“Males have more teeth than females in the case of men, sheep, goats, and swine; in the case of other animals observations have not yet been made” – Aristotle, History of Animals, Book II, Part 3
“[A] calf cannot thrive on pasteurized cow’s milk” – www.realmilk.com
Q: What do these quotes have in common?
A: They are both easily testable claims which have been accepted as truth by many people. And I’m convinced that neither claim is valid.
For all that Aristotle got right, the dental example above is probably the most oft-cited error in his work. Maybe his wife was toothless and maybe he coasted into old age with a full set of chompers. But did he ever think to verify the claim? It wouldn’t have been hard to do. He only needed to go down to the agora and hire volunteers for an obol or a drachma (or whatever was the going rate for research subjects in those days). He could have grouped the subjects by age and gender, counted teeth, and determined average dentition. The statistics were within his grasp – he wrote a book on the Pythagoreans, so he could definitely handle the math or find someone else who could work the averages for him. So why did he just pass it on without checking? There’s no way to tell what caused Aristotle to accept this error while he did so much thoughtful study on other ideas, but I think we’ve all felt the weight exerted by argumentum ad populum to understand how he might have made this mistake. Sometimes it is hard to accurately judge what “facts” are actually factual, especially when we are surrounded by people repackaging conventional wisdom as fact.
The claim that a calf cannot thrive on pasteurized milk isn’t much different from the male superdentition claim. This claim isn’t unique to realmilk.com, but as the most vocal organization promoting raw milk, it is well positioned for broad influence. The spectre of weak, sickly, and even dead calves is often cited in pro-raw milk publications and internet discussions. Perhaps it is because some people have been so terrorized (sometimes at gunpoint) in their attempt to make their own food choices, but we find the “pasteurized milk is horrible” rhetoric often gets as overblown as the “raw milk is horrible” rhetoric. And then there is the rhetoric from the “cow milk is horrible for humans” crowd, who occasionally also make dire claims about pasteurized milk killing calves. So where did this claim come from? Why hasn’t it been checked against the experience of farms that have been raising calves on pasteurized milk for many generations of their dairy herds?
Our experience is that calves can thrive on a diet of pasteurized milk. We feed a group of four or five bull calves each year on near-expiration or recently-expired pasteurized milk. We start them on one gallon of whole milk per day and within a month each calf is getting 2 to 3 gallons per day. This is our fourth year raising calves on pasteurized milk. We’ve raised Holstein, Brown Swiss, Ayrshire, Jersey, and Devon calves, but this year’s group is all Holstein. The oldest two in this batch at 12 weeks old were too big for our weight tape (it stops at 277 pounds). The youngest at 10 weeks old taped in at 260 pounds. No pot bellies, no droopy heads or ears, just vigorous calves. Would these calves do better on raw milk? Maybe. But our calves are outperforming the standard targets for large framed Holsteins of their weight class and age, so it would be a stretch to claim that they aren’t thriving. Note that we aren’t claiming that this is the best or the only way to raise calves. And we certainly wouldn’t claim that bottle raised calves are better than dam raised calves. We only assert that we can raise calves on pasteurized milk.
The urge to employ untested claims in campaigns for or against certain dietary options isn’t helpful to food consumers and it isn’t helpful to farmers. The arguments over food and the concomitant arguments over the agriculture that produces that food often involve the sorts of overreaching statements highlighted above. There are all sorts of tribal rivalries and resentments that accrete between different groups even though they are pursuing very similar ideals for ecologically and socially sound agriculture. The “healthier than thou” mindset creates divisions between people who ought to be working together. Perhaps this is a utopian ideal, but it would be nice if everyone on the food spectrum, from vegans to vikings, all gave each other the courtesy of respect. And a good place to start would be to be very careful to only state as fact those things which can be verified. Conjecture and inference are also fine, so long as they are properly identified.
Now if you care to know, we’ll gladly tell you that we would be considered dangerously irresponsible by the FDA and the CDC. We drink raw whole milk. We eat rare meat. We make mayonnaise and ice cream with raw eggs. We get a lot of our calories from saturated animal fats. We eat plenty of salt. We don’t get flu shots. We’ll even admit to believing that alcohol, tobacco, and firearms are all fine things when used considerately. In short, we ain’t afeared of the public health bugaboos. Can we prove that these choices are better or best? Do we campaign to make other people change their habits? Nope and nope.
One last thing… I technically have more teeth than Rachel (we counted). I had one wisdom tooth removed and the other three remain unemerged but she had all four wisdom teeth removed. So if you count emerged teeth we’re tied, but if you count total teeth I’m three ahead. Maybe Aristotle was on to something after all.