Marko Bitenc gets more text messages than the average dairy farmer. Throughout the day, an app on his phone texts him updates on the quality of the raw milk in a vending machine down the road from the farm that he and his family operate just outside Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Hoping to meet the cows whose unpasteurized milk I’ve been drinking for the last three months, I rode the bus to just a few stops shy of the end of the line one day in January. After hopping off at the outskirts of the country's capital, it was a short walk past a small bakery and grocery store to the Bitenc farm.
Across the street from the barn that houses the cows, I met the Bitencs at their home. Over glasses of apricot juice at their kitchen table, Marko and his wife, Monika, discussed the challenges of running a family-owned dairy farm and their decision to get into the growing business of mlekomats, as the vending machines are called in Slovene. The Bitenc farm’s machine is one of many that have appeared throughout the country in the last five years, all of which are owned and operated by local farmers. The system removes the corporate middleman, pleasing both farmer and customer.
Thanks to the frequent texts Marko receives, the Bitencs knows immediately if the refrigerator stops working and the milk in their machine, which they change daily, rises above the temperature designated as safe by the Slovenian Administration for Food Safety. If this happens, the machine automatically stops vending, preventing the sale of unsafe milk.
In spite of these strict precautions implemented by Slovenia, this kind of fresh, local convenience product is unimaginable in the U.S., where in many states the retail sale of unpasteurized milk remains illegal.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has made its serious stance on raw milk clear in recent years through a series of dramatic raids targeting and prosecuting small farms and businesses that bypass pasteurization. Of particular concern to the FDA is the sale of raw milk across state lines, which has been outlawed since 1987. But beyond the unilateral illegality of cross-state sales, the confusing patchwork of laws at the state level makes it clear that our country is far from having a unified stance on unpasteurized milk, leaving the door open for an underground community of raw milk enthusiasts to thrive.
If this chaos sounds familiar, you might be thinking of our hodgepodge of state and federal marijuana laws, yet we’re talking about a much less scandalous controlled substance. It seems silly that so much controversy could stem from such a seemingly innocuous part of the food pyramid, but let’s not throw microbiologist Louis Pasteur under the bus just yet.
The pasteurization process was originally developed to keep wine and beer from spoiling, Pasteur refined it in the late 1800s and applied it to dairy, diminishing the once common transmission of tuberculosis through milk. Today, much of the medical community still heralds the process as a vital defense mechanism against the spread of dangerous bacteria such as E. coli. A cheery video on the FDA’s website bluntly warns of the vomiting, diarrhea, and possible hospitalization that might accompany one’s choice to consume raw milk. For milk's pint-size consumers, children, or people with immune weakness, those illnesses can have serious repercussions. Pasteurization clearly serves a valuable purpose; it just isn’t seen as legally nonnegotiable in many European countries.
Raw milk vending machines—also found throughout Italy, Croatia, Switzerland, Austria, and other neighboring countries—provide unpasteurized, local milk 24 hours a day. It’s a retail experience I first encountered in Ljubljana’s outdoor central market, where customers can purchase a reusable glass or plastic bottle from another machine (or bring their own containers) to fill. The milk from this machine comes from Farm Mis, a larger dairy at the base of nearby Šmarna Gora, the highest peak in Ljubljana, known by hikers for its pristine view of the Julian Alps.
Back in the U.S., I regularly bought a half gallon of homogenized milk, some of which would go bad before I could finish it. Deterred by ridiculous New York prices, I would only splurge on organic pasteurized milk if I felt indulgent. In Slovenia, I now buy raw milk in 20-cent increments, so I seldom have any leftover. Unsurprisingly, the unskimmed milk from the mlekomat is utterly unrecognizable compared with the bluish, watery counterpart I bought in the U.S.—another reason I rarely waste a drop.
One Euro in the machine buys a full liter of this rich milk, which is dispensed from a self-cleaning spout that is sterilized with a UV light between purchases. Any milk left in the machine at the end of a 24-hour cycle is removed, the leftovers sold to local grocers who cook it to make other dairy products; nothing is wasted. Every possible protection is taken to protect consumers, from regimented cleaning processes to monthly and yearly inspections by government officials.
The milk is marginally more expensive than its pasteurized counterpart sold in grocery stores, but this hasn’t deterred customers. The Bitenc family notes that the greatest benefit of owning a mlekomat has not been making more money but expanding the customer base. “The point is that everybody who lives in this area should be able to get fresh milk 24 hours a day. We wanted to offer a local food to the people,” Monika Bitenc said.
So what has Slovenia figured out that we haven’t? Nothing. Pasteurized milk is widely available in every supermarket, and disclaimers on the mlekomats inform customers of the safety benefits of cooking the milk before they serve it.
According to Marko and Monika, the raw milk is most popular with young families and older Slovenians, who remember getting fresh milk as kids.
Peter Hafner, a 66-year-old resident of Ljubljana, explained, “I buy [milk from the mlekomat] because I know they don’t add anything to the milk…and nothing is taken from it either. In other words, the milk from the mlekomats is natural.”
Just as many American consumers choose to spend a little extra on organic or local products, the mlekomat gives Slovenians one more unadulterated option. The consumer is simply allowed to make his or her own choice, and take a risk.
Special thanks to Vesna Nagode for her translation assistance.