Got ‘Underdeveloped’ Milk? – Part I

My cornerstone dairy in Kabale, Uganda.

My cornerstone dairy in Kabale, Uganda.

One of my culturally-absorbed addictions in Uganda would be considered a highly contraband substance in Canada. It’s white, creamy, and delicious – and I “take it” straight from the cow’s teat. Raw, unpasteurized milk. Three boiled cupfuls a day.

What’s illegal in Canada – to sell or buy raw milk – is the norm in Uganda.

Uganda has turned me into a hedonist of raw milk, perhaps, less by informed choice and more by circumstance, as only 20% of Uganda’s milk is processed or pasteurized.

These days, milk has become my most cherished writing distraction. If I’m feeling stuck on words or story, my bones deficient of creativity, I head to my small kitchen and heat a saucepan filled with milk. I watch the milk rise up like heaven’s foam, and lower my face to blow it from overflowing (I do cry over spilled milk here).

You don’t “drink tea” in Uganda, you “take tea,” so I take mine with a spoonful of freezer-dried instant coffee, or a bag of Ugandan-made black tea, or a few pinches of spicy Indian chai masala. There’s nothing like holding a warm mug with both hands and tasting on the sweet, full flavor of hot milk. It never fails to nourish, or inspire.

In Uganda, I’m a Canadian-fugitive with a milk-moustache, but I can assure you that breaking my own national laws in another country has never tasted so, udderly, sweet. 

Long-horn Ankole cattle indigenous to Uganda.

Long-horn Ankole cattle indigenous to Uganda.

Ugandan & Canadian Milk – Which Glass is More Full?

The majority of milk in Uganda is produced by small-scale farmers, who own over 90% of the national cattle population. These small-scale farmers live in rural areas and typically raise indigenous cattle, including the symbolic long-horn Ankole.

Milk in Uganda is regulated by the Dairy Development Authority (DDA) which oversees a cold chain process from the countryside to rural cooling centers to urban-based markets. While most milk is sold as raw milk at direct dairies in Uganda, there are 38 dairy processing plants, which pack and sell pasteurized milk, though it’s much more expensive, and only accounts for 20% of the milk locally consumed.

I buy my daily supply of raw milk from a small, corner-store dairy that’s run by a young couple who own a small silver milk-cooler, and charge 1300 Ugandan shillings (50 cents) for a liter of milk. They always measure with a small funnel, and pour the thick white liquid into a plastic bag. I carefully place the milk into my cloth shoulder-bag and walk home – feeling as though I’m carrying a cow’s swollen udder.

Cows, community & cooperation - click photo for original source.

Cows, community & cooperation – click photo for original source.

I like to imagine that my milk comes from as far as an hour’s bicycle ride away. In Kabale, there’s green picturesque pastures with dairy cows that meander the valley flats and graze alongside pairs of Uganda’s national bird, long-legged, yellow crested cranes.

My milk is quite likely hand-milked from the cow’s teat into a metal container by a farmer, and then driven by vehicle, or strapped onto the back of a bicycle and taken to a cooling collection centre. It eventually reaches the small corner-store “dairy” that’s only a five-minute walk from my home.

The milk I drink in Uganda is all very “underdeveloped” when you compare it to the milk that most Canadians drink back home.

Robot milkers - powered by smart phones.

Robot milkers – powered by smart phones.

In sharp contrast to Uganda, the majority of Canada’s dairy production is produced by large-scale dairy farms where cows never see a pasture, and are instead, stacked together like canned sardines, fed on grains and supplements, with machines sucking milk from their over-milked teats. Raw milk is sold to processing plants owned by milk monopolists like Parmalat, where it’s mixed with milk from other large-scale farms, and eventually undergoes pasteurization, a process involving ultra-heating technology that destroys harmful bacteria and pathogens.

It’s illegal for a farmer to sell raw, unpasteurized milk in Canada, and the law is heavily regulated by provincial officials. You could ask Michael Schmidt, a small-farmer from Ontario, Canada, whose raw-milk farm was raided in 2007. He was convicted with 15 provincial offenses related to the sale of unpasteurized milk, and fined hundreds of thousands of dollars – yet he continues to fight back claiming that distributing and purchasing raw milk is “a well-informed consumer’s constitutional right.”

Milk in Canada is what I like to call “developed milk” and a glass of developed milk causes a lot of public “gas” and debate. There’s very little of romantic green pastures and hand-milking dairy cows in Canada. Milk, mostly, is all business, all politics.

Raw milk protest in Washington.

Raw milk protest in Washington.

Maybe even more confusing than the GMO-debate is the raw milk versus pasteurized milk debate. Both sides, to me, sound emotionally-charged, with the raw milk gang engaging “human rights” rhetoric and the pasteurized milk mafia dangling disease horror stories in people’s faces.

I’m not usually a fence-sitter, but part of me feels hesitant to write that one is better than the other for a national whole, when there’s evidence that both are, contextually-speaking correct, according to their combative claims.

For example, between 1912 and 1937, over 65,000 people died of bovine tuberculosis contracted from consuming raw milk in England and Wales. Pasteurization of milk has, no doubt, prevented such rampant diseases from affecting large populations.

Michael Schmidt - raw milk crusader in Canada

Michael Schmidt – raw milk crusader in Canada

Then again, is raw milk the root of all evil, or the fact that milk shouldn’t be transported long distances from cow to consumer? In the early 1900s, industrialization saw large-scale migration of people from farms and rural areas to urban centers, and inevitably, with the transport of foods and animal products from the countryside to the city, people began drinking two to three day old milk, and falling sick. Pasteurization provided a solution for urban-dwelling folk who were no longer living “close to the teat” so to speak.

Today, public health officials, government, and the milk industry in developed countries use the same rationale: pasteurization prevents disease amongst large populations. In Canada, where the majority of the population live in relatively close-quarters in cities, that’s a major imperative for public health and safety.

The problem, raw milk activists point out, is that pasteurization as a “solution” is actually causing other health problems, and is bottle-feeding populations on “dead milk” – milk that’s been overheated and processed to destroy valuable enzymes, diminish vitamins, damage proteins, and eradicate “beneficial bacteria” that, in turn, promote pathogens (Mercola 2012). Lactose intolerance, they say, may actually be intolerance to pasteurized milk, and not raw milk, the former which is causing severe allergies, respiratory problems, diabetes, and asthma amongst populations.

The other argument is that we’re no longer stuck in the early, mid-1900s. We have a lot oftechnology and capacity for developing safe, efficient ways to handle and distribute raw, un-processed milk. Is “pasteurization” an old, outdated government excuse?

Part of the reason why I’m hesitant to “pick a side” and defend it fervently is that health issues always arise, including several deaths, or severe sicknesses that were caused by drinking raw milk in the United States. Most of these deaths were children living in urban-contexts. Then again, for people living closer to their dairy cows, in rural contexts, where the transport from cow to consumer is significantly lower (and thus the risk) shouldn’t they, as Michael Schmidt is arguing, have the right to choose?

Maybe, I’m thinking, it should boil down to the choice of the informed consumer.

What’s the bigger risk: drinking milk that’s been converted by heating processes to allow for long-distance transport and longer shelf-life (and thus, providing longer markets for milk monopolists), or drinking milk that’s left in its natural form, doesn’t have a shelf-life of three weeks, but tastes so damn good (and is nutrient-packed)?

What do you, as the consumer, think?
What kind of milk do you really “got”?

milk7These days, I’m enjoying my ‘underdeveloped’ raw milk in Uganda under idyllic conditions – sipping warm milk whilst writing and listening to birdsong. But as I write, there are new processing factories popping up in Uganda, and quite possibly, a new milk rhetoric that’s entering its way onto the Ugandan political and economic stage…

What will the “development” of milk bring to Uganda?


Next week: Read Part II – which will focus on the “cost” of milk produced at large-scale vs. small-scale dairy farms, the collapse of Cuba’s ‘developed’ milk industry (and the death of Fidel’s beloved ‘White Udder’) and the uncertain future for “underdeveloped” milk in Uganda. Will ‘developed’ milk bring along an African-version of Heidi Klum and sexualized advertising campaigns belonging to “Got Milk?” (God forbid!)

Is Uganda ready for Heidi Klum's 'developed milk?'

Is Uganda ready for Heidi Klum’s ‘developed milk?’

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