Raw milk is one of the world’s most controversial foods. Supporters portray it as a miracle food; detractors view it as one of the most dangerous foods. Obviously both sides can’t be correct. So what’s the real story?
Q: What is raw milk, exactly?
DG: Raw milk is milk as it comes directly from the cow, ostensibly to nurse her calves. The calves are usually removed shortly after birth, and the cow’s milk diverted for humans. It comes complete with naturally occurring bacteria, enzymes and proteins.
Most farmers immediately cool raw milk to about 40° F (about 4° C) to minimize the multiplication of the naturally occurring bacteria, and then keep it refrigerated. But milk distributed raw doesn’t go through any of the processing that occurs to most commercially sold milk, including pasteurization, fractionating, homogenization, and standardization to consistent protein and fat concentrations.
Q: So all milk, before it is pasteurized, is raw, right?
DG: Technically, that is correct. But in the context in which I am discussing unpasteurized milk, it is important to distinguish between milk that is produced with the intention of being served raw, which some people refer to as ‘fresh milk,’ and milk that is produced with the intention of being pasteurized before being consumed, which some people refer to as ‘pre-pasteurized milk.’
Q: Why is that distinction important?
DG: Producers of pre-pasteurized milk, from commercial dairies, don’t have to worry about people getting sick from pathogens that might be present in the milk when it leaves the farm, since the milk will be heated to required pasteurization levels to kill the pathogens. Indeed, testing of pre-pasteurized milk from most large dairies (500 or more cows) has, in a number of dairy industry and other studies, been shown to typically contain one or more of the pathogens that can make people sick when it leaves the farm.
Q: And pasteurization fixes that problem?
DG: Let’s say that heating the milk to 161° F (about 71°C) for 15 seconds kills off the most common pathogens, including the four that comprise today’s most frequent sources of foodborne illnesses – Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria and E. coli 0157:H7.
However, pasteurization also kills off many other bacteria in the milk, which aren’t harmful, and some of which may be beneficial. All milk, before processing, contains not only a number of harmless bacteria, but a variety of enzymes and special proteins unique to milk.
Q: So people can’t get sick from drinking pasteurized milk?
DG: Not exactly. People can and do get sick from drinking pasteurized milk – if the pasteurizing equipment doesn’t work right or if there is contamination in the bottling or other post-pasteurization processes, or if the pre-pasteurization levels of pathogens were extremely high. Such occurrences are rare, however.
Q: You previously mentioned fractionating and homogenization. Can you explain these?
DG: It’s important to appreciate that pasteurization is just one step in a multifaceted processing scheme. Before anything happens to mass-market milk, it is fractionated to obtain the different variations we are accustomed to seeing in the supermarket – skim, 1%, 2% and ‘whole’ milk. All these variations are produced via fractionating, whereby varying amounts of butterfat, in the form of cream, are pulled from the milk. ‘Skim’ milk is just as the name suggests – essentially all the cream is removed or ‘skimmed’ from the milk. For the other types (like 1% or 2%) the butterfat is similarly all removed, and then the promised amount added back in. Even ‘whole’ milk, which originally had 4% or more butterfat, is sold with 3.35% butterfat in the United States (with slight variations in other countries).
In addition, nearly all milk that is pasteurized is also homogenized. This is a process developed in the 1930s of spinning the milk at high speeds and forcing it through filters to break up the fat globules so that the milk no longer separates, with the cream rising to the top. Some raw milk aficionados think homogenization adversely affects the nutritional composition of the milk, making the fat less easily digestible, and less nutritious.
Q: What is the dairy industry’s position with regard to milk safety?
DG: The dairy industry takes the position that pasteurized milk is the safest option, and that raw milk is an unsafe option. It argues that outbreaks of illness associated with raw milk raise questions about safety for all milk. The industry says it doesn’t want problems with raw milk to denigrate the entire dairy industry, and that’s why it campaigns so hard against raw milk.
Q: How risky is raw milk, really?
DG: The issue of risk is the one that creates the most fear and controversy around raw milk. Public health authorities argue that raw milk is just too risky for most people, and particularly for children and individuals with compromised immune systems, like those undergoing chemotherapy. Advocates of raw milk contend that the risks associated with raw milk have been overstated. They say there are risks associated with all foods, and that even pasteurized milk has made people seriously ill, and even killed a few.
Q: Why did safety suddenly become a problem?
DG: Raw milk safety problems first emerged in the mid-1800s, when huge numbers of people began moving from the country to the city as part of the Industrial Revolution. With the new city arrivals came their cows – after all, families wanted to continue drinking milk. Not surprisingly, raising cows in cities didn’t work very well, especially when it was done by business people who knew little about animal husbandry and cared even less. They began keeping cows in areas of Brooklyn, Boston and Chicago in what amounted to the first feedlots, and they were disgusting places. The cows were often fed the leftovers from distilleries and wound up malnourished, making their milk blue in color. The men who milked them were often sick with tuberculosis and other diseases. There was little appreciation about the importance of sanitation and no understanding of how pathogens were passed from feces to the milk. There were terrible outbreaks of typhoid fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and other diseases, resulting in thousands being killed, including many children.
Q: Wasn’t there a time when the medical community actually supported raw milk as healthy, and even as a key therapeutic component in fighting serious diseases?
DG: Raw milk has a history as a nourishing, even healing, food. Ironically, during the early 1900s, when raw milk was being blamed for large-scale disease outbreaks occurring in American cities, the nation’s medical community was very supportive of raw milk. Physicians often prescribed raw-milk-based diets to help people heal from diseases like tuberculosis and arthritis, and wrote a number of books advocating its medicinal benefits.
Q: What is your view of the future of raw milk?
DG: I tend to be an optimist about the marketplace. Products that provide significant benefits usually win out in the end, even if there are significant forces arrayed against them. Makers of buggy whips and horse-drawn carriages pushed hard against automobiles. Producers of margarine warned for years about the safety of butter, until margarine was found to have its own health problems, and eventually faded away, while butter has surged in popularity.
The conventional dairy industry detests raw milk, out of fear that raw milk will continue to grab more market share. So the industry will continue fighting hard against raw milk, and encouraging the public health profession to keep up the fight. But as more people experience health benefits, and dairy farmers discover that raw milk can be a more profitable product than conventional milk, the marketplace for raw milk will inevitably expand, and people will demand easier access.
For a full primer on the subject, read ‘The Raw Milk Answer Book’.