Debate Over Raw Milk Stirs Up Controversy in New Jersey and at Rutgers

Debate Over Raw Milk Stirs Up Controversy in New Jersey and at Rutgers

University soil scientist wants the state to allow raw milk sales but microbiologists question its safety

Professor Joseph Heckman’s advocacy to legalize the sale of raw milk in New Jersey has made him the target of some harsh criticism. One Rutgers food scientist recently accused Heckman of championing a product that is potentially deadly.

But Heckman, a professor of soil science, is not backing down. He passionately believes in the benefits of raw - or unpasteurized- milk and said he has the scientific literature to back it up.  He cites studies that have shown drinking raw milk helps to alleviate allergies and asthma.

Raw milk for sale

Raw milk for sale at Birchwood Farm in Newtown, Pennsylvania

“If we could find a pharmaceutical that could do what raw milk does there would probably be somebody out there trying to get it on the market and patent it,’’ Heckman said.

He has testified in Trenton in favor of pending legislation that would allow the sale of raw milk, lectured before the Northeast Organic Farming Association, and has been invited to speak at professional and academic organizations.

Heckman, who lives on a two-acre farm in Monroe, argues that making raw milk legal would give the government a chance to set rules to limit risk.

“Instead of trying to ban it they could be helping farmers and consumers have access to it in the safest way possible,’’ Heckman said. “There is no food that is perfectly safe but we could make raw milk even safer.’’

'It’s remarkably controversial but our role as a land grant university is to look at all of this,’ – Mark  Robson, dean of agricultural and urban programs

If the pending legislation is approved, New Jersey would join more than two dozen states including New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania that allow the sale of raw milk. The bill recently passed the Assembly by a wide margin and a senate committee may vote on it in the next few weeks. But as lawmakers consider a measure that could be a potential boost to dairy farming in the state – the debate over the safety of raw milk rages on.

Heckman and proponents of raw milk face some strong opposition. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both warn that drinking raw milk can pose serious health risks.  

The issue has also led to some fierce debate on campus. Tom Montville, a professor of food microbiology at Rutgers, said he is “indignant” that Heckman has been allowed to have a platform to speak on the issue. From 1973 to 2008, more than 1,000 people had fallen ill from drinking raw milk, Montville said, citing statistics compiled by Kansas State University.

 “He is advocating for something that kills people,’’ Montville said.

Heckman and students

Heckman talks about soil quality with his students during a field trip to Birchwood Farm

But Heckman said no one has died from drinking raw milk in more than a decade. He also cited examples of people who have gotten sick from drinking pasteurized milk: in 1985 more than 168,000 became ill from pasteurized milk contaminated with salmonella. And as recently as 2007, three people died from drinking pasteurized milk that had become contaminated with Listeria, Heckman said.

 “I am not saying that raw milk doesn’t ever make anyone sick but you can’t guarantee the safety of any food,’’ Heckman said.

Heckman is always careful to say that he does not represent an official position advocated by Rutgers. He separates his advocacy from his scholarship at the university – when he testified in Trenton he took a vacation day from work.

And Heckman says he is not advocating for people to drink raw milk. He is advocating for “informed consumer choice’’ – meaning New Jersey residents should be allowed to buy raw milk close to home if they chose. New Jersey residents like Heckman who want raw milk are forced to drive to Pennsylvania and New York where the sale is allowed.

Although not everyone at Rutgers is happy with Heckman’s outspoken position, he strongly defended his right to be part of the debate.

“Some people get upset, other people pat me on the back,’’ Heckman said. “Isn’t that what academic freedom is all about: to be able to discuss and debate the science.’’

Mark Robson, dean of agricultural and urban programs, had also been the target of some criticism when he funded seminars on raw milk in 2008 that Heckman led. But he says the debate definitely has a place on campus.

“It’s remarkably controversial but our role as a land grant university is to look at all of this,’’ Robson said.

When Robson faced some push back for allowing the seminars, he told his critics, “I am not advocating for drinking raw milk but I am trying to do my job as an academic leader and allow dialogue.’’

Proponents of raw milk believe that pasteurization, the process of heating milk to kill harmful bacteria, also destroys some of the beneficial components. And they say not all milk is fit to sell without pasteurization. Raw milk that is safe to drink comes from healthy cows that are fed their natural diet and in a clean environment.

Heckman, whose interest in soil science stems from his childhood growing up on an organic farm in Ohio, sees a connection between the raw milk movement and soil fertility. Cows on pasture become part of a healthy farm ecosystem that builds organic matter and increases nutrients in the soil, Heckman said.

Advocates say healthy cows that are fed their natural diet like these produce milk that is safe to drink without pasteurization.
He acknowledged the issue is controversial. He has offered to present a seminar for the food science department to explain why he supports allowing the sale of raw milk and why he believes it’s a healthy beverage. He grew up drinking raw milk, and said he developed allergies in college after he switched for several years to store-bought milk.

Donald Schaffner, Director of the Center for Advanced Food Technology at Rutgers, said he knows of no microbiologists that support drinking raw milk but he takes a moderate view when it comes to access.

“If people want to drink raw milk they should able do to that,’’ Schaffner said.

But Schaffner cautions that pregnant women, the elderly and children are at a higher risk said he would not recommend they drink raw milk.

He called it “a risky food’’ adding that “pasteurization of milk was one of the great public health success stories of the 20th century.’’

“I would say virtually 100 percent of food microbiologist in industry, in government, in academia find that raw milk poses significant risk and should not be consumed,’’ Schaffner said. “I don’t know of any food microbiologists that are raw milk advocates.’’

But Heckman said that he learned during his childhood not to shy away from controversies about what we eat. His father started an organic farm after World War II, long before such practices were accepted.

At one time the U.S. Department of Agriculture did not support organic farming, Heckman said. But now the agency certifies it and organic food is sold at most grocery stores.

“I have lived long enough to see how things can change,’’ Heckman said. “I am hoping with the raw milk movement agencies like the USDA will eventually come to accept it like it finally came to accept organic farming.’’