Got (raw) milk?

Jill said, “My pediatrician recently had a bit of a fit when she learned we were feeding our 4 year old raw unpasteurized milk. I don’t understand why this is such a big deal. Can you explain? We get our milk from my father in law who raises cattle so this is the only milk my four year old has ever drank.”

I had a hard time with this question—most of the information I could find was either from very pro-raw milk advocacy groups, or from rather bland statements from health authorities urging people to “just say no” to unpasteurized milk. I’d like to say I’ve found some good science and statistics comparing the risk of straight-from-the-farm, unpasteurized milk to commercial milk. But I haven’t.

Pasteurization itself is a fabulous way to disinfect natural foods like milk and juice. It usually involves heating milk to 165 degrees for 15 minutes (there are other protocols), which dramatically reduces the bacterial content of the milk. And there are some nasty bacteria that can thrive in milk, including forms of tuberculosis, listeria (a potential cause of miscarriages), and diarrhea-causing campylobacter, to name a few. Pasteurization reduces, but does not eliminate, the risk of infection from consuming milk. The terms “unpasteurized” and “raw” milk are pretty much used interchangeably.

I did find this statistic: between 2002 and 2007, the Centers for Disease Control tracked 1007 illnesses traced to raw milk or cheese, including two deaths. During that same time period, there was an outbreak of listeria from pasteurized milk in Massachusetts that killed three men and probably led to at least one miscarriage.

The FDA recommends avoiding unpasteurized milk, and several states have banned its sale. Some states allow it if an unappetizing gray color additive is added (it can still be used safely to feed animals.)

It’s important that farms that collect milk for consumption without pasteurization practice very clean, hygienic farming. Unfortunately, I doubt most large commercial farms do this; they probably rely on the pasteurization to “make up” for their crowded, factory-like conditions.

If families are going to consume raw milk, I would certainly recommend that they investigate the farm thoroughly, and stick with a small local source. Good hygiene is essential at every step. The milk has a short shelf-life, even when refrigerated. People with immune-compromising conditions, the elderly, pregnant women, and babies would all be at special risk for more severe infections, and should stay away from unpasteurized products.

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5 Comments on “Got (raw) milk?”

  1. Amy Says:

    Isn’t it true that in many European countries they do not pasteurize? I went with my family to France in 2008 (while 4 1/2 months pregnant) and didn’t have any problems at all. In fact, my OB didn’t even “warn” me about avoiding certain foods while traveling. Everything was so incredibly fresh, I often find myself wishing American food was that way!


  2. Dr. Roy Says:

    Milk is almost always pasteurized when it’s intended for human consumption– in the US, in Europe, in France, in Japan, and in any other developed country I could find information on. The sale of unpasteurized milk is legal in France (and in many states of the US), and is commonly used in the production of many raw-milk cheeses. In the US, cheese made from unpasteurized milk must be aged for at least 60 days, and isolated outbreaks of illness from even aged cheeses of this type have occurred.


  3. Michael Says:

    I just wanted to add even though buying unpasteurized milk from a cow is illegal in a lot of the US states(I think most states) that in many states it is not illegal to do a program kinda like “cow sharing” in order to get unpasteurized milk. Basically the law states if you own the cow then you can drink unpasteurized milk from it so a group of people get together all all “own” a cow together. They chip in and pay for the cow, its food, the land this cow is own, the farmer to milk the cow, etc so they can legally get/drink unpasteurized milk. Just wanted to put this information out there.


  4. Dr. Roy Says:

    Own part of the cow? Do you get to choose which part?

    Thanks for the info!


  5. Dr. Roy Says:

    OK, I’ve changed my mind somewhat on this issue. Further news reports of sickness from raw milk have convinced me that it is just a bad idea to drink it.


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