Why did we start pasteurizing milk in the first place?

A dear friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, began a discussion with me during which he protested that pasteurization of milk is necessary.  I rebutted that pasteurization became necessary due to the poor living conditions of the dairy cows.  To which he replied, pasteurization began before the commercialization of dairies.  (For the record, this is how I recall this conversation going.  From subsequent communication, he remembers it differently.)

All of this got me to wondering, when did we start pasteurizing milk, and what were the living conditions of dairy cows at that time?  Here is the gist of what I came up with:

According to biography.com, Louis Pasteur “…discovered that microbes were responsible for souring alcohol and came up with the process of pasteurization, where bacteria is destroyed by heating beverages and then allowing them to cool. His work in germ theory also led him and his team to create vaccinations for anthrax and rabies.”  The latter is a subject for a different day.  He developed pasteurization in 1862 and my understanding is that the primary reason for this was to prevent the wine in France from becoming vinegar.

It was in 1891 in New Jersey that the first milk processing plant installed pasteuriztion equipment.  Then in 1908 Chicago became the first city in the U.S. to pass a law requiring pasteurization.

According to http://www.milkfacts.info, “As society industrialized around the turn of the 20th century, increased milk production and distribution led to outbreaks of milkborne diseases. Common milkborne illnesses during that time were typhoid fever, scarlet fever, septic sore throat, diptheria and diarrheal diseases.”

This brought me back to my other question, ” What were the living conditions of dairy cows in 1891?”  Could it be that cow’s milk is just riddled with harmful bacteria naturally and pasteurization really is for the best?  I mean, this was a day and age when cows were pasture raised, not plodding along in a feed lot through their own feces and urine.  But we should keep in mind that it wasn’t until the early 1900’s that handwashing was being taught to child care providers, so the likely hood of dairy farmers using sterile practices during milking is not great.  And, water was associated with the spread of diseases such as typhoid fever.

Then I discovered a lovely bit of historic information, the Annual Reports of the Department of Agriculture, For the year ended June 30, 1907.  I will share with you the exact wording found there:

“The Bureau, through its Dairy, Biochemic, and Pathological divisions has made a special investigation of the milk supply of the city of Washington, in cooperation with the District authorities, with the result that very unsatisfactory conditions have been disclosed.  A large proportion of dairy cows were found affected with tuberculosis, and the sanitary conditions in many dairies were very bad.  The average rating of all dairies supplying milk to the city was but 45.03 points, according to a score card arranged by the Dairy Division, 100 representing perfect.  It is believed that these conditions are better rather than worse than those existing with regard to the milk supply of most other large cities.  Butter and cheese, besides milk, are liable to be affected by insanitary conditions.

This is more than a local problem.  It affects the welfare of the country at large, and much of the milk and other dairy products enter interstate commerce.  It therefore seems important that the subject should be taken up by the Federal Government.  The work being done under the meat-inspection law should be supplemented by measures to protect the public from disease-carrying and unwholesome dairy products.  It is not enough to inspect such products after they are prepared.  The stream must be purified at its source.  The health of the cows must be examined into, and sanitary conditions must be enforced in the production, handling and preparation of the products.  There are several lines of procedure by which the Federal Government can contribute to the betterment of the supply of dairy products.

Some of these are to make a comprehensive investigation of sanitary conditions at dairy establishments and of the health of dairy cows throughout the country, placing the information before local authorities and cooperating with them to remedy bad conditions; to require that all dairy products transported interstate of exported shall have come from healthy cows and have been produced and handled under sanitary conditions; to examine and test cows and to enforce sanitation in all dairy establishments the products of which enter interstate or foreign commerce, and to make the tuberculin test of dairy cows in any other cases where this is required of requested.  Inspected products or the products of inspected and approved dairies should be marked for identification, as in the meat-inspection service.

In view of the position taken by Congress in passing the meat-inspection law it would seem all the more logical for that body to pass a law giving specific authority for the inspection of all dairy cows and dairy establishments whose products are to enter interstate or export trade, in order that the products of diseased cows may be excluded.”

So, in 1907 the government decides something must be done about the unsanitary conditions of dairy farms and cows, and in 1908, Chicago decides that is taking too long and requires pasteurization of milk.  According to Andrea S. Wiley, author of Re-Imagining Milk, “The first state-level mandate (for pasteurization of milk) did not occur until 1947 in Michigan.”

The more I know, the more I want to know.  To be continued…

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