Unpasteurized Milk Is Trendy, but Is It Safe?
Raw milk epitomizes farm-to-table eating, but know the dangers before you decide to drink it
If you spend enough time in a farmer’s market, you’ll eventually find yourself at a crossroads. There, at the dairy stall, you’ll have to decide if your desire for fresh, local, unprocessed foods outweighs the facts you may know about the risks of unpasteurized milk. Just how far do you want to take farm-to-table eating?
Raw milk: the risks
Pasteurization kills off bacteria — salmonella, listeria, E. coli 0157:H7 and campylobacter — that can lead to foodborne illnesses. While it’s possible to get a foodborne illness from many different foods, raw milk is one of the riskiest, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Milk has a really unfortunate history,” says David Gumpert, author of “The Raw Milk Revolution” and the forthcoming “The Raw Milk Answer Book.” “In the 1800s and early 1900s, a lot of people, kids especially, got very sick from it. So the public health community sees pasteurization as one of the great public health accomplishments of our time.” In the United States, pasteurization started in the 1920s and became more routine in the 1950s.
Today the sale of raw milk is illegal in 17 states. States that allow it impose restrictions that range from limiting the number of animals allowed at a dairy to banning the sale of raw milk at farmer’s markets. These states require routine dairy inspections and special permits, though some farmers go rogue and sell directly to the consumer through special co-op programs called cow shares.
Raw milk: the claims
For one thing, many people who favor raw milk think it tastes better. Thanks to a high butterfat content, raw milk is thicker and richer than its pasteurized counterpart. Some advocates say that raw milk is also better for you. “There’s a growing body of research that indicates that raw milk strengthens our immune systems,” Gumpert says. “And with children, that it protects against asthma and allergies.”
According to Gumpert, one theory holds that children experience these benefits because there’s a particular, beneficial protein (whey protein) that is damaged during pasteurization but survives in raw milk. Pasteurization eliminates not just bacteria, but also enzymes and heat-sensitive proteins.
The CDC maintains there are no health benefits from drinking raw milk that cannot be obtained by drinking pasteurized milk. And according to the Food and Drug Administration, “the bacteria in raw milk can be especially dangerous to people with weakened immune systems, older adults, pregnant women, and children.”
If you decide to drink it
If you decide raw milk is for you despite the potential dangers, Gumpert suggests you start by investigating local dairy suppliers.
- Do an Internet search to see if they’ve had issues with inspections.
- See if they’ve ever been shut down because of health violations.
- Look for any claims of illness against the dairy.
If your research turns up satisfactory results and you want to take your investigation to the next level, visit the farm. Use the trip as an opportunity to learn about the people — and the cows — making your milk. While you’re there:
- Observe how the cows are treated. Are their living conditions clean? The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) says the floors and walls should have a surface that is smooth and washable.
- Ask to watch a milking session to see if proper hygiene practices being used. Are milking devices cleaned and sanitized after each use? Are the cow’s udders cleaned before milking? Is the milk chilled immediately? (The FAO has more guidelines for hygienic milk handling and processing.)
- Ask the farmer questions and see what kinds of answers you get. “Dairy farmers should be open and honest about what’s going on,” Gumpert says. “And if you find reluctance to sharing information, or arrogance, then I wouldn’t buy from them.”
The bottom line: Before you milk this trend for the potential benefits, know the risks. And watch for unwanted consequences. According to the FDA, symptoms of illness caused by food include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and flulike symptoms such as fever, headache and body ache.
Under the wrong circumstances, milk doesn’t necessarily do a body good.