Distillery Dairies – Factory Farm History 101

Many people have been asking me what the problem is with pasteurization lately, and seem rather confused about why anyone would want to drink raw milk as most of us have grown up hearing the stories of how children were dying until we started pasteurizing milk. As usual, this isn’t a simple black and white issue of pasteurization is good and raw milk is bad. It is good to know our history so that we can tease out the reality of how our world came to be in the power of industrial farming. I read Ron Schmid’s book The Untold Story of Milk before we started drinking raw milk, and got myself as informed as possible. When we start looking into the history of corporations, factory farms and industrial agriculture the divide between the folks who will do whatever it takes to make a buck and the folk who have personal integrity and commitment to the greater good of our planet is glaringly obvious. I have pulled out some of my favorite passages from Chapter 3 (BAD MILK) of The Untold Story Of Milk by Ron Schmid, ND to help spread the awareness of our own history.

The War of 1812 Leads to Swill Milk Dairies

The War of 1812 with England resulted in the permanent cutting off of America’s whiskey supply from the British West Indies. As a result, the domestic liquor industry was born, and by 1814, grain distilleries began to spring up in cities as well as in the country.

Distillery owners began housing cows next to the distilleries and feeding the hot slop directly to the animals as it poured off the stills. Thus was born the slop or swill milk system. What began as perhaps an experiment became gradually ingrained, as the system proved to produce more milk at less cost than any other method.

Slop is of little value in fattening cattle; it is unnatural food for them, and makes them diseased and emaciated. But when slop was plentifully supplied, cows yielded an abundance of milk. The milk was so defective in the properties essential to good milk that it could not be made into butter or cheese, and was good for nothing–except to sell. (p32)

In the late 1830s, reformer Robert Hartley wrote a series of articles about the problems associated with distillery dairies. In 1842 he published his landmark book An Historical, Scientific and Practical Essay on Milk as An Article of Human Sustenance, with a Consideration Upon the Present Unnatural Methods of Producing it For the Supply of Large Cities. Here Hartley describes the impressions an observer might have on visiting one of these establishments:

“If the wind is in the right quarter, he will smell the diary a mile off. On reaching it, his visual and nasal organs will, without any affectation of squeamishness, be so offended at the filth and effluvia which abounds, that still-slop milk will probably become the object of his unutterable loathing the remainder of his life. His attention will probably be first drawn to a huge distillery, sending out its tartarian fumes, and blackened with age and smoke, casting a sombre air all around. Contiguous thereto, he will see numerous low, flat pens, in which many hundreds of cows, owned by different persons, are closely huddled together, amid confined air and the stench of their excrements. He will also see the various appendages and troughs to conduct and receive the hot slush from the still with which to gorge the stomachs of these unfortunate animals, and all within an area of a few hundred yards.

“The interior of the pens corresponds with the general bad arrangement and repulsive appearance of the exterior. Most of the cattle stand in rows of from seven to ten across the building, head to head and tail to tail alternately. There appears, however, no contrivance for washing the pens, or by which a circulation of air can be produced. But to survey the premises round about, and merely to look into the pens, will but inadequately convey an idea of the disgusting reality. Neither is it sufficient to enter into them while empty with the impression that the worst can be imagined. This is a delusion. Let the visitor go into the midst of the pens, when crowded with cattle, in summer, as the writer has done, and inhale but one breath of the polluted air, and an inexpressible impression of heart-sickening disgust will be produced, which time will never efface. The astonishment is, that animal (p33) life, with all its wonderful recuperative energies, and power of accommodation to circumstances, can exist in so fetid an atmosphere. Nor will the overpowering disgust produced be in any degree relieved by the spectacle of sick, dying and dead cattle, as was the case during a recent visit of the writer, and which, under this wretched management, cannot fail to be of frequent occurrence.

“Such is the barbarous and unnatural treatment of this docile, inoffensive and unfortunate animal, that is destined to supply us with nutriment, both when living and dead, and which is one of the most valuable gifts of Providence to ungrateful men. Here, in a stagnant and empoisoned atmosphere that is saturated with the hot steam of whiskey slop, and loaded with carbonic acid gas, and other impurities arising from the excrements of hundreds of sickly cattle, they are condemned to live, or rather to die on rum-slush. For the space of nine months, they are usually tied to the same spot, from which, if they live so long, they are not permitted to stir, excepting indeed, they become so diseased as to be utterly useless for the dairy. The are, in a word, never unloosed while they are retained as milkers. In some few cases the cattle have stood in the same stalls for fifteen or eighteen months; but so rapid is the progress of disease under this barbarous treatment, that such instances are exceptions to the general rule, and of very rare occurrence. Facts show that all the conditions necessary to the maintenance of health and life, are recklessly violated to an extent which, if not well authenticated, might appear incredible in a Christian community. Of course, by a law of physical nature, the digestion of the animal becomes impaired, the secretions vitiated, loathsome and fatal diseases are engendered, and if no seasonably slaughtered, and eaten by our citizens, the abused creatures die, and their flayed carcasses are thrown into the river.” (p34)

Hartley estimated that about 18,000 cows produced over five million gallons of slop milk each year for the consumption of New Yorkers–mostly New York’s children. He called the slop milk industry “a curse and a scourge, as indicated by the Bills of Mortality.” Infant mortality had risen sharply since around 1815 when the distillery dairies began to flourish, accounting for about half of all deaths in the city by 1839. Many deaths were caused by diarrhea, many others by tuberculosis. (p34)

In the distillery dairies, the tubercle bacillus was probably passed by various routes. Diseased cows were milked in an unsanitary manner. Milkers were often dirty, sick or both. Milk pails and other equipment were usually dirty. Contamination with Salmonella and numerous other pathogenic organisms that may lead to diarrhea and worse in susceptible individuals was undoubtably common. Diarrhea was the most frequent cause of death in infants during those years, and many infants contracted tuberculosis, scarlet fever, diphtheria and other infectious diseases that were sometimes passed on in milk. (p35)

Most shameful of all is the fact that the distillery dairies continued to sell milk well into the 1900s; the last one in the New York City area was in Brooklyn, and it closed in 1930.

Traditional dairymen, producers of clean, grass-fed, healthy milk, meanwhile did their best to produce milk for New York an other cities. They advertised “pure feed and pasture milk” and that “no swill or any other feed, which can in any manner, whatever, be deleterious for the human constitution or injurious to the milk, shall be used during the winter months for fodder.” The shipped this country milk, as it was known, into the cites by train–the so-called milk trains–using ice blocks to keep it cool and making a better profit selling whole milk to customers in the cities than they could making butter at home. Shipments of country milk to New York grew to over thirteen million gallons in 1850. (p36)

Because slop milk was naturally very thin and of a pale bluish color, dealers added a variety of substances to give it color and consistency, including starch, sugar, flour, plaster of Paris and chalk. Water was commonly used to dilute both this product and country milk, thus increasing the dealer’s profits. The nation’s first laws to curb some of these abuses were passed in the 1850s, in an attempt to control and oversee the supply and distribution of milk. Distillery dairy owners fought back by buying political influence. With a refrain that has become familiar in the ensuing years, politicians argued that a law against swill milk would keep individuals from the “peaceful possession and use of their property.” (p37)

Mr. Hartley’s book was published 160 years ago. Today in confinement dairies throughout America, cows are living in stalls they never leave, stalls literally welded shut, where they are fed “scientific” diets devoid of fresh grass, diets designed to maximize milk production. These diets include grains, soybeans, “bakery waste” (bread, cakes, pastries and even candy bars) and citrus peel cake loaded with pesticides. While some of the grossest excesses of the distillery dairies have been eliminated, confinement cows today are not healthy animals, and they are not producing the kind of milk America’s children and adults need and deserve. (p38)

From the early 1800s, America’s largest cities kept thorough records of all deaths….Hartley examined the mortality records for these three cities for the years 1811 to 1839, especially deaths of children under five years old. The city of Boston published totals for each decade. They showed that from 1811 to 1820, the percentage of deaths made up by children under five was 33.64 percent. It rose to 37.04 percent for the years 1821 to 1830, and to 43.09 percent for the years 1831 to 1839. The city of Philadelphia published yearly totals from 1814 through 1839. The percentage of deaths made up by children under five rose steadily from 24.28 percent in 1814 to 51.83 percent in 1839. For New York, yearly figures were available from 1814 through 1840. The percentage of deaths made up by children under five increased from 32.14 percent in 1814 to 50.02 percent in 1840.

Hartley’s study of corresponding figures for European cities showed that despite conditions of extreme poverty, the percentage of deaths made up by children under five had been falling steadily for nearly on hundred years. In London, for example, it had fallen from 74.5 percent in 1729 to 31.8 percent in 1829. This was typical of all large European cities for which records were available. (p39)

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  1. Elaine says:

    It is like a revolution again in 2012 of milk. Even though we don’t have the distilleries mash going into our dairy cows, we have “gummy worms” and other such things. We can’t seem to get to Real Milk, handled with cleanliness and care. I raised my kids on raw milk, straight from the cow and they were healthy and strong.

  2. Scott says:

    Heartbreaking. With milk being produced in these conditions, it’s easy to see why pasteurization must have been so vital. But of course all milk is not created equal.

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