The New York Times exposed an interesting counter-culture phenomenon today: drinking raw milk. Grocery store milk has been heated and packaged in a nearly sterile fashion so that no harmful bacteria are in it. Farmers collect raw milk from cows, then pasteurize (a heat treatment) and homogenize (blend the creamy part with the skim part) it before packaging the milk for human consumption. This process has virtually eliminated milk borne illness in this country, including the transmission of Tuberculosis, Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria.
So why are people fascinated with raw milk and seeking out farmers who will sell them milk prior to heat treatment? Raw milk does taste slightly different (I think it’s a little bit more “gamey”) and there’s no doubt that the creamy layer that floats on the top is delicious. In New York City raw milk has a black market, cult following. Should you jump on the bandwagon?
As my regular readers know, I grew up on an organic dairy farm, and had the pleasure of handling cows up close and personal for at least a decade. In fact, their sweet-smelling grass breath, and not so sweet-smelling cow patties are etched permanently in my mind. Cows are curious, somewhat dim witted, and generally oblivious to the terrain upon which they tread.
Cows will stand in manure for hours without a moment’s regret, should you present them with fresh hay to eat or some nice shortfeed. They drop patties on the ground, in their troughs, and occasionally on one other. Their flicking tails often get caked with manure as they swish flies away and they scratch their udders with dirty hooves as well.
This is why when it comes time to milk them, farmers need to wipe their udders carefully with a disinfectant scrub before applying the milk machine. Mastitis (or infection of the udder teets) is not uncommon, and is a reason for ceasing to milk a cow until the infection has cleared.
And so, the cleanliness of raw milk depends upon whether or not the farmer removes all the excrement carefully, scrubs the teets well, and remembers not to milk the cows with mastitits. It also matters whether or not the cows are harboring certain strains of bacteria – which often don’t harm the cow, but cause very serious problems for humans.
Did I drink raw milk as a kid? Occasionally, yes. Were my parents super-careful about the cleanliness of the milk? Yes. Did I ever get sick from raw milk? No. Would I give raw milk to my kids? No.
I appreciate that gourmands want to experience the flavor of raw foods, but for me, the risks are simply not worth it when it comes to milk. There is no appreciable nutritional benefit to drinking raw milk (in fact, store bought milk is fortified with Vitamin D, which is critical for healthy bones), and it caries a small risk of serious infection. If adults want to take that risk, they may do so – but I would strongly encourage them not to put their kids at risk. I agree with the FDA’s ban on interstate sales of unpasteurized milk, and would not want to see raw milk available widely for general consumption. Of course, to get around this ban, some companies are selling raw milk and cheese under the label “pet food.”
It’s a crazy country we live in – anti-bacterial hand wipes, soaps, gels, plastics and an insatiable appetite for raw milk. As a doctor, I throw up my hands. What do you think?This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.