Blog post by Gabby Krieble
In conducting research for our newest exhibit, Barns of Monroe County: Our Heritage Built in Wood, the curatorial team came across an early version of a surprisingly contentious debate that continues to the present day: mandatory milk pasteurization. Pasteurization is the rapid heating and cooling of a product, in this case milk, for sterilization purposes.
If you frequent grocery co-ops and farm stops, you have likely seen raw milk for sale “for pets ONLY” (*wink*). Indiana is one of 20 U.S. states that does not allow the sale of raw, i.e. unpasteurized, milk for human consumption, but this has not always been the case. In fact, raw milk was once the norm. The push for pasteurization became widespread in America in the 1910s and 1920s. It arose alongside the mainstreaming of germ theory and the increasing industrialization of the dairy industry.
As mentioned in the Barns of Monroe County exhibit, dairy used to be produced hyper-locally – either by one’s own dairy cow, or purchased directly from the dairy farmer. Around the turn of the century, farmers began to specialize. As a result, the dairy industry modernized into a version more similar to how it works today: large dairy farms produce milk that is collected at regional processing centers. Those regional dairies pasteurize and homogenize the milk and then distribute it to grocery stores and other retailers.
The regional dairy processing centers are combining milk from several different farms which greatly increases the risk of contamination by harmful bacteria; if one farm has bad hygiene practices, it affects all of the milk. This meant that as the dairy industry grew and modernized, the risks associated with drinking raw milk grew too. Tuberculosis and Bang’s disease were two major threats, and Americans did see increasing rates of infection in this early 20th-century period. Pasteurization eliminated this bacterial threat, but its opponents claimed that it reduced the nutritional value of the milk and negatively impacted its taste.
One particularly vocal proponent of raw milk in Bloomington at the time of these early debates was C.T. Oscar Schacht, owner and operator of Jersejoy Farm. The Monroe County History Center collection has many letters and leaflets written by Oscar Schacht and Jersejoy Farm. The earliest dated leaflet addressing mandatory pasteurization is from 1927, but it appears that the debate really came to a head in Bloomington in the mid-1930s.
A November 1933 pamphlet urges Jersejoy customers to “Vote! Help!” in an upcoming city council ordinance on milk. Similar pamphlets distributed to Jersejoy customers explain the farm’s position on mandatory pasteurization.
A couple of years later, Oscar Schacht received what was likely quite a devastating letter from Anna G. Nelson, superintendent of the Bloomington Hospital. Ms. Nelson’s letter makes reference to the length and passion of the debate surrounding pasteurization.
“March 25, 1935
Dear Mr. Schacht:-
As much as I hate to write this letter, I have delayed it as long as I can. In order to give you a little time before the 1st of the month I am notifying you now that the Hospital will not buy milk from you after April 1, 1935.
There is no reason to go into detail or spend more time upon the question. As you know, all through the years, at different intervals, there has been quite some pressure brought because the Hospital did not use Pasteurized milk. For that reason I now think it unwise to make the decision which has been reached. If, in the future, there is just cause to change I assure you I am more than willing to continue with you. At this time however, the responsibility is too great for me to hold out longer. I have had a great deal of criticism for which I do not care personally, but when it came to the responsibility of others entrusted to my care, that is different.
I want to thank you for the fair treatment and pleasant relationship enjoyed during the past years.
Very truly yours,
Anna G. Nelson”
Oscar Schacht becomes more embittered as the 1930s continue and as the tide continues to turn towards pasteurization as the norm. He continues to emphasize the health and hygiene standards of his farm and the unique nutritional values of milk from Jersey cows, but increasingly arguments opposing the large corporations that benefit from mandatory pasteurization creep into the conversation.
In a September 1935 letter, Mr. Schacht claims that: “Thinking people are pretty well above bigotry in religion and politics but nowhere is the bigot happier than in advocating pasteurization. He does it in the name of science and for the public health whereas most of it is for monopoly in the distribution of milk and for profits.”
In a 1937 letter to Mr. and Mrs. John Hoadley, Mr. Schacht sounds frustrated with the ongoing debate:
“For 22 years we have been selling raw Jersey milk, often to infants, the sick, the aged, those most susceptible to diseases that can be carried in milk, yet never had an unfavorable result. Many got special help.
Still we are fought. And, some say to follow the lines of least resistance, to pasteurize, thus to follow the crowd, the fashion, to capitalize on the millions spent for pasteurization propaganda, on its vast advertising, on the flood of literature in so many periodicals.
But, do doctors really know all that pasteurization means? Does the public know?”
It’s worth mentioning that Oscar Schacht was not anti-science, nor was he anti-government. He worked closely and voluntarily with the Purdue University Agricultural Experiment Station to screen his herd for T.B. and Bang’s disease. He also vocally supported increased city regulation on hygiene standards for dairy farms. The man simply hated homogenization and pasteurization, and he felt it was unnecessary for a hygienic farm of well-fed cows.
Unfortunately for Mr. Schacht, this became a minority opinion by the midcentury. Ultimately, Jersejoy Farm closed its doors in 1943 after Oscar Schacht’s death earlier that same year.