Our unhealthy love of milk

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The Independent Culture
MILK'S IMAGE as healthy, wholesome and nutritious is a modern myth. So, very few microbiologists and animal welfare campaigners will be surprised by the latest news that bacteria in cows' milk have been linked with Crohn's disease, a chronic disorder of the human bowel.

The milk myth is so powerful because its historical pedigree is first class. We do it and other mammals do it - feed our young from birth on breast milk. It contains everything the infant needs. Not only nutrients, but also extra ingredients that boost the baby's immune system and fight infection.

It's also true that ancient nomadic people, the hunter gatherers who preceded modern agriculture, were enthusiastic milk-drinkers. Their milk came from the few sheep and goats who wandered with them. Apart from providing much-needed fat to their scarce diets, milk often provided the only safe and guaranteed source of an even more vital resource - water.

And let's be clear about another thing. Human breast milk is naturally clean because there is a safe distance between the milk bar and the garbage disposal, as it were.

Now, nomadic goats and sheep don't enjoy this advantage. For various reasons their udders lie close to their anuses. But animals on the move don't stand in their own excrement. Contrast these conditions with those of modern, intensive agriculture - and nowhere is the factory farm more relentlessly driven than in Britain and the rest of western Europe. Daisy, the modern dairy cow, is a desperately sad, exploited and biologically dangerous creature.

Daisy is a combined milk and meat machine who drives, and is driven by, modern agrobusiness. She got picked for the job because she naturally produces a lot more milk than sheep or goats. Pigs aren't much use either, because they produce so many piglets (up to 14) that there isn't any milk to spare. But Daisy usually has just one calf. In the days of early agriculture there was enough both for her offspring and for the milkmaid to carry back from the fields.

Today we are not content with that. Even without genetic engineering, modern Daisy has been bred with an enormous udder that virtually drags on the ground. She is capable (sorry, forced) to produce 10,000 litres or more a year. That is 10 times more than her calf could drink - but of course we are so brutal that her calf gets to drink for only a few days before it is taken away.

And where does her calf go? Few people outside the farming world know that Daisy not only produces milk on a mega-scale, she is also the producer of most of the nation's beef found in your local supermarket and butcher's shop.

It works like this. Young Daisy is inseminated because she needs to be in calf to produce milk. The semen normally comes from the beefiest bull available, by artificial insemination. This way the dairy/ beef offspring (boy or girl) will carry as much meat as possible. Out comes the calf to be raised in orphan herds on all manner of things (including pellets with beef brain, until BSE stopped it) while Daisy's milk goes to fill the lucrative quotas handed to farmers by the horrendously expensive Common Agricultural Policy.

The result is a stupendous glut of milk, cheese, fat and beef - all stoked full of saturated fat - the very food that nomads may have craved, but which we couch potatoes need just as desperately to avoid.

Daisy and her inmates are raised in as little ground as possible. They often stand where they defecate. They have no choice and their huge udders sway heavily, collecting dung. I will stop here and admit to being a capitalist omnivore - eating vegetables, meat, eggs and dairy products.

So I have no motive to embellish these awful conditions. I am just embarrassed by them. And if the genetic engineers get their way they will soon be able to inject the hormone, BST, into Daisy, forcing her milk yield to swell even higher. BST is already used in the United States and world trade laws make it likely that we will be unable to prevent its use here, even if the Blair government and the European Council of Ministers object.

In these conditions it is hardly surprising Daisy is dirty. Perhaps her most common malady is mastitis, bacterial infection of the udder. Today the focus of infection is on mycobaterium paratuberculosis - the bug linked with Crohn's disease. But Daisy's milk may also contain salmonella, lysteria and E coli - the big-name food poisoning bugs whose outbreaks have reached record levels long after Edwina Currie unintentionally fell face first into the original food scandal. The food scandals have been mostly about gut-wretching bacteria. Some, like E coli 0157, are directly linked with cattle production and are known killers even if a tiny dose, as few as just 10 organisms, is ingested. But there is another side to this bacteria battle. Antibiotics are routinely used on our dairy herds - both to promote growth and to treat infections like mastitis.

The constant use of antibiotics creates a triple danger. First, it helps to produce a super-strain of dangerous bacteria that have developed resistance to our drugs. They are a real threat in their own right, and food poisoning bugs that infect cattle, like types of salmonella typhimurium, are immune to virtually every antibiotic in our drug arsenal. Second, bacteria that infect farm animals are deeply promiscuous, able to pass on their antibiotic immunity to a whole host of other, dangerous organisms. And, if the situation were not bad enough, we have the whole related problem of antibiotic residues in our milk. Why is the dairy cow forced to submit to such conditions - fed its own brains and forced often to stand in its own excrement? It's that she is simply the grubby engine of modern agriculture. If you think I am exaggerating, let me quote the latest figures obscurely published by the Ministry of Agriculture last week.

This study is so buried in official statistics that it brazenly calls itself: "Summary of 1998 Dung Survey". It reveals that the average cattle hide inspected carries 1.07 kilos of dung - that's nearly 2.5 lbs in old coinage.

Now, some of the healthiest people on earth usually avoid milk, namely the Chinese, Japanese and other Pacific Rim people whose healthy longevity is well known. Other cultures that do use milk - such as many groups in the Indian sub-continent and Africa - make sure they disarm it. When milk is fermented into yoghurt and cheese two very important things happen. First, the fermentation bacteria transform lactose (the milk sugar to which many are intolerant) into lactic acid. Second, the harmless fermentation bacteria actually produce their own biocides that kill off the salmonellas and other nasties that threaten us.

You'd think after centuries that these basic food hygiene steps would be pretty obvious. And yet, the Americans were still stupid enough in the 1950s and 1960s to parachute dried milk into famine areas whose peoples had no longer any ability to digest lactose milk sugars.

The result was that extreme hunger was combined with dysentery - boosting, not diminishing, the death toll.

But here in the West, we are too arrogant to kill off milk's dangers. Instead we have decided milk can be safely drunk if it is pasteurised. This means heating the milk to a level which should wipe out most bugs, but in reality, cannot kill them all. Yes, when Louis Pasteur thought up the idea, it might have been a blessing. But these days pasteurisation may simply lull us into a false security - as have so many other scientific quick-fixes in recent decades.

Yesterday's announcement about cow milks' potential dangers is, once you know the whole story, hardly surprising.

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