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Is Raw Milk Getting A Raw Deal?

I’ve written about raw milk before, but here again we find it making front page news. There has been a recent FDA raw milk crack down in California, and I believe that’s a good thing for public health reasons. Although raw milk enthusiasts ascribe mystical powers to the product (some say its natural microbial flora can cure everything from asthma to autism), I don’t see anything mystical about the pathogens that can grow in room temperature milk: e. coli, salmonella, listeria and even tuberculosis. If you like the taste of raw milk and don’t mind the risks associated with imbibing warm body fluids of manure-encrusted bovines… then go right ahead. But please, don’t put your children at risk.

The New York Times exposed the raw milk counter-culture phenomenon last year.  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 send it to a processing plant where it’s pasteurized (a heat treatment) and homogenized (blending 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, but now certain farmers are threatening to reverse that progress.

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 very good, 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 epicures 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.  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.  Is raw milk getting a raw deal? Some farmers may feel that way – but this former farmer is pleased to have access to safe, clean milk. What do you think?This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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2 Responses to “Is Raw Milk Getting A Raw Deal?”

  1. ileana says:

    I don’t drink raw milk (any milk actually), and I don’t give my kid raw milk either, but I heard something that intrigued me: milk has some enzymes that are destroyed in the process of pasteurization. These enzymes make the raw milk easier digestible, and not having them might be what causes so many people to be lactose intolerant these days. Is there any merit in this?  

    Thank you so much to you and Dr. Rob and all the other doctors that go out on the blogosphere to educate us and give us the chance to ask questions.

  2. Ian Furst says:

    Working in diary country I have this debate with our some of our nurses who are dairy farmers on a regular basis.  My (distant) memory of pasteurization was to prevent TB.  Given the resurgence it seems ridiculous to tempt fate. That being said, most of the dairy farmers in the area drink raw milk proudly. 

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