Raw vs. Pasteurized

September 24, 2012 · 13 comments

I think about raw milk a lot. Probably every day that I’m out milking my own dairy goat. There’s a lot to think about, and after six years of milking, I’m still pretty undecided on a lot of the issues surrounding raw milk. In a society that seems to be so very polarized on this topic, I am solidly ambivalent. I’m not a medical professional or even a “real” farmer, so what follows is not an expert opinion, just a few of my thoughts.

A few weeks back, I had the privilege of tagging along with my friend Lisa Hargest, a serious raw-milk advocate, while she went about her evening milking routine with her Jersey dairy cow, Bella. Lisa milks three cows daily and sells raw milk to about 40 local customers. Selling raw milk directly from farm is legal in the state of Oregon if the proprietor of the farm milks no more than three cows or nine goats. As far as I know, there are no legal standards for small milk producers regarding sanitation or specific requirements for the milking routine.

I wanted to watch Lisa pre, during, and post-milking because even though I’ve been milking my own goat daily for six seasons, most of what I know about dairying I’ve learned from books or the internet. I’m pretty happy to have a real-life friend who has real-world experience with dairy animals and dairy products. (Thanks, Lisa!)

I agree with raw-milk enthusiasts on some points. Raw milk contains natural bacteria that may make dairy fats and proteins easier to digest and may offer other health benefits such as alleviating symptoms from some allergies. Because raw milk producers don’t have the safety net of pasteurization, they (ideally) must pay extra attention to their sanitation practices, so that they deliver a pure and clean product to consumers. (I’m not implying here that producers of pasteurized milk don’t pay attention to sanitation practices, but hopefully raw milk producers are particularly diligent.)

Eating any food involves a certain amount of risk, which is something that I, like many folks, choose to ignore most of the time. Theoretically, I know I could get E. coli from eating a carrot that wasn’t washed thoroughly, or I could give my family the runs by undercooking dinner, but I don’t dwell on these possibilities. The thing about milk, however, is that it comes from an animal that does not (or should not) live in sterile conditions. It poops and rolls in the dirt and comes into contact with wild creatures and even the healthiest animal can become ill every once in a while. Milk happens to be a perfect medium for breeding some minorly as well as majorly nasty bacteria and pathogens that can get into the milk in a variety of ways. The reality is that contaminated milk can make you a little sick, very sick, or even dead. Though such serious consequences are very VERY unlikely (and are not at all exclusive to raw milk), they can and do happen on occasion.

This may not be much consolation to anyone who’s contracted a serious food-borne illness, but I believe one of the strongest reasons to support small-scale food producers is that if, God forbid, there were to be some kind of contamination, the illness would be contained and limited to a relatively small number of people. Unlike the occasional food recalls that you hear about that affect millions of people across dozens of states, if one batch of green beans from a roadside farmstand makes people sick, only a few people will get sick (though unfortunately, that type of event may ruin the reputation of roadside farmstands everywhere).

There was an E. coli in raw milk outbreak in Oregon a few months back. I listened to this interview on OPB radio’s Think Out Loud with the mother of a toddler who contracted E. coli from drinking raw milk. In the interview, the mother admitted that she placed 100% of the blame on herself and her husband for making the choice to feed their daughter raw milk, and she had nothing bad to say about the raw milk producer though she would never buy or consume raw milk again. I have to admit that her descriptions of the horrors her daughter had been through in the weeks after becoming ill scared me. I also found the interview with a raw milk producer (not from the farm with the E. coli outbreak) that came after the interview with the mother, pretty convincing, and it gave me some ideas for ways that I could tighten up my own dairy sanitation program at home. You should really give it a listen if you have a half hour or so to spare.

Ironically, Henry and I are not actually milk drinkers. Levi prefers water over milk most of the time, so Charlotte, arguably the most vulnerable member of our family because she’s the smallest, is the only one who will drink a glass of milk on a regular basis. I’ll have a shot of milk in my coffee or tea occasionally, or I’ll have milk on my cereal, but other than that, I usually cook with the milk we have on hand and make cheese or yogurt with what’s left over.

For the first few years of milking a dairy goat, I pasteurized everything. Since then, I’ve tightened up my sanitation practices and somewhat loosened up my commitment to pasteurization. To be perfectly honest, the biggest reason why I don’t always pasteurize is that it’s a pain. It takes time and dirties dishes, and though I am obviously not opposed to dirtying dishes, I’d rather not have to scrub extra pots and utensils. I always pasteurize milk that I use for cheese or yogurt because I’m too nervous about letting a pot of milk sit out for at least 24 hours at room temperature. I know that theoretically, the good bacteria in cheese is supposed to outcompete the potentially harmful bacteria that may exist, but I don’t have quite enough confidence in this process to feel comfortable with it and feed the results to my family.

While I realize that raw milk can be healthier than pasteurized milk, I don’t consider pasteurized milk “unhealthy”. I think that kind of hard-line opinion is pretty absurd. I’m also probably not enough of a milk connoisseur to even be able to detect the difference between the two in a blind trial.

I try to be a healthy eater all around, including lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in my diet and nearly excluding high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated fats, and all that other non-food garbage that people eat these days. I feel like I can get tons of micro bacteria from raw vegetables, unpasteurized honey, pickles, beer, etc.. I don’t NEED raw milk to make me a healthy person. (I’ve heard of people who have a hard time maintaining a healthy diet because of serious illness or allergies, so in some cases raw milk may be just the thing to offer these folks sustenance and beneficial bacteria. This is not the case in my household, so I can’t really speak to the veracity of these claims.)

I don’t sell raw milk from my goat, nor do I ever intend to. This is partly due to the fact that I don’t have a whole lot of excess milk, and my dairying is just a hobby that I don’t need to make money off of, but I also have no interest in assuming the liability of potentially making someone sick. While I do everything I can to keep my own family from becoming ill from raw milk (or anything else), I couldn’t live with myself if I was paid for a service that turned out to bring someone pain and suffering to a customer even if I knew that I did everything I could to prevent it.

After watching Lisa’s milking routine and asking her a million questions, the thing that’s stuck with me and I find quite disturbing is the fact that many of Lisa’s customers want raw milk and begin buying from her without asking ANY questions. She has a few customers who have come during milking time to watch her process, but most of her customers just put their money in a jar, take the milk from the fridge, and go on their merry way, placing blind faith in Lisa and her sanitation practices.

From my humble, unexpert milkmaid position, I want to say to you, dear readers who want to buy raw milk, ASK QUESTIONS! Educate yourself! Visit the facility during milking time! Look around! Think critically! Talk to the producer! If you have ANY qualms about the process that aren’t  seriously addressed by the milk producer, do NOT buy milk from that facility.

Making the decision to buy and drink raw milk (and feed it to your family), is something that should not be taken lightly. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the issue, and I’d especially appreciate it if you could direct me and other readers toward quality, fact-based, unbiased research on the subject. I know this is a pretty heated issue, so I’d like to remind folks to please keep the conversation civil (or else you comments will be deleted). Thanks in advance for your insights!

In case you were wondering, I haven’t included Lisa’s contact information here intentionally for two reasons. First off, she’s not really soliciting new customers, and secondly, I personally would never buy raw milk from someone (anyone) else, so I don’t think it would be prudent for me to endorse the practice.

 

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Miranda September 24, 2012 at 10:00 am

Great post, Camile!
I’m a several year long term raw milk drinker… though lately i’ve been buying lochmead’s milk. raw milk is spendy, and i turn most of the milk into yogurt, thus killing those beneficial enzymes anyway. i also plan on raising dairy goats, and haven’t even considered pasteurizing – though i’m sure i will – since i’m not an overly fastidious person.
I’d love to come and observe YOUR dairying practices some time, as i’m more interested in the process how it pertains to goats.
i’ve had lisa’s milk and it’s delicious – though the best milk i’ve ever had was raw nigerian dwarf milk. like ice cream!

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Camille September 24, 2012 at 8:51 pm

I wrote about my morning milking routine last summer in this post: http://waywardspark.com/?p=1226. Since then, I’ve added a step of washing the udder with soap and water and then rinsing it.

I would suggest to anyone considering keeping a dairy animal that they better learn to be meticulous about their sanitation/hygiene or else reconsider and buy milk from the store. Even if you plan to pasteurize, everything dairy related must be kept very very clean.

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Miranda September 25, 2012 at 9:16 am

Of course, Camille. I have learned to be fastidious in my canning, i can certainly do so during dairying. Thanks for the link- i’ll check that out. I read a recent blog post recently (http://stonybrookfarm.wordpress.com/farming-practices/farming-practices-goats/) that included her daily milking routine, which i like: bring the girls in at night, wash their feet and udders before they even enter the barn. Great idea, especially in our muddy winter valley. She then milks in the morning. I’d guess she’d also wash in the am before milking. (haven’t read the whole article just yet) Do you do an iodine rinse? i goat sat for a gal with nigerian dwarves and she did an iodine rinse – 1 dot per teet.

In any case – i can’t wait to keep dairy goats and make my own cheese again. What better reason to own a soapmaking company than to wash your own goats udders ? :)

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Ashley September 24, 2012 at 11:51 am

Wonderful post! Loved the pros and cons on this very heated debate. 2 months ago I purchased my first Jersey dairy cow. She is 5, dry, and will calve next July. Excited to enjoy the benefits of raw milk and to know where my food comes from. I live in Montana and here selling raw milk is illegal. But even still I enjoy raw milk…consider it “sticking it to the man”. I also milked cows at UGA’s research dairy during college. You are right, the chance of an outbreak at a family farm is minimal. But at a large dairy, very common. As you would think they have safe practices, most do not. Hence pasteurization! Love your blog and all you write about!

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Camille September 24, 2012 at 8:37 pm

Good luck with that cow. I’m kinda jealous of folks who have tons of fresh cow milk (and cream) for cheesemaking, but then again, you’ll have a whole lot of work to go with it.

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farmer liz September 24, 2012 at 9:28 pm

What beautiful jersey cows! I’m a sucker for them though, as I have two at home myself :) That was a very good summary of the issues with raw milk. I’m with you, I don’t like to sell or give away our milk, just because I wouldn’t want to be responsible (or incorrectly blamed) for any illness. And I absolutely agree that you should inspect the milking procedure before you buy (and personally I would never buy from someone else, you can never be sure of their standards).

I know that raw milk frequently gets blamed for food poisoning, but it is actually really hard to prove the cause of food poisoning, and sometimes raw milk is just an easy target. Unless the authorities were actually able to test the milk in question, I would be suspicious of the assumption that raw milk is the cause, when there are so many other sources of E Coli.

I also have to say that every “conventional” dairy that I’ve been to, are fairly sloppy with cleanliness, because they know that the milk will be pastuerised. I think you would be really interested to go to a large commercial diary and watch their process compared to the small dairy. In a small dairy you can take the time to wash teats and look after the milk so much more carefully than if you have 100s of cows to milk!

Finally, I think that there is legitimate evidence that pasteurised milk is unhealthy because the proteins in the milk change shape when they are heated and are no longer recognised by our bodies, and can’t be processed correctly, which can cause intolerance. But I’m not qualified to make that call any more than you are! I’m just a milkmaid that’s done some research and been milking a cow and drinking raw milk for just over a year now. I’m fascinated by this topic (as much the political aspects – we can’ t sell raw milk at all in Australia, I think its to protect the milk processors – as the health issues), thank you for the opportunity to comment.

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Nita September 25, 2012 at 10:46 am

Excellent post on a very touchy subject. I have always kept a milk cow, and I used to sell milk when you could buy raw milk from the store in Oregon. (I know hard to believe, but you could buy raw milk at Fred Meyer until the early 90’s.) But when I had my child I decided to pasteurize even though I had grown up on raw milk. Once she was past toddler stage I quit the pasteurizing step.

The best advice that you mentioned is for the consumer to thoroughly vet the farm and the farmer before you consider drinking raw milk. Cleanliness is very important during the milking procedure and equally important is: are the cows healthy, are the calves well taken care of and appear bright eyed, and in good health too?

As a the food producer for my family, I have to be the person vetting my own process. So if my cow happens to lay in a poop (which does happen) and gets her udder dirty, I don’t save the milk for the house. Since I am not selling milk I am not tempted to save every gallon. Milk that I feel has a greater chance for contamination goes to pigs or chickens who make good use of the resource.

A house cow is a wonder, providing enough butter, milk, beef (from a calf) and manure to really make a farmstead more sustainable. Selling the milk is too much of a liability for our situation though. Knowing people who have lost their farm due to illness from their raw milk products, I just can’t take chance on selling, but I will always be a raw milk drinker.

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Camille September 25, 2012 at 9:06 pm

Yes! I totally forgot to mention that you should take the time to see if the animals are healthy. No amount of sanitation is going to make milk from a sick cow fit for human consumption. In some ways, however, I think it can be difficult for a person with no animal husbandry experience to judge the health of an animal, but most competent adults would be able to spot potential weaknesses in a sanitation program.

Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

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Stephanie September 25, 2012 at 1:29 pm

Hi Camille,
I stumbled upon your blog as a member of Gathering Together Farms CSA, and LOVE everything you write about. This was a great post of Raw vs. Pasturized, I myself have heard the benefits of Raw milk, but would absouletly never forgive myself if soemthing were to happen to my son. For myself, I didn’t feel the benefits out weigh the risks. He too prefers water over milk, and has a very healthy diet of local meats, leafy greens, fruits, veggies, and grains. He was also breastfed for sometime, so cow’s milk was never really relied on. Great post! Very educational without being persuasive.

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Shauna in Texas September 25, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Great, balanced post.

I don’t have my own goat (or my own land, for that matter), but I’m part of a LaMancha herd share. When I joined the program, I was required to go through “milking training”, and then given the option to come milk the goats twice a week, or to just buy the raw milk from the primary shareholder. After going through training with her (and seeing her practices), I elected to milk my own, and I do not pasteurize unless I’m making a cultured product. It’s taken lots of time and money, to learn how to milk in a way that gives a raw product I’m comfortable with, but I think it’s worth it–it’s such a fun skill to have, and such a great product. Having said that–it’s not a product I’m comfortable sharing with or selling to others in a raw state, because no one is perfect, and if someone is going to be hurt because of my imperfections in a deliberately-chosen process, I’d rather it be me.

Great photos, as always. :)

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Camille September 25, 2012 at 9:08 pm

That sounds like a great system. I’m glad you’ve found something that you can afford and that you makes you comfortable without having to go out and buy your own goat (and pasture).

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Katy October 1, 2012 at 2:43 pm

I’m amazed but not surprised that people purchase raw milk without taking a tour of the dairy and educating themselves of the process first. For me, getting to go on a tour of the dairy was one of the most exciting parts of purchasing raw milk. It seems like a big interest in raw milk involves getting to know the source of your food more, encouraging sustainable practices, and supporting local business (along with the improved taste!)- the health aspects of raw milk, even in professional research, seems to be all over the place. Getting to know the farm and dairy seem like critical aspects of almost every reason someone would decide to purchase raw milk. We purchase our milk from a dairy who has a great open door policy and encourages tours and frequent questions and is incredibly open about the inherent risks of any unpasteurized product.
As always, I love reading your blog and enjoy the discussions you start.

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Tonia December 12, 2012 at 6:29 pm

What a great post–thanks for your honest take on the topic. This is something my husband and I talk about a lot, being from WI where it is not legal to sell raw milk (but many farms do it anyway, under the table) and we go back and forth on it. Right now we drink local, organic pasteurized milk simply because it’s easier to get than raw. But many of our friends go out of their way to get raw milk and none of them have had any problems with it whatsoever. It’s my opinion that both types of milk should be available legally and which you choose to purchase should be a personal choice, not a legislative one. I know many small farms around here whose business would benefit from being able to sell raw milk legally and openly. Keeping it illegal really only benefits the big dairy corps.

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