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Raw Milk: Elixir Of Life or Bacterial Swamp?

What is raw milk?  Think of it as milk “as God intended,” straight from the cow and untouched by pasteurization.  Raw milk has some very fierce devotees, although it is illegal to sell in many states, and very heavily regulated in others.  As one might expect, raw milk carries a greater risk of harmful bacteria.  As faithful readers of this blog will recognize, consuming raw milk presents a risk similar to the risk found in consumption of bathtub cheese.

Why drink raw milk?

Advocates of raw milk claim it possesses nutrients lacking in pasteurized milk, and that it has a richer and more complex flavor.  As to the first point, advocates claim that the pasteurization process kills off beneficial bacteria, proteins and enzymes that are found in raw milk.  The FDA disagrees, claiming no nutritive value is lost in the pasteurization process.  As to the second point, it would appear to be a matter of taste, although I have no trouble believing that raw milk has a more robust flavor than pasteurized milk.

Why avoid raw milk?

Milk is pasteurized for a reason – and the pasteurization of milk is considered one of the most successful public health endeavors of the 20th century.  Consider that in 1938, milk caused 25% of all food and water-related sickness.  With the advent of pasteurization, that number dropped to 1% by 1993.  That is not to say necessarily that raw milk is a public health hazard, but that the potential is there.  Raw milk has been known to carry E. Coli, salmonella, non-pulmonary tuberculosis and typhoid, although in miniscule amounts.  Between 1998 and 2008, there have been 1,614 reported illnesses, 187 hospitalizations and 2 deaths from consumption of raw milk.   Granted, these numbers are somewhat meaningless without knowing, for example, how much raw milk is actually purchased every year, and without a comparison of similar illness from supposedly “safe” foods (e.g., supermarket lettuce).

Am I Buying Illegal Raw Milk?

If you are in New York, you are only buying legal raw milk  if you are at one of 19 officially licensed farms, buying raw milk only (no cheese), which is clearly marked “Raw Milk Sold Here.”

In other words, if you buy raw milk  or cheese from Crazy Jimmy in a dark alley behind the Greenmarket,  you are perpetuating his criminal enterprise.

New Yorkers seeking raw milk should consider themselves fortunate, 28 states do not allow sales of raw milk whatsoever.  Most of the remaining states, like New York, heavily regulate who you can buy it from, and where.  In select states (California, Maine) sale of raw milk is legal and it can be purchased in stores.

Raw Milk And Political Controversy

Recently, a dispute over the availability of milk has generated considerable political controversy in Wisconsin, America’s dairy state.  It should be noted that Wisconsin takes its dairy products very seriously – for years non-dairy creamer was banned in restaurants, as well as the sale of margarine within state borders.  In April of this year, the Wisconsin state legislature passed the Raw Milk Act, which would greatly reduce restrictions on direct sale of raw milk by farmers in the state.  Not only would these farmers be able to sell straight to the masses, but they would be able to charge upwards of $6 a gallon.  However, although Governor James Doyle had indicated he would sign the bill, he reversed his position after being paid a visit by various captains of industry – e.g., the Cheese Makers Association, the Farm Bureau Federation and the Dairy Business Association, who were not pleased at the prospect of being cut out of the distribution chain. 

Of course, these business groups were very concerned for the consumers – that they could potentially suffer harm from exposure to tainted raw milk.  As a result of this selfless advocacy, Governor Doyle changed his mind and vetoed the bill, thereby dashing the hopes of dairy famers and raw milk advocates across the state, who felt that they had been railroaded by big business. 

Some were quick to point out that, if Governor Doyle were truly concerned about the health of his constituents, he would not have signed a similar bill in February that made it legal for home-picklers to sell their pickles and salsas.

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