Most of us consume milk. We put it on cereal and add it to coffee. We give it to our children by the glassful to build up their bones. Women are encouraged to drink it throughout adulthood to maintain those bones.
We select this milk from an ever-expanding range. Milk comes in whole, reduced-fat, low-fat and no-fat versions. We have organic milk and milk labeled as coming from farms that do not use hormones.
But to Northern Californian dairy farmer Ron Garthwaite, these milks aren't milk at all. They are "reconstituted milk-flavored beverages."
Garthwaite runs Claravale Dairy in Watsonville, a farming community somehow holding on in the path of the dot.com wealth south of Santa Cruz. His 60 Jersey cows are the last of California's 1.4-million herd providing milk that, aside from filtering, goes straight from cow to bottle.
"We don't add anything to it," says Garthwaite, "and we don't take anything out of it."
The result is slightly golden, exceptionally rich and almost sweet. At its freshest, it has a perfume of hay. When it is left to stand, a full head of cream rises to the top of the bottle.
It reminds us that milk is variable. Change the cow to a Brown Swiss, a Welsh Black or an Ayrshire and put that animal on grass instead of dried hay and the milk would change, becoming less creamy, more flowery, ever-varying. Old-time farmers will say they can tell where their cows have been grazing by the taste of the milk.
By contrast, the milk we buy in supermarkets will be uniformly white. Its cream won't rise. And a lactic perfume will be detectable only if the milk is boiled. Chances are it will have come from Friesians, the black and white Dutch breed prized for the volume, rather than the quality, of the milk they produce.
This Friesian will typically have been kept in herds of about 800 cows and fed not grass but standardized mixes of grain, minerals, old citrus, alfalfa and nut husks. Today, according to UC Davis estimates, about a third of the herds in California are treated with hormones to increase production.
The milk will be standardized, fortified, pasteurized and homogenized. Translated, this means that it will be taken apart and put back together again, not always in the same proportions. Then it will be cooked and emulsified.
Is it still milk? It is the milk we know. Garthwaite says that he runs Claravale Dairy to keep alive the memory of milk Americans knew right up until World War II: raw milk. It is a kind of milk that is on the brink of extinction.
Garthwaite was educated as a geneticist and took to farming only after becoming interested in the history of California's old coastal dairies. In 1995 he apprenticed himself to the founder of Claravale Dairy, Kenneth Peake.
Peake was something of a local hero. He started the dairy in 1927 and, in the 69 years that he ran it, he steadfastly refused to process his milk.
In 1996, Garthwaite bought the herd, equipment and right to the Claravale name. When Peake died last year at 91, Garthwaite suddenly found himself the only man in the state willing and able to bottle raw milk. He kept on doing it. "It's our heritage," says Garthwaite.
True to the dairy's tradition, Garthwaite refuses to use hormones. When dairy nutritionists tell him that he can increase output of his Jerseys by using commercially formulated feeds, he declines. His cows dine on hay. He says he'll register as organic when he gets around to it.
Like Peake, he is clearly an animal lover. His brown Jerseys wear bells, not ear-tags, and have names, not numbers. "This is Chloe," he says. "She's my favorite cow. She's a very serious cow."
The milk from Chloe et al. will be bottled and distributed the same day. Way back, Peake used to deliver it in an old Chevy. Garthwaite has distributors who pick it up.
At the milk's freshest (the first two days of about a five-day life span), its richness would delight a connoisseur. Dairy technology literature confirms Garthwaite's claim that Jersey milk has half again more protein and fat than the milk of a Friesian.
At a recent tasting held at UC Davis by dairy economist Bees Butler, students marked Claravale highest for "mouth-feel" but surprised Butler by scoring it lowest for appearance. It wasn't white. They had never seen cream-colored milk.
They were also, Butler noted, afraid of it. "You should have heard these kids saying, 'Oh, do I have to taste the raw?' They'd already gotten the story that raw milk was bad. So they all thought they were going to catch listeriosis."
THE FALL OF RAW MILK
Nothing contributed to the rise of milk processing so profoundly as the notion that drinking raw milk is risky. Today, selling raw milk is illegal in most states--it is allowed in only about 20. California is remarkable in that a 35-year campaign waged by the founders of Alta-Dena Dairy preserved the right for most stores to sell it. It can be sold, that is, if the bottle carries the warning that it "may contain disease-causing microorganisms."
Processed milk does not require the warning. Although the sterilizing treatment is best known because of its use on milk, when Louis Pasteur developed it in 1860s France, it was to check fermentation in wine. Soon, however, it was clear to a burgeoning public health movement that the process could treat widespread contamination of milk.
Turn-of-the century medical literature is rife with reports about wretched town dairies run by tubercular milk handlers. By 1913, pasteurization stations were common in New York City, and one of the founding fathers of the American public health movement, physician Milton Rosenau, had declared: "Next to water purification, pasteurization is the most important single preventive measure in the field of sanitation."
But raw milk did not go quietly. It took until 1947 for Michigan to pass a compulsory pasteurization law. By 1972, raw milk was still legal in 28 states. When the federal government tried to ban interstate transportation of it, protesters stymied the effort for more than a decade.
By 1985, the lobby for the right to drink milk in a traditional manner was so embattled that public health officials derided it in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. as a "health fetish." Within two years, the FDA had banned interstate sale of raw milk.
Robert Tauxe, chief of the Foodborne and Diarrheal Diseases branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, still quotes the 1913 argument, even though the old scourges of tuberculosis and brucellosis are now largely in check. In their stead, he points to new foes such as campylobacter, salmonella, listeria and Escherichia coli O157:H7. The bacteria found in raw foods, including some feared as pathogens.
"We live in a bacterial world," he says. "There are more bacteria than there are anything else."
Increasing numbers of gastroenterologists question the idea that the bacteria found in raw foods, including some feared as pathogens, are all our enemies. They believe that in fact routine exposure to bacteria "educates" the immune system, enabling it to cope with the natural world.
Asked about this, Tauxe replies, "I don't think we need pathogens in our food supply to give our guts extra stimulation."
America's European trading partners bristle at the suggestion that they should emulate America's blanket pasteurization, no country more than France. But Tauxe objects that food poisoning is a "huge problem" in France, that people there simply don't admit it. "It's an odd thing that in French culture you don't often hear of food poisoning," says Tauxe. "Instead, they say they have had a crise de foie." (That they feel liverish.)
Tauxe adds that though he loves French food, he gets sick every time he goes to France.
How risky is raw milk? For figures chronicling raw milk-borne illness in the U.S., Tauxe points to a 1998 study of suspected food poisoning outbreaks during the two decades between 1973 and 1992. It found 46 outbreaks in 21 states, an average of slightly less than three a year nationwide, affecting a median number of 19 people. There are no hard figures for national raw milk consumption, but during that period Alta-Dena sold it regularly to 300,000 Californians.
In California, raw milk has such a devoted following that repeated attempts to ban it have failed. Shirley Fannin, director of disease control for L.A. County's Department of Health Services, says there were food poisoning problems when Alta-Dena Dairy used to bottle it. "[The problems were] at a low level," she admits. "At our highest, we would have 20 to 30 cases [a year]. It wasn't like hundreds or thousands of cases. But when you have a risk product, people should be aware of the risk."
Fannin fought throughout the 1980s for a warning label on milk. "My job is to give people the facts and let people deal with them," she says. "I was perfectly happy when they labeled the product."
Fannin is less alarmed by small farms along the lines of Garthwaite's than by the sizable raw milk operation once run by Alta-Dena in Southern California. "A family farm that knows their small herd by name and is good with animal husbandry can probably keep their milk free of bacteria like salmonella," she says.
Pasteurization changed not only what we recognize as milk but also the way in which dairy farmers produce it. California could never have outstripped Wisconsin in milk production without the confidence that pasteurization offers when pooling vast quantities.
The risk becomes vivid when looking at the largest milk-poisoning in American history. In 1985, more than 5,770 people across three states were sickened after a pasteurization failure at an Illinois bottling plant.
As a result, hygiene in California's processing plants is a high-security operation. The general manager of one of the largest plants, run by a Central Valley dairy co-op, will not allow visitors. "Nobody is allowed in the processing plant--period," he says, before adding less gruffly, "All you can see is stainless steel."
Inside that machinery, milk shipped from farms is remade. First it is separated in centrifuges into fat, protein and various other solids and liquids. Once segregated, these are reconstituted to set levels for whole, low-fat and no-fat milks. What is left over will go to butter, cream, cheese, dried milk and a host of other milk products.
Of the reconstituted milks, whole milk will most closely approximate original cow's milk. When fat is removed, it is replaced with protein and vitamin-rich skimmed milk powder or concentrate.
California standards for fortification are far higher than federal ones. "It has more [nutritional] goodies," says UC Davis' dairy economist Butler, who has studied complaints from other states that California standards constitute a trade barrier.
Standardization also ensures that milk is consistent: that one glass of any given type tastes exactly like the next.
Commonly, standardized milk is then sent by tanker trucks to bottling plants. Swiss Dairy in Riverside is considered state-of-the-art. Here, 6,400-gallon tankers disgorge milk into silos. Swiss plant manager Steve Bergman says the plant accepts only milk fortified with concentrate. "Other dairies accept powdered milk," he says, "but we think it leaves a chalky taste."
Inside the plant a sterile lab tests for antibiotic residues in arriving milk. On the rare occasions that milk fails, Bergman says that it is sent back to the supplier and redirected for, say, pet food.
Before entering the bottling area, workers must dip the soles of their shoes in antiseptic baths. Staff members wear smocks, hair-nets, jackets for the cold and earplugs against the roar of machinery. Conveyor belts foam with antibacterial lubricant. Banks of computers chart the milk flow (which goes only uphill, so raw milk cannot contaminate cooked).
Swiss Dairy pasteurizes the milk 10 degrees hotter and 2 seconds longer than the 161-degree, 15-second legal minimum. What is lost in flavor is gained in confidence. Push it to 200 degrees, explains Bergman, and it is called Ultra Heat Treatment. This will have a distinct cooked milk taste, but it is sterile and can be sold on grocery shelves; it does not even require refrigeration.
As it is cooked, the milk is homogenized by a pressure treatment that breaks down the fat globules so the milk won't separate and we don't have to shake it before pouring it.
Once processed, the milk will last for weeks, not days. Outside purposefully "stressing" samples of each run of processed milk, then culturing them for bacteria, the milk is never handled. Workers see it only as it is squished into plastic bottles revolving on the conveyor belt and instantly capped.
American consumption of milk plummeted steadily during the rise of processing. Fans of raw milk blame processing. Milk processors blame soft drinks and say the fall was checked only recently by the cult Got Milk? campaign started by California Milk Processors Board.
Bergman's boss, Steve James, is one of the heads of the board. A transplanted New Yorker, he was an actor before he was, he says, "bitten by the glamour of the dairy industry."
This happened in upstate New York, where James became involved with a local dairy, Ronnybrook Farm. He still displays advertisements from that business reading, "No hormones, no antibiotics, 100% all-natural, bottled on the farm."
Here in California, James remains attuned to public anxiety about industrial dairies. The only liquid milk sector now growing is that for organic milk. It is processed, but it comes from tiny farms and cows raised on regimens produced without chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
Swiss Dairy's milk, assures James, is from hormone-free herds. Set on a nearby shelf are prototype milk cartons bearing the claim. "They're by Pentagram," he says, referring to an international design firm.
Among the mock-up cartons are other sorts of milk now on the drawing board, the latest idea being bubble gum-flavored milk.
Scott Wilson of The Times news research library also contributed to this story.
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Where to buy Raw Milk
Raw milk from Claravale Dairy is available only in tiny quantities around Southern California, usually in health food stores. These are some of them. Because it is best in its first two days, the typical delivery days are noted, though these may vary.
Costa Mesa: Mothers, 225 E. 17th St. (949) 631-4741. Milk delivered on Wednesday.
Goleta: Lassen's, 5154 Hollister Ave. (805) 683-7696. Milk delivered on Monday.
Pasadena: Wholefoods, 3751 E. Foothill Blvd. (626) 351-5994. Milk delivered on Tuesday.
San Diego: At 20 Henry's Markets outlets, including Encinitas, 1327 Encinitas Blvd. (760) 633-4747. Milk delivered on Wednesday.
Santa Barbara: Wild Oats, 19 S. Milpas St. (805) 966-2251. Milk delivered on Tuesday.
Ventura: Lassen's, 4071 E. Main St. (805) 644 6990). Milk delivered on Monday.
On the cover: pitcher and glass from Crate and Barrel stores. This page: milk carrier from Collector's Antiques, South Pasadena.