. After high school I took a job as a commercial welder to earn some money for college so that I could pursue my real dreams. One day on the job, I saw a guy almost killed in a mine shaft. The next thing I knew, these paramedics came flying in on a helicopter and they were way cool and I thought, ‘I want to do that!’ So I became a certified paramedic and even taught paramedic medicine for several years. I worked at the county health department as a medical educator.
Then in the late 1980s, my grandparents passed away and left about 600 acres of farmland to me and my brothers. None of them wanted to farm, so after 17 years in emergency medicine, I retired from that line of work so that I could take over all the farming operations.
I was determined to have a different kind of business model. I wanted to be organic. I wanted to be connected to my consumers. I also wanted to be diversified so that I wasn’t dependent on just a single crop. In 1999 I established Organic Pastures Dairy to consume the alfalfa that we were producing organically for other dairies.
What I didn’t realize was that in May of 1999, Alta Dena, who was a big raw milk producer in southern California, went out of business. People started showing up at my dairy asking for our milk raw. They explained to me all the nitty-gritty details about the healthfulness of raw milk from pasture raised cows that eat grass. Thanks to my medical background, I understood what they were saying about all the enzymes and bacteria and physiology of the gut. That’s when I realized I had an opportunity to make a whole lot of people healthier by helping them make positive changes to their diets, with raw milk being a part of that diet. So I built the dairy and then built the creamery (the bottling operation) so that I could sell the milk retail in California.
We’re now an $8.5M business with 65 employees and 18 trucks that deliver to 400 stores every week. Both my son and daughter are deeply involved in our business, as is my wife, who is a registered nurse and helps me with touring and education.”
So many dairies in this country have gone out of business. Aren’t most dairy farmers today struggling to make ends meet? Why have you been so much more successful than them?
“In 1980 there were 600,000 dairies in America and now there’s less than 50,000. Only one in 12 dairies survived the last 32 years. The reason is that dairymen today are entirely focused on one thing: producing as much milk as possible as inexpensively as possible and then sending it to a processor. The processor is the one that makes the money because they can use this raw material in a variety of different ways to meet consumer demand. Yogurt, for instance, has surged in popularity compared to fluid (pasteurized) milk, which has become one of the most allergenic foods in America. In California, 20% of milk was consumed in fluid form in 1998. Now it’s only 13% and falling at 1% per year. So these dairies are producing more and more of a product that Americans increasingly don’t want.
We’re different for a number of reasons. First, we produce truly organic raw milk, which is not allergenic at all. In fact, it’s been found to be a cure for digestive issues, asthma, eczema and other allergy-type problems people have. Unlike pasteurized milk, it is not associated with lactose intolerance. Another reason for our success is that we’re connected to our consumers. If they want more butter or cheese or don’t like the taste of the milk, we can respond. ”
You say your milk is “organic.” So is plenty of milk I see at the supermarket. Is there a difference?
“J.L. Rodale, the father of the modern organic concept, said, ‘It is not organic to produce organic milk and then pasteurize it.’ What you see on the grocery store shelf from national brands like Horizon is milk that’s been ultra high temperature (UHT) pasteurized, homogenized and standardized. Even though it’s labeled organic, it goes through the exact same process as conventional milk. It starts out very much like our milk: whole, raw, enzyme-rich, bio-diverse, complete with all of its parts. But then it gets shipped off to a processing plant to be rendered into a highly processed and no longer living food – a food that is associated with lactose intolerance and allergies. Pasteurized organic milk may not have the antibiotics or hormones, but it ends up on the shelf as something completely different from what it was when the cow was milked. It’s often said about our milk that it’s the only organic milk that still has the organic in it.”
I’m hearing more and more people question whether humans are even supposed to be consuming milk from other species. Isn’t cow milk designed specifically to be consumed by calves?
“That is a modern question and not one that our great grandparents would have ever asked.
Let’s look back 30,000 years ago when mankind was hunting and gathering. Sometimes they weren’t successful with the hunt or didn’t find enough to gather. The sun, which is the source of energy for all life on this planet, was fueling the growth of lots of grasses and weeds, but humans couldn’t eat those plants. Mankind then realized that instead of starving, they can eat the milk produced by that goat, that cow, that sheep, that horse, that musk ox or that camel. Not only that, but it’s delicious! And the milk can be preserved by letting it curdle and turning it into cheese and butter. And it’s easy to transport because the animal transports it for you. Around the world, those civilizations that had access to milk all used it and had a competitive advantage.
Of course not all people consumed raw milk. But all people did consume the things found in raw milk: diverse populations of good bacteria and enzymes, lots of good fats, and loads of highly available minerals. Some people got these nutrients from eating raw or fermented fish, for instance. If you compare the profile of raw milk from a cow to milk from a human, you’ll find that they’re practically identical. There are some differences in the lactose, but the folate and casein is about the same. We also know from experience that human babies thrive on raw cow milk after being breastfed until 4-6 months old.
So you ask, ‘Why are humans the only mammals to drink the milk of another mammal?’ Because we can. And if given the opportunity, other animals also drink cow milk. Chickens consume raw milk like crazy. Cats drink it. Dogs drink it, but get very sick if it’s pasteurized.
So yes, mankind was smart enough to figure out that we could survive and flourish by drinking another mammal’s milk, which has evolved over millions of years to be the perfect food to improve survivability of offspring.”
Didn’t your milk test positive for Listeria at one point? I also read about some E. coli and Campylobacter outbreaks that were associated with your dairy. What can you tell me about these incidents?
“We’ve had around 5 recalls in the past 13 years, but only 2 of them were associated with any illnesses. The first was in 2006 when 4 kids, each of whom said they had consumed raw milk, were sickened by E. coli 0157:H7. This happened at the height of the 2006 spinach E. coli outbreak, where 200 people were sickened and 3 people died. We had to stop operations while the CDFA and CA PDH investigated. Two of the kids were hospitalized and two were not. Of the two that were hospitalized, they never found any E. coli 0157:H7 in their stools that matched. One of them didn’t actually have any E. coli in their stool. So there was never any connection between our products, which by the way have always tested negative for E. coli. It was later determined that these two kids also ate spinach, which was implicated in that recall. The state of California wrote us a big fat check to cover our losses and asked us to sign a settlement agreement saying ‘please don’t sue us’ and we were back in business in 7 days. But it was a huge media event and our sales actually jumped 25% within 90 days of resuming operations, thanks to all the publicity!
You see, recalls in this country are based on epidemiological evidence. They don’t do a big investigation and then come in and shut you down. No. They shut you down at the first hint of a problem. Then they do an investigation, which typically takes 2 or 3 months. So it’s shoot first, ask questions later. But here’s the problem. Pathogens are all over the place. Read The Packer and you’ll see that there are 4 or 5 vegetable recalls a week! Pathogens in vegetables killed 34 people last year. Contrast that with raw milk, which hasn’t caused a single death since the CDC started collecting data in 1972.
Our scariest recall event was in 2007 when Listeria was found in some cream we were going to use for butter. Now you have to remember that there are 4 classes of milk in California: class 1 through 4, where 4 is the designation for manufacturing-grade milk, intended to be used for products like cheese and butter. Because of their chemistry and low moisture content, they’re not tested for pathogens, since the risk of illness from these products is so low. Nevertheless, when this cream tested positive for Listeria, we were worried and frankly very shocked because Listeria loves pasteurized milk but hates raw milk. This particular batch of cream was purchased from Clover Stornetta. We bought it because we were having trouble keeping up with demand for butter. It was supposedly organic and raw. What we found out later was that the cream was not actually raw, but had been thermalized to over 135 degrees in their creamery. Thankfully no one got sick and we figured out what happened, but that was an interesting outsourcing headache we had. We decided not to do that again.
In December of 2011 we had another recall, which was initiated because the CDC’s PulseNet database showed that 5 people over a 5 month period had been sickened by the same strain of E. coli 0157:H7 and they all had consumed our milk. Now bear in mind that we produce 5 cap dates a week and about 70,000 people drink our milk every week. Nevertheless, I felt horrible for making these kids sick. That was, until I learned the rest of the story. You see, the mom with the two kids that were hospitalized called me saying she felt terrible because she later realized that what she fed her kids was a kefir made by mixing our milk with a store-bought culture.
She told me she was sure it was the culture that caused the problem. But what about the other kids? I was still unsure until about a month after we had been shut down, when it was determined that there were actually 47 other cases entered into PulseNet that had the exact same strain of E. coli in the same time period. None of those people had consumed our milk. But rather than trying to find the common thread that all 52 people shared, they decided to single out the 5 people who mentioned that they drank raw milk (only of two of whom were hospitalized). As you can see, they pick on raw milk as a specialized, politically hot topic in order to indict the product.
Finally, in May of this year we had another recall due to reports logged in PulseNet. Ten people who drunk our milk tested positive for Campylobacter. Nobody was hospitalized. It was simple diarrhea and everyone recovered at home. This lasted for 6 days. The database also showed 18 other cases of Campylobacter, which were entered during the same time period, but these people were associated with drinking milk from Claravale Dairy (the other large raw milk dairy in California). That might sound like a lot, but compare that to the 4 million cases of Campylobacter that are submitted to PulseNet every year. Of that, there are 1000 cases per day in California alone. Also consider that 75% of all chicken on retail shelves test positive for Campylobacter. It’s the most common foodborne pathogen in America and it doesn’t kill people. It causes diarrhea, then you recover from it and then you never get it again because of the immunity that’s left behind. So once again, you have a case of heightened surveillance against raw milk without considering other foods.
I don’t mean to make light of these incidents. Every recall we’ve ever had has motivated us to try to get better afterward by improving our practices, for instance by putting in a lab and by doing more testing. We think it’s important to tell the truth to our customers. Interestingly, these media incidents have always resulted in an increase in sales for us, as well as a frustration among our customers due to their inability to purchase our products while these investigations were going on.”
It’s interesting what you say about raw milk always getting such a bad rap because when I got pregnant, everyone including my doctor told me to avoid raw milk products. That’s what prompted me to do my own research on outbreak data and the conclusion of my own research was that deli meats had a much stronger association with Listeria. I also found that if you just look at dairy products, there was a stronger association between Listeria and pasteurized dairy than raw dairy.
“In fact if you look at the CDC website, Listeria is associated with pasteurized milk, not raw milk. The last 3 people who died from Listeria got it from Whittier Farms in 2007. Those people got it from pasteurized milk. Listeria is not a concern if you’re going to be drinking raw milk in pregnancy.
Cheese is a different story, however. Raw milk cheeses are fine, but there is an association between Listeria and cheeses that are labeled as raw but have been thermalized, or heated above about 135-140 degrees. You see, Listeria does not like lactobacillus bacteria at all. Listeria likes to dominate in environments where there’s a lack of good biodiversity of bacteria. And that’s why pasteurized milk has such a strong association with Listeria.
What’s also interesting about the Jalisco cheese incident that you highlighted in your analysis is that the CDC doesn’t even list this incident on their outbreak data tables even though 50 people died from this incident.”
When you started Organic Pastures, did you ever imagine that you would have to devote so much effort to defending the healthfulness and safety or your product?
“You know, I enjoy being a dairyman, but it’s not my real love. My true love is medicine, education, human health and humanity.
This morning we had 80 people here and I spoke to them for an hour and a half about raw milk and gut physiology. My wife, who is an R.N., talked to them about labor, delivery, nursing and all these things that have to do with breast milk and raw milk and immune systems and autism, diabetes, obesity – all these crises we have in America that can be fixed by improving our diets. So really, I find myself more of a medical educator in a prevention/nutrition counselor-type position. Instead of being in the business of saying, ‘Eat your junk food, do whatever you want and just go to the hospital when you’re sick,’ we instead are in the business of preventing illnesses and empowering people so that they can take responsibility for their own health. That’s a sustainable course forward for America. Let me tell you, I had plenty a kid try to die in my arms from Asthma while I was furiously trying to intubate, inject epinephrine, defibrillate and everything else while Mom’s crying her eyes out and you know what? These experiences drive me at a very passionate level.”
Do you believe that the government should be involved in monitoring the safety of food in this country and if so, any suggestions on how they can do a better job of ensuring a safe milk supply?
“I do believe there’s a role for government in inspection of raw milk dairy and other food industries. But I don’t think there’s a role for Food, Inc. Monsanto-led government to do it. When you have a market protection agenda where you pick on some and don’t pick on others, that’s not fair. When top corporate leadership from industrial agriculture giants like Cargill, Monsanto and Tyson go over to the USDA and FDA to have their little pet projects to protect their industry and oppress the small farmer or those who don’t have the same interests, that’s wrong. That’s corrupt. But that’s unfortunately what we’re experiencing in the raw milk business.
At Organic Pastures, we’re running a consumer-driven business. I try to not worry about FDA and USDA. Instead, I focus on marketing, educating and providing good, safe, and delicious dairy products to our customers and staying closely connected to them. I always take phone calls from every single consumer that ever calls me so that that bond between mom and farmer can happen for real. And when you do that, there’s nothing that can come in between the farmer and the consumer. The FDA then becomes a distraction. A joke. Irrelevant.
I understand you’re going to be speaking at the Wise Traditions Conference in Santa Clara later this year as well as next year’s International Raw Milk Symposium. What are you going to be speaking about?
‘I’ll be speaking about some of what I’ve shared with you today, but I’m also going to be talking about the the Raw Milk Institute, which I launched this past year. I founded it because I realized the raw milk movement in America was like a rudderless plane, sort of flopping around and flying in all sorts of different directions. It needed to have guidelines and standards and some kind of base in science. So the Raw Milk Institute was designed to create some basic Common Standards that everyone could comply with, whether you have 1 cow or 500 cows and be able to show off the results of the work that’s done by individual farmers on the website. Farmers can actually show off things like their bacteria counts and describe their particular food safety plan. The first farmer that we signed up is Charlotte Smith of Champoeg Creamery up in Oregon and she is extremely motivated to do a great job of producing raw milk. We’ve got another 10 farmers who are in line right now to be listed as well.”