Raw milk - more complicated than I expected!

by Farmer Liz
I had no idea that raw milk was so controversial!  It seemed simple to me at first, babies drink raw milk from their mums, calves drink raw milk from cows, every dairy farmer I know drinks raw cows milk themselves, so why shouldn't we all drink raw milk if we have access to it?  Unfortunately there's no simple answer, just more questions.  I've just read "The raw milk revolution" by David E. Gumpert (referred to here as Raw Milk, see also his blog) and "Nourishing Traditions" by Sally Fallon, as well as lots of websites with varying opinions.  Please bear with me while I try to formulate all of this into a sensible argument!

Buying our house cow started as a hobby, but now I have
started investigating the issues surrounding raw milk ,it has become more serious

What is raw milk?
Raw milk is milk straight from the cow or goat.  Not pasteurised (heated to kill pathogenic (disease causing) bacteria) and not homogenised (to mix the fat/cream into the milk).

In most countries it is illegal to sell raw milk, however farmers (or cow owners) are free to drink it if they please.  In some lucky countries raw milk is available in shops or can be purchased directly from farmers.  I'll explain more about the implications of this at the end of the post.  Essentially, it means that most people can only buy pasteurised, homogenised milk, unless they go to great (and often illegal) lengths to obtain raw milk.

Why drink raw milk?
Both books are fairly conclusive about the nutritive value of raw milk, through anecdotal evidence in the first book and reviews of the limited number of published scientific studies in the second book.  The fact is that the vitamin, enzyme and probiotic bacteria content is all destroyed by pasteurisation and the structure of the proteins and fats is further damaged by homogenisation.  No wonder this milk is making people sick, our body can hardly recognise it as food!

So why is milk pasteurised then?
Milk has only been pasteurised since pasteurisation was invented by Louis Pasteur in the late 1800s.  Pasteur proved that disease is caused by microbes that can be killed by heating to certain temperatures.  The reason that milk needed to be pasteurised, however, was because it was being produced at that time in conditions that lead to it being infected with human pathogens.  According to Raw Milk this was a particular problem in New York, where dairies were being attached to breweries.  The cows survived on the spent grain from the brewing process, were generally unwell and didn't live very long.  The milk would have had dubious nutritive value, and as the dairies were located in the city and run as feed lots, with minimal attention to sanitation, the milk tended to become a source of infections such as typhoid fever, tuberculosis and diphtheria.  It made sense at the time to make this milk safe by heating it.

The original reasons for pasteurising milk 100 years ago are clear then, but what is more puzzling is the reasons for CONTINUING to pasteurise milk in countries where such diseases are no longer a legitimate threat and we know so much more about sanitation that we are now capable of keeping milk safe.  The official version is that we are at risk of food poisoning if we consume raw milk.  However the evidence for this seems fairly doubtful (again, see Raw Milk for more evidence), and we are in fact at more risk to contracting food poisoning from deli meats, but they are not controlled in the same manner.  

Interestingly, you are also more likely to get food poisoning from pasteurised milk and it is far more dangerous to work with as a home cheese or yoghurt maker.  This is because raw milk contains enzymes that kill pathogens and good bacteria that fight against pathogens.  I can leave fresh raw milk or cream on the bench at room temperature to naturally go sour (i.e. grow lactic acid bacteria) safe in the knowledge that these bacteria will out compete anything that could poison me (they are in their natural habitat after all, so they thrive), however pasteurised milk would almost certainly go putrid (rather that sour) and be extremely dangerous (and too smelly) to consume.  This is a very important distinction between raw and pasteurised milk that is not often made in cheese-making books or food safety recommendations.  If using pasteurised milk to make cheese or yoghurt you MUST first re-pasteurise it - i.e. heat it again past 80degC to make sure you kill any new bacteria that may have entered the milk since is was originally pasteurised, before adding you own innoculant (for cheese you add a lactic acid extracted originally from milk itself), which will then populate the milk product and keep it safe against pathogens.

I hope you won't think I'm a crazy conspiracy theorist if I propose that there many be more at stake here than public health.  Think about the industry that was created when milk pasteurisation became mandatory.  Before pasteurisation, dairy farmers sold directly to the public or to shops.  After pasteurisation was required, most farmers were not equipped to pasteurise the milk themselves, so it was more economical to sell the milk to another company, a dairy factory, to process milk in bulk.  Eventually we have come to the situation we now have in which the dairy factories control the prices that farmers can get for their milk.

So who stands to lose if it was legal to sell raw milk?
Well its not the consumer or the farmer that would lose if we were able to freely buy and sell raw milk, the consumer would have a more nutritious product to eat and the farmer would enjoy fairer prices for their product.  Of course its the middle man, the dairy factory, that would lose. These dairy factory companies are huge and certainly have the power to control our access to raw milk.

I propose, therefore, that the reason pasteurisation of milk is still compulsory is that the dairy companies are using their influence to keep the status qou so that they don't lose their business.  Can anyone prove me wrong here?

And why is milk homogenised?
Again, homogenisation is not done for the benefit of consumers.  Its just something that makes milk easier to process. Firstly, pasteurisation of milk can cause solids to precipitate out, which can create an unpleasant texture of the milk, this can be reversed by homogenisation of the milk.  Secondly, it allows the dairy factory to standardise the fat content, so that it can be written on the label of the milk bottle, otherwise they would have to test every bottle as each cow will produce different fat contents depending on genetics, feed, stage of lactation etc, so each batch would be different. Its so much easier when everything is the same, but not necessarily better for the consumer.

Does anyone else find this really weird?
Just to make this clear, raw milk is a controlled substance similar to illegal drugs!  You can buy tobacco more easily than raw milk and its proven to cause multiple illnesses!  You can buy all other food products raw if you chose, from meat, sea food to any vegetables, why is milk and dairy any different?  Does anyone else find this control over our food choices to be totally ridiculous?  At what stage can we stand up and say "we are adults who would like to have the authority to choose what we eat, stop telling us that raw milk is dangerous and let us make up our own minds"?

When you think about it, there has to be another reason why milk is treated so differently to other food products, particularly others that are far riskier such as deli meats and raw sea food, which are freely available.  The only explanation I can think of for the continuing restrictions on raw milk products is that interests other than public health are involved, i.e. the dairy factories.  I think this is similar to the lack of action  in response to research into the detrimental effects of sugar, which I am sure is suppressed by the sugar industry.  Don't believe the mainstream health advice, the food industry is willing to put its own survival ahead of your good health, read Nourishing Traditions and find out for yourself.

What can we do about it?
If you're lucky enough to have access to a source of raw milk, make the most of it!!  What started out as a bit of fun and an opportunity to learn to make cheese has now become more serious for me and my husband.  By getting a cow, we have secured ourselves access to the nutritive benefits of raw milk, and its turned out to be worth all the effort of transporting her, building her milking bales and getting up early to milk.  After reading about the health effects, I would rather go without milk than drink pasteurised homogenised milk (which will be out only option when Bella is dry, she won't give us milk continuously throughout the year).

If you don't have your own cow, in some countries or states it is legal to sell raw milk, either in shops or direct from farms.  Find out if you have this option and use it!  Support these farmers that are risking the unwanted attention of food safety authorities (even though it is legal, as discussed in Raw Milk, they are unfairly targeted by govt authorities, this make me even more suspicious of the influence of dairy companies) and take advantage of the opportunity presented to you.

In countries and states where selling raw milk is illegal, some people have got around this by setting up herd share or cow share arrangements.  These are companies where consumers can buy a share in a cow, in that case they "own" the cow and the milk, so they are not buying the milk.  They are therefore also sharing the (very minor) risk of food poisoning with the farmer.  Authorities are moving to shut down these companies too, so support them if you can (again, makes me wonder if dairy companies are to blame, as they are losing business when people choose to consume raw milk).

I know raw milk is an expensive option (even for us, we have to feed and care for Bella), but the cheap milk from the supermarket is not worth the money either.  Even if you drink less milk, but better quality, it will be better for your health.

Finally, a ray of hope, a town has declared themselves free to trade food as they please, without regulation from the authorities: Food Choices Food Sovereignty.

eight acres: thoughts on raw milk

In conclusion, is raw milk nutritious or dangerous?
I think a lot of powerful people would like you to think that is dangerous, but if raw milk is produced by healthy cows under sanitary conditions it has amazing nutritional benefits and is not dangerous at all.  Sorry if the conspiracy theories got a bit weird and rambly!  I'd love to hear what you think of raw milk.....

You might also be interested in my series on getting started with homestead dairy

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