I see raw milk from time to time at my local grocery, some folks say it’s good –others say its dangerous- what’s the deal?

April 2008
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Dear Laura,
Cali is all-abuzz with raw milk goings on. Could you help me through the basics? I see raw milk from time to time at my local grocery, some folks say it’s good –others say its dangerous- what’s the deal?
Tim Becks
San Louis Obispo, CA

Hi Tim,
Great question! Who knew that milk could be so controversial, right? Well as always, it’s not simple and the truth can be a little hard to weed out from the controversy but here goes!

Raw milk is taken straight from the cow, chilled to 36-38 degrees and bottled. Once bottled, it generally lasts between 7-10 days. Proponents of raw milk maintain that the liquid contains many beneficial bacteria, enzymes and raw fats (things that pasteurization kills), which have significant health benefits. Just recently, researchers in Europe published a study that shows children who drank raw milk had lower incidences of asthma and allergies. Other people claim that raw milk aids in digestion and promotes general health. Some people just like the rich flavor.

On the other hand, raw milk can contain bacteria or pathogens such as E. coli and listeria, which are most often killed in the pasteurization process. Thus many opponents claim that raw milk is unsanitary, and some go so far as so say it is dangerous. The reality is that from 1998 to 2005, raw milk and cheese were implicated in 39 disease outbreaks that got 831 people sick, sent 66 to the hospital and caused one person to die. Compared to our annual average of 76 million food borne illnesses, resulting in 350,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, these numbers seem pretty small but the risk is definitely there. As a result, almost all milk in the United States is pasteurized or ultra pasteurized.

But what do you do if you want raw milk? In 22 states, it is illegal to buy or sell raw milk for human consumption. 28 states allow some sales of raw milk from the farm or through cow share programs (where people actually buy a cow or a share of a cow). Of those 28, only Arizona, California, Connecticut, Maine, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, South Carolina and Washington allow grocery stores to sell raw milk. But even where it is legal to sell raw milk, the regulations for farmers are very unclear. In some states, like Vermont, where farmers can only sell directly from the farm, dairy farmers are restricted in the amount of sales they can make and are not allowed to advertise. Farm Aid funded group Rural Vermont is working hard to reduce or modify these restrictions and has some excellent materials on their website. (Note: Farm Aid has not funded Rural Vermont for their work around the issue of raw milk.)

Bottom line: Cows raised mostly on grass and that are milked in a sanitary environment produce high quality milk (A grain-based diet, as opposed to grass, limits production of natural antibiotic properties that protect it from pathogenic bacteria). The higher risk of contamination comes from the milking system, workers’ hands and other items that the milk might come in contact with on its way from udder to bottle. That said, many states that allow sales of raw milk have inspection, certification and testing standards. In California, you have probably heard that state testing of raw milk was recently expanded so that instead of just testing dangerous bacteria counts they include other classes of bacteria as well, which has been a controversy in and of itself!

Raw milk can be good news for family farmers, too. Since farmers are direct marketing the bulk of the raw milk that is legally sold, the full purchase price goes right back to the farm, meaning that farmers make a much better profit on raw milk sales than wholesale. In Massachusetts, for example, farmers earn about $1/gallon for pasteurized milk and $5-9/gallon for raw milk. This is a good deal for the farmer!

If you fall into the category of those who are passionate about raw milk, read the facts, take the risks into account, and make your own choice. Just take the extra step of seeking out your dairy farmer and asking some questions about his or her herd. Here are some tips from our friends at Rural Vermont:

  • Make sure that cows graze on pasture and are fed hay when in barns during the winter
  • Make sure that cows receive mineral supplements
  • Make sure that grain feeding is a minor dietary component
  • Make sure the teats of the cows are clean and dry before milking
  • Make sure the cows are milked in a clean barn or milking parlor
  • Make sure the milk is kept chilled
  • Make sure that the cows are not being pushed to produce excessive quantities of milk and that they cows live in a low stress environment.

Who doesn’t need a good excuse to go pet some cows and have a friendly chat with a farmer. I sure wish I could do it more often!


Read Farm Aid's interview with the family that runs Sandcreek Farm—the first licensed raw milk for retail farm in Texas. >>

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Anonymous @ 4/28/2008 10:18:22 AM 
I also know of people who are "lactose intolerant" who can drink raw milk with no problems.
Anonymous @ 4/28/2008 10:19:10 AM 
Sorry, Not going to try it. We only drink fat free in our home. It taste like colored water, but my husband loves it.
Anonymous @ 4/28/2008 10:19:14 AM 
i'm a vegan
Anonymous @ 4/28/2008 10:25:44 AM 
I think it's hard to vote without a category such as "fresh raw milk from a local farmer that I know and trust, and whom I know keeps his/her cows in top health and on rich pasture". As with many products, one raw milk is not the same as another raw milk.
Anonymous @ 4/28/2008 10:27:19 AM 
I think this is great as long as there aren't bad things in the milk. As a mother of two, I don't think I could take the chance on making them really sick. I do like buying the organic milk because I think it tastes better, but it is also about $2 more than the other milk and it is hard to afford it. I would consider buying it for myself, but maybe not my children unless I knew it was OK to drink.
Anonymous @ 4/28/2008 10:30:43 AM 
I go out of my way to go to a farm where the cows are on pasture and the farm family is committed to producing healthy milk, meat, cheese, yogurt, and butter from happy healthy cows. We have never had a problem with getting sick from this milk, and it is the only milk my family drinks. The milk changes with the seasons--right now it is very rich, yellow and creamy from the spring time grass. In the winter it is lighter and not so strongly flavored. It's so very different from the highly processed milk in the grocery store!
Anonymous @ 4/28/2008 10:31:59 AM 
This is really solid information about raw milk. I've been interested in finding a local dairy farmer to support, but scared off by food-borne illness concerns. This gives me some perspective and context for those concerns. D in Cookeville TN
Anonymous @ 4/28/2008 10:36:00 AM 
We've been drinking raw milk for over a year now with no ill effects. I go to the farm weekly and see the animals on pasture and being milked. I have no qualms about my toddlers drinking raw milk.
Anonymous @ 4/28/2008 10:42:34 AM 
We moved out of city limits two years ago and bought a few milk goats right away. Since then our family has consumed their milk in many different forms and we all love it! In fact, when our goats are dried off before they kid, we drink store bought milk and our children now detest it. :) We never thought we'd have our own little farm since we were raised as city dwellers, but here we are and we LOVE it!
Anonymous @ 4/28/2008 10:43:49 AM 
Your numbers are not very helpful. The numbers for incidents for raw milk seem low, but there aren't very many raw milk drinkers so the numbers don't look that good to me. At the same time, there was a problem a year or so ago at one farm that accounts for a good proportion of the numbers of people that got sick. I think Anonymous number four probably has the best advice. I drink raw milk myself. Have been for about half a year. I'm watching this controversy with interest. A farmer near me (PA) was taken to jail in handcuffs last Friday because he delivers his milk over the state line to New York where it is apparently illegal to sell raw milk. I guess pretty soon we'll have milk added to the list of controlled substances to keep away from our chidlren. --Scusteister Schwamp http://scusteister.livejournal.com/
Anonymous @ 4/28/2008 10:46:52 AM 
I love raw GOAT milk. Goat milk is very different from cows, but unfortunately the regulations are the same. I wish there was an update in the regulations for dairy GOAT farmers to sell more raw milk. Either way, if the informed public wants it, they should be allowed to purchase it from thier local farm without getting the farmer into trouble.
Leslie in Ashland City, TN
Anonymous @ 4/28/2008 10:56:11 AM 
I grew up on our "raw" milk. (Oldest of 10 children). As a general rule - we were very ehalthy kids. A couple of minor farming accidents. We have generally healthy kids and grandkids. Out of 10 two of still live on farms, raise our own beef, pork, chicken and turkey, milk and eggs for all our family. We know what our animals are raised on, no medication, no additives. It is really scarey to go to the store and be uncertain. My grandma used to pasturize the milk, but we did not. I guess after over 50 years of real life on the farm and with natural foods - there is a lot to be said for early days.
Anonymous @ 4/28/2008 10:58:40 AM 
I have never tried raw milk before but after reading this I a going to look for it especially since I do live in a state,SC that allows the sale of raw milk.I am in favor of farmers making as much a profit as they can,I would rather see them than the food giants of this this world get fatter on my dollar.This is the American way of life ,is it not???
Sally James
Anonymous @ 4/28/2008 10:59:13 AM 
It's a matter of scale. Raw milk is safe and wholesome because the farmer is committed to HIS products. When milk becomes part of an industrial process with workers who really don't care about the product except for the paycheck it provides, it really should be pasteurized to be safe.
Anonymous @ 4/28/2008 11:02:56 AM 
I have consumed raw milk since I was a baby because I was born and raised on a dairy farm. We graze our cattle and have upkept our standards just like Laura's bulleted list above. Our family philosophy is simple if it's good enough for us to drink, it's good enough for everyone to drink. I have never had any ill effects from consuming the milk, and I doubt I ever will. My family doesn't want to produce a product that will make anyone sick including ourselves. I prefer the taste of raw milk, and all the nutrients it gives my body. I don't have allergy problems, and have been thankfully healthy my whole life. I feel a great deal of this is due to the raw milk I have consumed, that my family and I took extra care to produce for all those that consume milk.
Anonymous @ 4/28/2008 11:04:07 AM 
As long as you know the source and can trust that it is sanitary I think it is a much healthier choice that store milk.
Suzanne in Michigan
Anonymous @ 4/28/2008 11:24:50 AM 
As the daughter of a dairy farmer, I drank raw milk throughout my entire childhood until I went to college. My brothers, parents and I are all very healthy. Growing up, I knew that our cows were (and still are) treated well and the conditions and equipment were sanitary. I'm not sure if I would purchase raw milk in a big-box grocery store because I wouldn't know what farm it came from and what the conditions were like there. If I found a small farm in my area that sold raw milk, I would consider buying it from them. These days I buy store bought milk but drink raw milk when I visit my family's farm.
Anonymous @ 4/28/2008 11:32:06 AM 
I love raw milk i drank it all the time. I prefer it then store bought milk. it seems liek it tastes better. but i guess some ppl think its gross but its not.. oh well. as long you know where and how the milks gets from the cows to the tank its all good..
Anonymous @ 4/28/2008 11:44:16 AM 
I am most familiar with picodon, made from raw goat's milk. I worked on the farm where it was produced in Dieulefit, France. The farmer would laugh if he saw this discussion. He thinks we're crazy, excessive, paranoid anyway. So I love cheese made from raw milk in France, but it was a farm I knew, and a producer I knew -- also knew the goats. I might buy it close to home, but it's so prohibitively expensive, it's only for the rich, and then I'm trying to cut down on all animal products because of the morality factor. Factory farms really stink. Good luck to those farmers who are trying to produce a healthy product and treating their animals well.
Anonymous @ 4/28/2008 11:52:14 AM 
I want to try raw milk. Maybe I will like it. I hope that the farmer down the road can soon choose to provide raw milk. I would not buy raw milk from Industrial Agriculture. If course, I don't buy processed milk from them either!! Buy local. Make it a habit.
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