Dairy Channel: Give thanks for safe, fresh milk supply

What are we thankful for?

Without hesitation I believe that we can come up with a long list of things. Family, health, home, farms, cows (on the good days), food, clothing, a free country and the list goes on. As an industry, we don’t realize how thankful we should be for two items that we take for granted – refrigeration and pasteurization.

The way we were was not a good place to be in the days before refrigeration and pasteurization. Even though I spent six months working on a dairy farm in Langental, Switzerland, where we milked into buckets and strained the milk directly into cans set in a spring-fed trough outside the stable door, I had no true appreciation for the difficulty of producing quality milk before my son brought home the book “Milk: The Fight for Purity,” copyrighted in 1986 by James Cross Giblin.

Quality history. I’m not sure why Giblin found the topic interesting as other titles credited to his pen include “The Truth About Santa Claus” and “Chimney Sweeps: Yesterday and Today,” but in 99 pages he did a good job of highlighting the history of milk quality and the folks who have championed the cause of producing and maintaining a quality milk supply.

While the whole book is a good read, there were some interesting bits included.

The first load of cattle arrived in the New World with the Pilgrims in 1624. Their inventory consisted of three young cows and a bull – talk about potential inbreeding.

Fortunately, the Dutch who followed in 1625 brought 101 cows on the next ship. To transport them safely, “each animal was provided with a separate stall, the floor of which was covered with three feet of sand.” Talk about being ahead of your time.

Freshness. When our country was primarily an agrarian society, fresh milk was a close as the nearest cow. Without refrigeration, milk or butter had a very short shelf life. As towns and finally cities grew, a fresh, pure milk supply became increasingly problematic.

In the early 1700s, land was set aside in towns for farmers to graze their cows. The Boston Common and Battery Park in New York City were originally pastures for dairy cattle.

As the cities grew and cows were pushed out – urban sprawl – the milk seller took over. Milk was brought into towns on carts in covered or uncovered buckets and cans. The carts would stop and the driver would dip milk into the pitcher or bucket brought by the customer. The going price equated to about $2.50 per hundredweight, not adjusted for inflation.

A common concern of consumers at the time was whether the milk was truly “whole milk” or if it had been watered down by the seller.

Distillers’ cows. For almost 35 years, from around 1830 until 1864, when milk from cows who were diseased or fed “distillery waste or anything else that would effect the quality of the milk” was outlawed in Massachusetts and other states, some cows were kept as a sideline of distillers.

The distillery wastes were unlike the distiller’s grains that we would legally and legitimately include in dairy rations today. Stables were set up attached to distilleries. There the cows were fed little but the hot slop from the distilling process. Since the slop was wet, little or no additional water was made available for the cows. I’m surprised that cows on this ration would milk at all, but in New York City, it was estimated that these cows produced up to five million gallons of “swill milk” each year.

Cows didn’t last long in this setting and it was eventually proven that their milk was inferior to that of properly fed and healthy animals.

Bottled milk. By the 1890s, after more than a decade of experimentation, most milk was put into bottles and sold. The bottle we are familiar with was developed by Dr. Henry Thatcher of Potsdam, N.Y. What was his motivation?

“After lining up one day in 1883 to buy some milk from a passing dealer, a little girl who was ahead of Thatcher in the line accidentally dropped her dirty rag doll into the open can of milk while the dealer was filling her pitcher. The man apparently thought nothing of it. He reached into the can, pulled out the doll, shook it off, and handed it back to the little girl. Then, smiling, he turned to serve Thatcher.” (At least he was friendly.)

While the development of the milk condensing process by Gail Borden did allow milk to be stored and shipped, the cooked flavor was not any more popular with consumers then than now. Interestingly, the federal government purchased thousands of cans to help feed Union soldiers at the front during the Civil War, according to the book.

Pasteurization. At the same time as the milk bottle was becoming more popular, inventors were busy creating different ways to pasteurize milk. “By 1917, pasteurization was required in 46 of the 52 largest cities in the United States,” according to the book.

One strong advocate for the mandatory pasteurization of milk was Nathan Strauss of the Macys’ department store Strausses in New York City.

As the family business was doing well, Strauss was able to dedicate a substantial amount of time and money to making fresh, pure milk available to the mothers and children of New York City. Driven by high infant and child mortality rates in cities, Strauss opened “milk depots,” where mothers could purchase bottles of pasteurized milk daily through the hot summer months when milk stayed fresh for less than 24 hours.

In another effort to convince citizens that pasteurized milk tasted good, Strauss also set up milk stands in public parks where cool glasses of pasteurized milk could be bought for a penny.

Give thanks. Through the 1900s, higher standards for milk quality, the eradication of tuberculosis in the nation’s dairy herd, improved pasteurization techniques, constant improvements in animal husbandry and milk handling, an effective regulatory process and simple pride in producing a quality product have brought us to a plane of safety and quality of milk supply that no other nation enjoys. For that we should proudly give thanks.

(Send comments or questions in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)

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