Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Measured Time, Meaning, and Milk

Food is an aspect of everyday life that is, at once, totally exotic and utterly banal. You could describe time in similar terms. Pausing to think about the process of pasteurization of milk in New York City, and the debates that surround it as a standard practice of production, can bring us to the core of questions on how time is commonly conceptualized, the history of these conceptualizations, and how they structure contemporary human formations. Big stuff, I know. 

Pasteurization is, essentially, the process whereby milk is cleansed. In New York City, it is illegal to sell raw (i.e. unpasteurized) milk. The logic of this prohibition is that raw milk can carry dangerous pathogens like E. coli, salmonella, and campylobacter, and it has been linked to illnesses that result in kidney failure, heart attacks, and paralysis. This list of possible side effects is by no means exhaustive though it is representative of the panoply of possible worst-case scenarios. Pasteurization involves heating the milk to specified degrees for specified amounts of time. There are different configurations of time and heat with different benefits for shelf life, cost reduction, and so on. The first part of the pasteurization process for New York City’s last dairy standing, Elmhurst Dairy, involves testing the milk for “antibiotics, bacteria, and proper temperature”. If it passes these intitial tests, milk is then sent to silos to be separated according to its prospective milkfat percentage (1%, 2%, 3.5%). The milk then pasteurized by what is called “high temperature, short time” pasteurization. That is, the milk is run through pipes that are heated on the outside by water; the milk is then kept at 171 degrees Fahrenheit for exactly 27 seconds; and then, it is “immediately” cooled back down. 

What is noticeable as one peruses Elmhurst Dairy’s website is the shift in register, or narrative voice, when it comes to pasteurization. The rest of the statements on the website are made on vague terms that tap into the imagined consumer’s positive feelings regarding treatment of animals, locality, environmentalism, and so on. However, these vague and feel-good discussions, as product claims, rest on the ability to make claims that are rooted in brute material realities. These "brute material realities" are the time milk spends travelling from farm to processing center to store, the time milk spends being heated to ensure that the pathogens picked up from contact with fecal matter or infection on the udder, for example, are expunged. They are times that can be precisely specified, and in this possibility of specification, times that can be aligned with abstract state and national level laws regarding public health. This alignment can subsequently be turned into product claims that align with the cultural ethos of a particular moment. In this case, that ethos is a focus on purity cum nutrition. 

The clock times used to measure valid pasteurization have not always existed. Neither was the invention and systematization of measured clock time natural and inevitable. Rather, it was a shift that required much effort by states, factory owners, and the church. What is more, it took place over several decades and often in contexts of punishment (Dohrn-Van Rossum 1996). The clock times used in pasteurization can be thought of as demarcations laid over a material reality (milk) undergoing fluid changes. There are innumerable moments of biochemical metamorphosis comprising the larger, threshold change of state of raw to pasteurized. Dan Berber, chef and co-owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill Stone Barns, and advocate for raw milk, is cited in the New Yorker stating, “I think milk has a superior flavor when it’s not pasteurized […] And I love the challenge of working with something that’s changing constantly” (Emphasis added). The status of pasteurized milk, as commodity and food, begs the question of what kind of social temporal consciousness is relied on and being reiterated in the way time is used in the science of product claims? Further, what is the relation of present to past in terms of conceptualizations of time, and the projects to which these conceptualizations are being put to use?

Dohrn-Van Rossum, Gerhard. 1996. History of the Hour: Clocks and Modern Temporal Orders. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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