As I’ve mentioned, we raise our own dairy goats and milk them, and we drink the milk raw, or rather, unpasteurized. Since I wrote my last piece about the goats, I’ve had several people email me asking for advice about their dairy choices – one person living locally wanted me to sell her raw milk, two others asked if I advised people who can’t get their own livestock to source and purchase raw milk. So I thought I’d write a piece about raw milk and your options.
Perhaps the first thing I want to say is that I actually don’t have that strong an opinion on this subject, believe it or not. That is, I drink raw milk because I have raw milk. I could pasteurize it, but because we have a comparatively small number of animals, and a very, very short food chain – ie, my milk goes from the goat to a sterile jar to my kitchen to cool to another sterile jar to chill quite quickly – it doesn’t make sense. We know just what our goats are eating and we watch them closely for signs of disease. If there’s any reason to be concerned, we dump the milk.
We also have no compelling reason to pasteurize at this point – my children are all over 2, I am no longer in my breeding days, and everyone has a perfectly healthy immune system. Had we had goats when the kids were babies or I was pregnant, or with anyone with a compromised immune system, we’d pasteurize. As it is, we don’t for two reasons – the first is that we prefer the taste, particularly as we eat most of it, as yogurt and cheese, and the second is that we do think that milk in its natural form is easier to digest. I’m mildly lactose intolerant, but can use raw goat’s milk more easily than pasteurized – I’ve experimented and find that my own problem with lactase seems to be less with unpasteurized milk.
What about all the other claims that people make about the benefits of raw milk? I am completely agnostic on this subject, but I tend to suspect they are overstated. I can say with complete truth that drinking raw milk has not magically healed my child’s autism, or made my husbands allergies disappear. This, of course, is anecdotal evidence, and there does seem to be some rather uncorroborated evidence that children with allergies may benefit from raw milk, but there simply isn’t enough research to make some of the claims that people make. I’m willing to see compelling evidence for milk-as-medicine, but ultimately, I think raw milk is mostly just food. It is a very nice food, but just a food – perhaps with health benefits, also with some health risks.
To be honest, I find myself joining with Michael Pollan on this – I don’t trust the idea of food as medicine. I prefer to think of food as food. By this I mean that I don’t trust people who claim to have taken plant matter, taken it apart and isolated the single “important” part and then synthesized it and suggested we add it to our diet. I also don’t trust people on the other side of it who trumpet the magic powers of some new tropical plant to heal everything. And I don’t buy it in relationship to milk. The reality is that food has an enormous amount to do with health, and there’s some deeply crappy food out there – that said, however, none of us ever just drink milk or oat bran or Tibetan Noni Juice – the idea of the single food as savior doesn’t work for me.
That said, I admit to a mild suspicion of the claim that pasteurization has absolutely no effect on the benefits of milk – we know for example that in human milk, raising the temperature of the milk does remove beneficial elements and reduce digestibility in infants. That doesn’t mean that pasteurization isn’t beneficial – but it is a balancing act, thus, breast milk is not routinely pasteurized, although it may be to prevent the transmission of HIV or CMV. That’s not an argument, in and of itself against pasteurization, but we already know that the heat treatment of milk affects its constituent elements from considerable research into breast milk.
And raw milk may well have benefits, but it also does have risks. The reality is that milk is a perfect medium for bacteria growth – and that people have gotten ecoli, salmonella and listeria from raw milk. The FDA claims 800 illnesses from raw milk in the last twelve years – and there has been at least one serious outbreak of illness associated with raw milk, in California. It is easy to think of ecoli as a minor illness, just a little case of food poisoning, but it can be fatal, and even if it isn’t, it can make you wish it was.
The truth is that unless I’d seen the inside of the person who I was buying milk from’s barn, and seen their herd records, I’m honestly not sure that I would buy raw milk. That doesn’t mean that dairy farmers don’t handle their milk carefully – they do – but on a large scale, milking a lot of cows with equipment that moves over multiple animals, I’d be at least more cautious. And if I were pregnant or feeding a child under two, I would recommend against unpasteurized milk.
Besides taking great care in selecting a raw milk producer, honestly, I’d also remind people that if you are buying milk, you do need to treat it differently than you would pasteurized milk. I think some of the health difficulties associated with raw milk probably stem not from producers but from consumers who don’t grasp that raw milk is a more sensitive food. I think there is a real case, for example, for the beneficial bacteria in raw milk in our digestive systems – after all, we don’t pasteurize breast milk. But then again, we don’t pick up our breastmilk on an afternoon in July, carry it around in the sun for half an hour at the farmer’s market and then spend 40 minutes in a warm car with it either. Your grocery store milk may have its lifespan shortened slightly by that kind of treatment. Raw milk may be substantively changed – there’s just a lot more going on inside of it.
So if you are the sort of person who buys a half-gallon every week and drinks it for seven days, until the last glass is a little off, you won’t want to be a raw milk consumer. The truth is that I wouldn’t keep my raw milk more than three days, even in perfect cold conditions – either drink it or turn it into something that does keep, whether cheese or yogurt or kefir. If the conditions are less than perfect, you want to keep it even a shorter time. The reality is that the longer you keep living food, the more life, good and bad it will have in it.
I think raw milk should be available for sale everywhere. I also think that explicit labelling should be required – I don’t just mean a casual “read our brochure about raw milk” kind of thing but an explicit articulation of risks. At this point, however, most states don’t permit the sale of raw milk, so many people are getting it illicitly. In general, I’m pretty much in favor of illicit agriculture, and opposed to regulation, but the truth is that the milk laws emerged for compelling reasons – milk is a bacteria friendly substance that shouldn’t be taken lightly. I don’t have a problem with appropriate dairy regulation – on the other hand, that shouldn’t mean you have to spend 50K on a barn, either.
If you want raw milk, I would purchase it only after understanding the full risk-benefit analysis. I do not recommend it for pregnant women or children under 2, although I know plenty of people do drink it in those circumstances. I would either get your own dairy animal or purchase milk *only* from people who you actually develop a relationship with, after seeing their barn and handling techniques, and knowing what testing they do. I would make sure that I *always* do my milk pickup with a cooler on hand and keep it cool all the time. I would drink my milk quickly, or process it to make cheese and yogurt.
I would love to see raw milk be more available to those who do make informed choices and who want it, and I’d love to see small dairy producers able to sell it. But to do so requires a level of involvement and consciousness about your food that is simply different than picking up a quart of milk at the grocery store.