Should You Drink Raw Milk?

{Image modified from got milk by jenny downing / CC BY 2.0}

Boy, do I feel smart! Guess what isn’t happening to my child right now?

He isn’t having acute kidney failure caused by consuming E. coli tainted milk.

Two years ago, I thoroughly considered switching to raw milk. I had recently switched to full fat milk, and I wondered if going to raw was the next step. I looked around at suppliers in my area, and I found one that I really liked. McBee Farm was a bit heavy on the god-language for me (“food how God intended it”), but they had a lovely looking farm and lots of different products, including raw milk shares.

Fortunately, a blog commenter of mine spoke very strongly about her anti-raw milk opinion, and I dove into research, ultimately concluding that the risks of raw milk outweighed the benefits. No, thanks.

Now I have learned that several children in my area are severely ill from E. coli contamination of raw milk they got from McBee Farm.

Three of the children have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, which may involve lifelong complications and is fatal for 5-15% of patients.

This topic has ceased to be abstract for me. It’s no longer stories of random outbreaks somewhere out in the world. This is literally the exact milk I would have been feeding to my family if I had made a different decision.

I don’t have any dairy animals here at The Wallow. However, from keeping chickens, ducks, pigs, and sheep, I know that feces are basically everywhere. Shit management is a reality of life on the farm. It is incredibly easy to contaminate animal products with shit. Good sanitation practices go a long way to increasing food safety, but at the end of the day animal products need to be cooked to insure that they are safe to eat.

For milk, that “cooking” is pasteurization.

Pasteurization makes milk safe to drink. Does it destroy some of the nutrients? Who cares? All cooking changes the food in question. We’re omnivores, and we eat lots of foods with lots of different nutrient profiles. Safe-to-drink milk has less or no vitamin A, vitamin C, and enzymes. It still has calcium, vitamin D, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B12, iron, and more.

If you’re worried about the lack of “good bacteria”, you can get that elsewhere like pasteurized yogurt or kefir.

The CDC calls raw milk “a well-documented source of infections from Salmonella, Escherichia coli O157:H7, Campylobacter, Listeria, Mycobacterium bovis, and other pathogens. Missing a nutrient or two is simply not a good enough reason to risk your health and the health of your kids.

[Tweet “Missing a nutrient or two isn’t worth risking the health of your kids. #rawmilk”]

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  1. this is a tricky issue. on my imaginary farm i would love to someday have goats or a cow; it all seems so natural and right on many levels. but yeah, the problem being that although statistically speaking it’s maybe not a *huge* risk, the consequences are so very big that they are definitely enough to frighten me away from it!

    feeling awful about those sick kids, and happy that yours did not not suffer the same tragic illness from the raw milk.

    • You can still have milk from your own goats or cow. I have read that it’s pretty safe to drink from your own livestock since you share bacteria with them the same way you do with your family. Most people these days are getting their raw milk from a milk share, and even if it’s a small, careful operation with pastured animals that risk is still there. You can also do home pasteurization. Pasteurization is a fancy word, but it basically means heating up. Just like we cook our meat even if it comes from healthy sources, properly heating up milk makes it safe to drink. Home pasteurization could be an option for you own milk or for people who want to buy raw from small, local farms they want to support.

  2. Louise Teel says:

    As a “foodie” gardener who believes in sustainability and self reliance, I also have encountered numerous friends who have debated raw vs. pasteurized milk. However, I am also a microbiologist who studies Shiga toxin producing E. coli, and have seen first hand how dangerous and deadly these bugs are. I have urged so many friends to reconsider giving raw milk to kids for all the above reasons. Sometimes people counter my concerns by saying, “oh, it comes from the cleanest farm and people there are so conscientious.” But E. coli is the normal intestinal flora of cattle and it generally doesn’t cause disease in them so we cannot distinguish what cows are carrying it. As Issa indicates, anyone who has been on a dairy farm knows it is a lot of shit management. Cows are butt to nose creatures and they are colonized with it from head to toe. The most conscientious dairy farmer cannot keep the udders free of this organism. Another really dirty trick with E. coli is that as few as 10 organisms can may a person deathly ill. So it is a risk even in the cleanest most careful dairies. Louis Pasteur was right.

    • Thank you for adding your perspective, Louise. “Butt to nose creatures”… that’s very colorful, I’m gonna use that in the future! :-)

  3. I am one of the friends Louise spoke of (serendipitous we both ended up here, probably through Leah) and I’m really sad to hear about the sick children. It seems we both made a good decision, thanks Louise for caring enough to spread your informed perspective!

    • I am really sad about those children, too. After writing this post I worried that I didn’t really express sympathy for them here, and I wondered if my crowing about my good decision puts blame on the parents who made a “bad” decision. I don’t really feel that way about them – I just feel terrible that they may not have had enough information to make a different one. I’ve seen support of raw milk go unchallenged in many places, and I feel more committed now to speaking up so that future children can be helped.

  4. Ok……so then how were they able to drink the milk “back in the day” when there were no pasturization going on? Something if “off” about this whole thing. Why wasn’t ecoli a problem then but it is now? Is it because we, as a people, have become lazy and are less concerned with doing things the right way? I mean seriously. Any opinions?

    • It’s not a matter of opinion, and there’s no mystery. Prior to pasteurization, people got sick from drinking milk. According to this Slate article (I couldn’t find their source), “Public health officials estimated that in 1938, a full fourth of all food-borne illnesses were linked to unpasteurized milk.”

    • As Issa’s response suggests, there is a reason that Louis Pasteur is so revered. Dairy-borne illness was a big deal, and Pasteurization was an incredible public heath benefit.

  5. My family and I have been drinking *raw* milk from our Jersey for 4 1/2 years now. No issues at all. The BEST stuff around.

    We also use it for butter and mozzarella cheese.

    When we got *AnnaBelle* she was on a dairy farm. We watched how they were milked and it would make you gag! They just hooked up the machine, no washing the teats or udder at all. When we asked WHY, we were told that they use the equivalent of hand sanitizer in the container all the milk is put into and that *kills* whatever might have been on the cow.

    We are very blessed to have AnnaBelle’s *raw* milk.

    Matthew 6:33

    • I sincerely hope that you and your family continue to beat the odds. Assuming nobody who drinks Annabelle’s raw milk is a child, and elderly person, or immune-compromised, you are likely to be okay. Please keep in mind that the plural of anecdote is not data. You may drink raw milk for your entire life with no issues. That doesn’t mean that drinking raw milk, in general, is absent of serious risks.

      • Louise Teel says:

        Joshua: Throughout my long career in science I have never heard the expression, “the plural of anecdote is not data.” I may just reuse that one. Thanks.

  6. Ok……with all that being said, if I wanted to support a local farmer and buy raw milk from there, what is the process in heating it at home? Can anyone provide detailed instructions? Thanks.

    • Steve, I haven’t looked into that process in much detail because I don’t buy raw myself. You may want to do some investigating in order to be sure that the instructions you follow are indeed proper for making the milk safe. I know that with home pressure canning there are a lot of canning recipes out there that have NOT been tested for safety, so it’s important to follow instructions from reputable sources. Here is the first source I found when I googled “milk home pasteurization”. Judge for yourself if you trust the source.

  7. Glad to see more people taking a second look at the raw milk fad. I support farm to consumer sales and don’t any food should be restricted or outlawed. If people want to drink raw milk, not wear seat belts or brush heir teeth that’s their business. That said I own very healthy dairy cows & don’t ever drink raw milk unless I have to.

    • I completely agree with you where the law is concerned. I don’t like to legislate what people do with their own bodies, and to an extent, on behalf of the bodies of their children. Every person makes their own risk assessments. I just want to contribute to people having accurate information to make those decisions on.

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