Milk Decisions – Raw Milk or Not?

Awhile back, I posted about my switch from lower fat milk to whole milk. That’s a decision I’m delighted with, and I still shake my head at how much time I spent drinking lower fat milk. At the bottom of that post, I mentioned that a natural next step would be to switch to raw milk, so I started looking into my local options for raw. Then a commenter on that post, Amy of My Suburban Homestead, said this:

I have an alternate, unpopular view of raw milk. My view is based on reading the actual stories of people (mostly children) who’ve become very seriously sickened with lifelong debilitating complications. You can read my views, should you wish, here.

I honestly hadn’t given drinking raw milk that much thought. I prefer to start with unprocessed as the default and work from there if needed/desired, rather than starting with “modern” as the default. However, I also like for my decisions to make sense and to be based in reality. Here was someone suggesting that more research was in order, and I’m usually happy to undertake research on an interesting topic, especially if it might be controversial.

I browsed around the different posts and links at My Suburban Homestead and landed on a site called Real Raw Milk Facts. This site is definitely anti-raw milk. I had to dig a little deeper in the links and references there to make sure that Real Raw Milk Facts (RRMF) was representing the facts in a way that I agreed with, and ultimately I came to agree.

Some of the claims that RRMF covers don’t really interest me. Some people might claim that raw milk cures autism or cancer or whatever, but I never believed anything like that, and those things don’t factor in at all to my decision about what milk to drink. The thing that does seem relevant to me is the safety. Here’s what I understood from the RRMF site:

  • Yes, raw milk is safer today than it was in the 30s when pasteurization first became common, because refrigeration and sanitation have improved, plus some diseases like bovine tuberculosis have been nearly eliminated.
  • Also, raw milk from pastured cows is likely safer than raw milk from feedlot cows. Feedlot cows have higher levels of E. coli. However, pastured cows can still have pathogens, and in recent years, many E. coli and Campylobacter outbreaks have been linked to pastured cows.
  • Either way, there are still many harmful bacteria that can be in raw milk, including BrucellaCampylobacterListeriaMycobacterium bovisSalmonellaE. coliShigellaStaphylococcus aureusStreptococcus pyogenes, and Yersinia enterocolitica. E. coli is scary stuff. There have been several recent cases of children almost dying from E. coli contaminated raw milk. Campylobacter is the most common outbreak-causing-pathogen found in raw milk. It usually causes a few days of fever, diarrhea, and cramps, but in rare cases can lead to paralysis.

You can, of course, get sick from all kinds of foods. One argument RRMF makes about milk is that it is created in an environment that is difficult to keep sanitary. The care of farm animals involves the management of a lot of shit, and for milk to be contaminated with fecal bacteria is not really unusual. So your fruits and veggies shouldn’t have shit on them anyway (I’m looking at YOU, bagged spinach!), and you also have the ability to wash them. Milk is pretty much expected to come in contact with shit now and then, and you can’t wash it. RRMF argues that products likely to come in contact with shit – raw beef, poultry, fish – should be cooked. For milk, “cooking” is pasteurization.

So, one question that comes to my mind is how many cases of illness are we talking about here? It’s one thing to read about scary outbreaks, but it’s another to look at the actual numbers and percentages. According to the CDC:

“Raw milk is a well-documented source of infections from Salmonella, Escherichia coli O157:H7, Campylobacter, Listeria, Mycobacterium bovis, and other pathogens. In 1938, before widespread adoption of milk pasteurization in the United States, an estimated 25% of all foodborne and waterborne outbreaks of disease were associated with milk. By 2001, the percentage of such outbreaks associated with milk was estimated at <1%. During 1998–2005, a total of 45 outbreaks of foodborne illness were reported to CDC in which unpasteurized milk (or cheese suspected to have been made from unpasteurized milk) was implicated. These outbreaks accounted for 1,007 illnesses, 104 hospitalizations, and two deaths. Because not all cases of foodborne illness are recognized and reported, the actual number of illnesses associated with unpasteurized milk likely is greater.”

The RRMF site has this to say about the CDC numbers:

“Since…only about 1-3% of the population drinks raw milk, the number of illnesses reported show that the actual risk of getting sick from drinking raw milk is tremendously higher than drinking pasteurized milk.”

If there are safety concerns with drinking raw milk (and there clearly are) then the next step in my research was to find out if there’s anything that concerns me about the pasteurization or homogenization processes.

Pasteurization is heating milk to a certain temperature for  a certain amount of time (the exact temp and time depends on which kind of pasteurization you’re talking about.) Proponents of raw milk claim that this heating destroys any beneficial components of milk, but it doesn’t look to me like this is the case. Some parts of milk are destroyed or diminished through the pasteurization process, like vitamin A, vitamin C, and some enzymes. Many things remain, as well: some vitamin A, calcium, vitamin D, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B12, iron, etc. There’s plenty of good stuff left in pasteurized milk.

I guess some people might be bothered about some of the nutrients being destroyed in the pasteurization process, but if you think of pasteurization as cooking, which is basically what it is, it makes sense to me. When we cook foods, sometimes some nutrients are diminished and sometimes other nutrients are made more available for us. It doesn’t surprise me or bother me that milk is changed by pasteurization, but I don’t think those changes are harmful to me or negate the usefulness (and yumminess) of drinking milk.

Homogenization is the process of forcing milk through small holes or tubes at high pressure to break up the fat globules. This prevents the milk from separating out into a cream layer. This doesn’t seem to have much effect on the nutrition of the milk, although it has some other effects like making the milk taste blander, yet creamier, and making it less likely to pick up other flavors from your fridge.

Homogenization doesn’t have anything to do with safety, though, so my first thought after all this research was that I’d look for pasteurized yet not homogenized milk. Unless there’s a reason for the increased complexity and technology, I prefer a simpler choice. I figured I didn’t need a special process to prevent my milk from separating. All you have to do is shake up your bottle of milk to mix it back up, and that’s easy enough to do. Plus, then we’d have cream at-the-ready when we needed it, too.

The natural grocery store near me, Earth Fare, carries a pasteurized, non-homogenized milk. Yay! The milk even comes in glass bottles that you pay a deposit on and can return. This was great news all around. Non-homogenized milk, glass bottles, and reusing the bottles over and over again. It seemed like a perfect match. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the taste. I tried several times to get used to the taste of the milk, but it was strange and I couldn’t settle into it. I could only use it on something really flavorful, like a sugary cereal. But, I like to drink milk by the glass, and I just couldn’t drink this stuff. After several bottles, I went back to my regular organic milk.

So that’s the end of my decision-making about milk. I started out drinking non-fat organic, moved to full-fat organic, considered raw, rejected raw, tried non-homogenized, rejected non-homogenized, and settled back at full-fat organic. I really thought raw milk would be the next addition of “from the farm to the table” products around here, but the safety issues with raw milk trump my desire to be “natural”.

As a side note about raw milk, just so I’m 100% clear, I think that raw milk should be legal to sell. People should be able to put what they want to into their bodies. I do not think it is the government’s job to protect people from their own bad decisions. Warning labels are fine with me, tiered “grades” of product are fine, regulating the packaging is fine. But, if people want to buy raw milk (and they clearly do) they should be allowed to do so.

How about you? What kind of milk do you drink and why?

(Photo credit: grongar)