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.