Raw milk stirs up hot debate in Iowa Congress

Elizabeth Polsdofer

As citizens of the 21st century, most people are well aware of the literature concerning how milk is great for bones, prevents osteoporosis and helps children to grow up to be big and strong. However, a class at Iowa State is now exploring the controversies surrounding raw milk and processed milk.

Stephanie Clark, associate professor of food science and human nutrition, holds a class each year in which students in FSHN 208: Dairy Foods: Current Issues & Controversies listen to speakers who debate various farming and processing practices, as well as how milk influences health.

Legalization of raw milk — or milk that has not been heated to kill bacteria and then cooled before consumption — in the state of Iowa is a hot-button issue, where a bill appears each year in the Iowa Congress. The process of raising the temperature of the milk to kill bacteria prior of consumption is called pasteurization.

“Each year, because Iowa is a state where legal sale of raw milk is not allowed, and proponents bring up a new bill each year to get it legalized,” Clark said. “It’s going to continue to be an issue.” 

Clark said she feels legislators and voters should know about this issue.

“The people who ultimately are going to potentially make laws should know what the issue is about,” Clark said. “I see the classroom as a safe place to have this kind of debate, where the students can explore it at a young age before they are actually in the decision-making seat.”

The biggest concern for Clark is for her students and the general population to receive information that is scientific and objective.

“I want people to be informed; I think this is how you get started. You stir something up in someone and they dig a little deeper, and this is what I require in my students,” Clark said. “This is one topic where there is so much misinformation on it, that it’s fun to bring it right here and let them hear how passionate people are — to see that and feel that — and this subject is perfect for that.”

Thomas German is a farmer in western Iowa who advocates for the sale of raw milk. German spoke during the debate passionately about the freedom of Americans to choose their own food products.

“To me, this is really simple: This is about liberty, it’s not more complex than that. All this talk about science and public health, it’s really interesting, but it really doesn’t get to the point,” said German. “God sent the Israelites into the land of milk and honey. I can’t find anywhere in the book where he told them to heat it before they used it.”

The question of freedom of food choices is sidestepped when considering the consumption of raw milk by the population who is pregnant, elderly, very young or immuno-compromised.

Catherine Strohbehn, adjunct professor of apparel, events and hospitality management, is concerned about the population who cannot actively choose to drink raw milk.

“The fact that parents are making the decisions, perhaps with the best intentions and the best interests for the children, can result in some really heartbreaking illnesses for the children,” Strohbehn said.

Strohbehn is a registered dietitian who focuses on teaching courses on food safety.

“I’m just concerned for several reasons that if we open up the sale of raw milk and make it available, I think people will come make purchases with misguided or misinformation,” she said. “I think they may have good intentions; I’m not sure if they will have done all the reading and all the research.”

Clark believes that despite which side people might take on the raw milk debate, it is crucial to keep in mind that scientific research and critical analysis of sources — not passion alone — are key to making informed decisions.

“Whether or not we’re pro-raw milk or pro-pasteurized milk, we can take the facts and say what we want to make our story more impassioned,” Clark said. “I think that it’s really important for the students to get exposed to this kind of stuff early on so that before they decide they want to go into politics they know how these kinds of things happen. This class is really designed to help students sort through fact and fiction.”