Raw and Personal
By Erin Volheim
Deciding if it is healthy to drink raw unpasteurized milk has become a modern conundrum. There are so many factors to consider when making this choice, from the individual’s constitution; to it’s legality in your state.
Food safety issues are the most common red herring regarding consuming raw milk, yet research into food poisoning shows that neither pasteurized milk or raw milk have ever been 100 percent safe all the time. Here are two examples:
• Spring 1985: Salmonella-contaminated pasteurized milk from a suburban Chicago, Illinois dairy poisoned 16,284 people -- and possibly as many as 200,000 -- in six Midwest states. The tainted milk was most likely responsible for two deaths and may have been related to 12 others.
• Summer 1985: In Southern California, the largest number of food poisoning deaths recorded in recent U.S. history was traced to Mexican-style raw milk soft cheese. Of the 142 reported cases, there were 47 deaths, including 19 stillbirths and 10 infant deaths from listeria.
In both of these cases, the dairy products were contaminated during production. 25 years later, compromises in food safety still happen, due to human error or flaws in our mechanical solutions. Even with the advent of the robotic dairy and biosensors for pathogen detection, there is no foreseeable guarantee of ultimate safety, no matter how much we try to eliminate risk and control the outcome.
Spending time researching the incidences of food poisoning, might make you never want to eat again. A mutual standard in the risk assessment field is that a product is “safe” when it only affects one in a million, (you wouldn’t want to be the number one.) It is the responsibility of food safety organizations like the FDA and the USDA to prevent public epidemics by creating standards for food producers, which is mainly to minimize risks.
Food safety culture is now based on a global marketplace, rather than a face-to-face relationship with your local farmer. In 2007, the FDA reported finding traces of salmonella or the dysentery-linked bacteria shigella in four percent of imported fruits and vegetables versus one point one percent of domestic produce. In the case of raw milk, the easy answer for these agencies is don’t drink it, but they don’t tell you to stop eating all the other potential sources of food poisoning, like ready-made foods or peanut butter, until there’s an outbreak.
Our ideas about how to promote public food safety started in the 1960s with the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) system that most food producers now adhere to. It was initially developed to make food safe for NASA’s manned space program. The main goal was to produce food that would not crumble under zero gravity, but also be safe to eat with strict microbial requirements and pathogen limits.
A farm is not a contained unit (like a spaceship,) but the FDA’s voluntary HACCP for all Grade A dairies tries to implement controls as if it were.
In the country, the pathogens that are attributed to food poisoning or hazards live all around us; especially in water and MUD (manure, urine and dirt). Today, 79 percent of U.S. citizens live in an urban environment with an immune system that can better handle a busy subway station, than it can the floor of my chicken coop.
My friend Johnny grew up in Wisconsin, drinking raw milk on the family farm when they had 60 head of cattle. Once the herd grew past 100, his family stopped drinking their dairy’s own milk. Now with a herd of 600, they still buy pasteurized milk at the store. This is why most proponents of raw milk do not support large dairies converting back to raw milk production, precisely because there are too many opportunities for contamination.
When considering the choice to drink raw milk, it’s more about observing how the “four-leggeds” at the farm are being treated and how their milk is being handled. In high-production conventional dairies the health of the confined animals is questionable.
A farmer with a small herd has more interactions with each individual animal, than a confined animal feeding operation worker. She’s more likely to know each animal by name - or at minimum - its personality. If an animal is sick, its abnormal behavior is going to stand out; especially during the milking season, when each animal is received in the milking parlor once or twice a day. If this happens, she can isolate the animal and make adjustments accordingly, thereby ensuring the health of the herd.
I had the opportunity to learn how to milk goats this spring at my friend’s farm, which gave me more confidence later in joining a local raw milk herd share.
As with any act of food preparation, the first preventive is to vigorously wash your hands with soap and hot water. Then, a one percent iodine solution is sprayed on the goat’s teats, this kills most pathogens in 30 seconds, afterwards, it is dried with a paper towel. Then a little milk is squirted into a strip cup that has a fine mesh colander. This allows the milker to note if the milk is clumping, suggesting a teat infection like mastitis that can be caused by many food pathogens.
The next potential safeguard is the cover on the milking pan, which helps keep out any dirt. If anyone milking accidentally got clumps in the milk, it gets thrown out. When a pail is full, it is immediately taken to the dairy to be strained and then refrigerated.
The population of beneficial organisms in raw milk can compete with the growth of harmful strains, but this is dependent on the temperature of the milk (and the particular strain) and is not a guarantee that all raw milk is safe to drink. This finding was collated from the body of scientific research on pathogens and raw milk, by an independent third party, www.rawmilkwhitepapers.com. This finding disputes the position of the “raw milk does not kill pathogens” FDA, and the raw milk advocacy group Weston A. Price Foundation’s stance that “raw milk kills all pathogens.”
There are other herd management actions a farmer can take to protect the quality of their raw milk. For instance, listeria, a pathogen most of our digestive systems have come in contact with without harm, can at the same time be disproportionately deadly for those with compromised immune systems; like pregnant women, infants, and the elderly. Although, first identified in 1914, listeria did not become a food safety issue till 1979. Although your risk of listeria contact is higher with luncheon meat, it is an issue in raw milk products. One risk assessment study of unpasteurized soft cheese, predicted that based on the listeria cells present, the pathogen would have greatly impacted five high-risk individuals and mildly affected one healthy individual.
In studies of ruminant farms, they found that listeria colonies peaked during the winter and spring, and were more prevalent with cows. A dairy on a seasonal grazing cycle stops milk production in the fall. The milking season does not begin for humans again until next year’s calves have been weaned in late spring. Listeria was also found growing on moist silage. When you are caring for the individual health of an animal, you automatically want to make sure that they are not being fed any moldy feed. So if this is already a farm’s consideration, silage is more likely to be properly stored, thereby inhibiting listeria reproduction.
Since 1987, interstate sales of raw milk have been banned at the federal level. As of 2010, at least 29 states permitted some form of raw-milk sales to the public, including sales at dairies, farmers’ markets, or through purchase of “cow shares,” but only 13 permit retail sales. In Oregon, herd shares are legal but retail sales are not. Meanwhile, the demand for raw milk is growing. Subsequently, it’s the seditious promotion of raw milk sales in states like Wisconsin, where it’s still illegal, that there has been a government crackdown on small farms selling raw milk. Ironically, this is one of their lower priority food safety concerns, simply evident by the small population of raw milk consumers.
In Wisconsin in 2010, a bill allowing on farm sales of raw milk passed the legislature and was vetoed in the final hour by the governor. It was reported that the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, the Dairy Business Association, the National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association all were openly against this bill in the guise of food safety. If this had passed, it would have sustained small family-style dairies willing to take the business risk of selling raw milk, which a large dairy can’t. The price for raw milk averages around $10 a gallon.
With all the controversy around raw milk, what is the attraction for consumers? Raw milk advocates claim that it has nutritional superiority over pasteurized milk, including increased levels of beneficial bacteria and enzymes; vitamins and minerals; and protein and fat. The differences have been translated into anecdotal and speculative health claims: protection against allergies, decreased risk of autism, reduction in cavities, enhanced fertility and arthritis protection.
It is easy to deduce that there are more probiotics and enzymes in unpasteurized milk. Unfortunately, further research is needed to establish correlations between the consumption of raw milk and many of these other health claims. So far, one European study suggests that early consumption of raw milk helps prevent allergies in children.
The one advantage of raw milk that is easiest to prove is its superiority in taste, texture, and quality. There have been many improvements in farm sanitation and testing for diseases that support the safe production of raw milk. As for myself, my quality of life is greater because I have access to homegrown foods. And the next best thing to growing your own food is purchasing it from a farmer you trust.
Erin Volheim lives in the Little Applegate valley of Southern Oregon, and runs the Wilding Center.