Wednesday 19 June 2019

David Robbins: I got a real raw deal when I couldn't resist tasting the fat of the land

It was at the top of the fridge, unobtrusive in unmarked Kilner jars. It was the dairy equivalent of the top-shelf magazine -- illicit and reputedly a risk to one's physical and moral well-being. It was raw milk.

We were in east Cork, on the lush pastures of the Ballymaloe farm and gardens. We had just toured the herb garden, the hen runs and the glasshouses.

The experience had left us in that life-on-the-land frame of mind where it wouldn't have taken much to persuade us to sell up and buy 50 acres of pasture and a herd of rare-breed cattle.

A litre of raw milk seemed, at that moment, the perfect purchase. Extracted that very morning from Ballymaloe's Jersey cows, it looked creamy and wholesome and possibly the next best thing to being an actual farmer.

It probably had that fresh aroma of the farm -- the elusive fragrance that American raw milkers call "cow butt".

I stretched for the top shelf, and then paused. Raw milk. Wasn't there something I should know about this stuff? Didn't the Government want to ban it?

Then I remembered the Rawsome Three. This trio of food freedom fighters ran a kind of raw food co-op in Los Angeles. They sold bison kidneys, spleen and testicles, unheated Bolivian honey, raw cow colostrum, goat whey and sun-dried cashews from Bali.

But it was the raw milk that got them into trouble. Nine federal agencies had been tracking them for months, using surveillance cameras and mingling with celebrity customers such as Liv Tyler, Vincent Gallo, Mariel Hemingway and John Cusack.

Last August, in what we hacks like to call a "dawn swoop", The Rawsome Three were led away in handcuffs. Sale of raw milk is illegal in 11 states in the US, and the Rawsomes were charged with conspiracy and a range of felonies.

The case has become a cause célèbre in the US.

Although most raw milk drinkers are lefty liberals, yoga practitioners or new age hippies, their plight has drawn support from the Tea Party, who see it as another example of federal government trying to regulate everything.

It has also reignited an age-old argument about food safety. For many in the health regulation business, pasteurisation, irradiation, sterilisation and homogenisation are the pillars of their approach.

Raw milkers, on the other hand, point to studies that show kids who drink raw milk have stronger immune systems and suffer less from allergies and asthma.

Indeed, this argument goes back to the 19th Century, when Louis Pasteur "discovered" germs. He believed that diseases were caused by nasty microbes which must be killed by antibiotics, or by vaccines.

His old friend Claude Bernard disagreed. Bernard believed we all carried these bugs around with us all the time. It was only when they got out of balance that we became ill.

For Bernard, the body's interior environment was everything. We become liable to infectious diseases only if the internal balance -- homeostasis as we now know it -- is out of kilter.

Of course, Pasteur is world famous. The Pasteur Institute in Paris is a hallowed ground for the men in white coats. No one now remembers Bernard.

Yet, on his deathbed, Pasteur is reputed to have renounced his "germ warfare" approach. "Bernard is right," he said, "the microbe is nothing. Environment is everything."

Raw milk was banned in Ireland up to 2006, and then an EU directive allowed it to be produced and sold in small quantities. However, the Government promised to re-ban it by the end of 2011.

So far, they have stayed their hand. Raw milk is still available in gourmet shops and farmers markets. Sheridans cheesemongers, for instance, sells it at €1.70 a litre.

As I took down the jar of creamy milk from the shelf in Ballymaloe's farm shop, I remember the old schoolboy joke, which I tried out on my daughter.

"How do you pasteurise milk?" I asked. "Simple. Just bring it past your eyes!"

No, she didn't think it was funny either.

drobbins@independent.ie

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