Almost as if to prove that anything can become a front in the culture war, milk is part of the endless battle. Back in 2017, white supremacists were chugging milk as a demonstration of their whiteness and some said that “if you can’t drink milk, you have to go back.” In terms of making some sense of this, they were basing this claim on the ability to digest lactose as an adult being a genetic trait known to be more common in white people than others. Unfortunately for the white supremacists, this trait is also found among cattle breeders in East Africa. While this milk chugging seems to have calmed down, the milk war continues. In fact, this war has been fought for a long time and the focus of the fight is on raw milk.

Raw milk is exactly what it sounds like: it is milk that has not been “cooked.” In the case of milk, “cooking” is pasteurization, which is intended to sterilize the milk. In the beginning, all milk was raw milk. Obviously enough, the main reason to pasteurize milk is to make the milk safer to drink. Before pasteurization, people (usually infants) could die from drinking the milk. It is estimated that in 1858 at least 8,000 infants died in New York City alone from consuming unpasteurized “swill milk.” As pasteurization became widespread and required by law, the consumption of raw milk declined dramatically. But consumption never ceased.

As the organic food movement grew in the United States, raw milk enjoyed some popularity with liberals and was sold at Whole Foods. While Whole Foods has endured, liberals have largely moved on from raw milk. It has now been embraced by some conservatives, which makes sense.

Like pre-Trump conservatives, current conservatives favor deregulation of industry. Removing pasteurization requirements is deregulation, although the dairy industry has generally favored this requirement. Most current conservatives have embraced a distrust of expertise and dislike government telling them what to do. Health experts, as would be expected, say that consuming raw milk is risky and back up this claim with evidence. As would be expected, this simply motivates some people on the right to want raw milk even more, since they distrust these experts and see consuming it as an act of defiance.

In something of a flashback to our last pandemic, a virus has jumped species and presents a threat to human health. This latest virus is avian influenza (bird flu) and it has infected cows and even a very few humans. While this will probably not lead to another pandemic, it is rational to be on guard against allowing yet another strain of flu to spread.

Fortunately, pasteurization kills the flu virus, making milk from infected cows safe to drink. Raw milk, however, can contain the live virus and infect people which is why experts have warned people not to drink it. This is basic grade school science; I remember learning about pasteurization and pathogens and doing an experiment in which we boiled water to kill bacteria. It is also basic food safety: washing foods and heating up certain foods you cannot wash are basic kitchen safety. People do get sick from drinking raw milk. Despite this, Alex Clark of Turning Point saw this as an opportunity to “trigger the left” and sell “got raw milk?” shirts. The original shirts featured a bull, leading to some mockery. But people do advance arguments in support of raw milk consumption.

One argument is based on the claim that raw milk has health benefits that pasteurized milk lacks. While pasteurization does affect milk, milk is also fortified with vitamins and there is no evidence that raw milk has any special health benefits. It is also sometimes claimed that pasteurization involves putting chemicals in milk, and hence raw milk is better because of the lack of chemicals. While chemicals in foods is a real problem, pasteurization is just a process of heating the milk and does not involve chemicals.

Proponents of raw milk also point out that people get sick from contaminated vegetables and yet the government allows the sale and consumption of raw vegetables. The point seems to be that this shows that raw milk should be legal to sell. Ironically, this provides a reason for stronger regulation of foods and more inspections to check for contamination. After all, pointing out that people are getting ill from food is not a reason to reduce food safety, but a reason to increase it. Less regulation, as history shows, means that food is less safe.

I think that the best argument for allowing the sale of raw milk is the freedom of self-harm argument. J.S. Mill makes a reasonable case that a person’s liberty should not be limited except to protect others from harm. While we should try to persuade people to make good choices, if they are only hurting themselves, we do not have the right to restrict them. As long as the raw milk comes with the appropriate warning labels and people are able to make an informed choice to consume it, then they should be allowed to do so. That said, there are some concerns about this freedom.

One concern is that some people will not be making an informed choice because of the false claims being spread about raw milk and pasteurized milk. These false claims can harm people, which means that by Mill’s view of liberty it would be morally acceptable to restrict the spreading of these untruths. This can, obviously, be countered by the claim that they have a right to express their opinions even when they are wrong and potentially dangerous.  But if the consumer understands that raw milk comes with risks and does not have all the claimed benefits, then they have the right to consume it. While folks on the right would agree with me that they should be able to drink raw milk, they would probably oppose my view that people should not lie about raw milk (or lie in general).

A second concern is a general problem with drawing the boundaries of harm.  If Alex chugs some raw milk and gets sick but can recover on his own or pay his hospital bill, they have only harmed themselves. But if Alex chugs raw milk, gets infected with bird flu, and spreads it to their grandparents who die of it, then they have harmed others and they do not have a moral right to spread disease. Given the views expressed by many on the right during the last pandemic, they would disagree with me on this limit—they would either claim that the risk is made up or that they have the right to put other people at risk in this way.

In closing, the battle over milk might seem weird, but it makes perfect sense when you understand the modern right. It will be interesting to see what battleground they choose next