Ask Farm Aid | April 6, 2008

The Controversy of Raw Milk

April 2008


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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