How Kosher is Your Milk?
by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
June 7, 2012

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On our wedding day last year, my wife and I decided that, due to our Jewish convictions, we would no longer drink milk or consume any dairy products. This is a vow we have remained deeply committed to, but we never expected it to become mainstream. Then we found out that one of the greatest Jewish legal authorities in America, Rabbi Herschel Schachter, has made public that he had stopped consuming dairy products due to kashrut concerns. I now feel our once-private decision is worthy of a discussion on a larger level.

Jewish law prohibits consuming the milk of a tereifah (an animal that is sick or injured, and therefore unkosher), (Exodus 22:30; Bekhorot 6b; Chulin 116b; Hilchot Shechitah 10:9; Shulchan Aruch YD 81:1); the Talmud lists 18 different organic diseases or conditions, and the Rambam has 70 (Hilchot Shechita 10:9). However, because the milk we buy in stores today comes from different cows and is all mixed up, as long as we know that the majority of the milk (“rov,” Exodus 23:2) comes from healthy cows, then we may consider it all kosher without any examination(Chullin 11a-12a). 

On the other hand, when even a minority (mi’ut ha’mazui) of the cows are shown to be frequently sick, then Jewish law requires that we must examine the animals to confirm there is no problem (Hullin 11a, 12a; Bi’ur ha-Gra YD 1:4). Dairy production has generally not been considered a problem, and thus the authorities of kashrut have been lenient on consumption. 

That situation may be changing among some halachic authorities. Rabbi Schachter, the leading rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, is not an animal welfare activist, but he is a halachic adviser to the kashrut division of the Orthodox Union and is unwavering in his commitment to the integrity of Jewish law. He believes that today we cannot be sure that more than half of the cows producing milk for mass-market consumption aren’t injured, sick or have adhesions (growths on the lungs). In an article for YU Torah Online, Rabbi Michoel Zylberman reported that a rabbi in South Africa observed that 95 percent of cows at dairy farms there have adhesions. Another rabbi observed that, at one dairy farm in America, 80 percent had adhesions, (letter by Rabbi Herschel Schachter to Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitz, 3rd Tishrei 6767).

We don’t milk our own cows in our backyards anymore, and most small dairy farms have long been put out of business. Today, it is very likely that unkosher milk is all too often being mixed together with kosher milk at unacceptable levels. As Rabbi J. David Bleich wrote in an article on the online site Tradition: “In the modern age, commercial dairies collect milk from, literally, hundreds of cows. Milk from all of these cows is combined, pasteurized and then bottled. Statistically, since a mi’ut ha’mazui [a frequently found minority] of dairy cows are indeed treifot [not kosher], it is virtually certain that milk bottled in a dairy [farm] contains an admixture of non-kosher milk,” (Contemporary Halachic Problems, Volume 6, “Is the milk we drink kosher?”).

A tereifah is an animal that will not live for more than 12 months (tereifah einah chayah). If these statistics are accurate, and a substantial portion — if not a majority — of dairy cows qualify as tereifot, this means that these animals are so sick that, according to Rabbi Schachter, more than half of them are dying. The fact is, the milk industry is potentially of greater concern for observant Jews than the meat industry, as the slaughtering process requires checking the killed animal’s organs for illness, necessitating more care to avoid abuses. Checking for sicknesses and internal adhesions not visible to the eye cannot be done in the dairy industry in the same way, as the animal is milked, not slaughtered.

For those among us who have always attempted to follow halacha to the letter, this matter is worthy of consideration, as it is for anyone who cares for animals and the ethics of how and what we eat. The dairy industry has changed drastically since the original leniencies on drinking milk and consuming other dairy products in America were given decades ago. Consider some of the conditions of the modern dairy farm. Dairy cows are chained by the neck to their stalls and are given electric shocks to ensure that they keep their backs in one position, so that their urine and manure fall in a gutter, and the stalls do not have to be cleaned for each cow individually. 

Cows are impregnated yearly, which causes tremendous physical strain on the animal, and, after each birth nine months later, the calves are taken from their mothers immediately. Male calves are then slaughtered for the veal industry, which is even more abusive.

About one-quarter of the animals used to make ground beef are worn-out dairy cattle. These animals are the most likely to be diseased and filled with antibiotic residues. These dairy cows tend to be less healthy than cattle in a large feeding lot due to the stresses of the industrial milk production process. Dairy cows, under optimal conditions, could actually live up to 40 years, but they are often just slaughtered at age 4 due to the decline of their milk output and the strain that results from mistreatment.

Researchers have opened our eyes to very real problems in today’s dairy industry. Bovine growth hormone is given to cows to give them unusually large and heavy udders, resulting in increased infection rates, which then lead to the administration of antibiotics. The hormones and antibiotics are in the milk consumed by humans, adding to a possible increased risk of cancer and overexposure to antibiotics.

Cows are hooked up to electronic milking machines several times each day. These machines give off electric shocks and create lesions and mastitis (inflammation of the mammary glands). 

In light of all of this, it seems to me that, from a halachic standpoint, let alone an ethical standpoint, it is no longer acceptable to support the dairy industry as it operates today. We must communicate to the industry how we, as Jewish consumers, feel about these abuses and support healthier, more ethical options. In the meantime, we must also consider moving toward almond, soy, rice and coconut milk alternatives, until the dairy industry cleans up its act. There is no shortage of affordable, healthy, tasty alternatives, so it is relatively easy for us to make the change in accordance with our consciences.

Rav Schachter has taken this legal stringency upon himself. Following his lead, it is time for us all to consider these conditions to determine where we personally fall in this struggle with ethical consumption. The value the Torah seems to be teaching is that treating animals properly is part and parcel of kashrut; that leads to the argument that unethical, inhumane practices are not only a violation of the prohibition of tza’ar ba’alei chayim (inflicting pain on animals) but often result in the production of treif milk. 

While we wait for the dairy industry to clean up its act, what will happen to those big muscles and strong bones our moms and commercials told us milk will help build? As it turns out, the nutritional information provided to consumers has not always been accurate. Many of us have been misled to believe that milk is the best source of protein, calcium and vitamin C. The National Dairy Council (NDC) is a marketing arm of Dairy Management Inc., an industry body whose purpose, according to its Web site, is to “drive increased sales of and demand for U.S. dairy products.” The NDC naturally does not share the negative public-health consequences. Since the 1950s, educators and governments have allowed the NDC to become the largest distributor of nutritional-education materials in the country. In fact, the health risks of dairy consumption, according to health experts at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, include osteoporosis, cardiovascular
disease, cancer, diabetes, lactose intolerance and vitamin D toxicity, among others.

Added to all this is the fact that the environmental harm caused by carbon dioxide emissions from today’s industrial farms is known to be worse than the pollution caused by our automobiles. Experts estimate that if all Americans ate a vegan diet, that alone would cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 6 percent. Changing our diets is the most powerful way to help the environment.

While factory farms control most of the dairy industry, there are some smaller dairy farms striving for better. One such innovator I met at the Hazon Food Conference a few years ago was Albert Straus, who is the president of Straus Family Creamery. This cutting-edge dairy farm north of San Francisco is deeply committed to more sustainable production that is also totally organic, contains no genetically modified organisms (GMO-free), minimally processed, contains no additives and is certified kosher. They also allow their cows to graze in the fields. But while Strauss products are available at Whole Foods locally, many small farms like this are drowned out by massive commercial producers and the large number of brands available in large supermarkets. 

The future lies in the regulation, or lack thereof, by legislators and in the spending patterns of the consumers. One should also remember that organic milk may be healthier because the animals ate organic feed and weren’t given synthetic hormones or medications, but that doesn’t mean it is cruelty-free. Also, Chalav Yisrael (milk produced under kosher supervision) is no different, as much of it also comes from regular commercial farms that merely set aside times to produce supervised milk. 

In Jewish law, if an animal is abused, we may not benefit from it. Until we can be totally sure that most cows are not treif anymore, we must be stringent on this Jewish law to ensure that we are not consuming the milk of sick and abused cows. The Jewish people need to be at the forefront of reining in the excesses of the industrial farming age. 

Next time you stand in the dairy aisle, consider trying a dairy-free month for Jewish law and ethics and for your health. 

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America.