|Is raw milk safe to drink? The answer is IT DEPENDS. If raw milk comes from healthy, disease free cattle and is handled properly, raw milk is safe to drink; but the answer is really not that simple. The question of milk safety involves two aspects of milk health: quality and safety. The nutritional quality and safety of milk is directly related to herd management (feed, living conditions, vet care, drugs, etc) while pasteurization effects the components within the milk that has been produced by either healthy or unhealthy cattle. To answer the question of whether or not raw milk is safe, I am going to briefly answer four questions:
1. Why is milk pasteurized? I give a brief history of milk and pasteurization, including some personal family stories.
I included suggested reading materials at the bottom of this page.
Why was milk first pasteurized? A Historical Perspective
In the late 1800s and early 1900s much of the milk supply in large cities in America was dangerous and laden with pathogens. Milk came from malnourished cows and disease was spread by insufficient hygiene. Pasteurization was instituted to keep a bad product from making people sick or causing death. The only safe alternative in the large cities in the early 1900s to pasteurization was Certified Raw Milk or pasture based family farms. Today, the government controls much of our milk supply, telling us that pasteurized milk is better for us than raw milk. Most laws are aimed at eliminating raw milk from the American diet. Much of my material comes from Ron Schmid’s book, The Untold Story of Milk. I refer to the book as the USM.
In New York ,over 3/4 of the milk supply came from “Distillery Cows” that were fed waste products from grains turned into whiskey. Cows were housed in feedlots that make today’s factory farms look like luxury hotels. Life expectancy for a cow in these conditions was less than one year from the time she entered the compound. One doctor of the era, Abraham Jacobi, MD (served as president of the American Medical Association), described the Distillery Dairies of former years with the following description 1917: “Part of New York was supplied by cows fed on brewer’s swill in Long Island stables, which no cow had an opportunity to leave at any time after having been imprisoned there. There she was kept in foul air, standing or resting in her own manure, with no other food, sickening until her tail rotted off and her skin broke out in gangrenous ulcers, and she died. Such was a goodly part of the milk that reached our households. It was more or less white or bluish, more or less impure – or rather, dirty- half a day old. When it was used for the baby it was rarely strained or boiled, often mixed with water which was more or less impure…Food stuffs would deteriorate rapidly and intensely. Ice could be obtained by only the better situated families…I always advised boiling the milk for infants as soon as it arrived.” USM Page 57Most people in the early 1900s did not understand the epidemiology of disease. One doctor and pioneer for Certified Raw Milk from the late 1800s , Henry Coit, saw such ignorance firsthand when he tried to find a clean source of milk for his son. He describes a dairyman who kept 4 cows and delivered milk in this way, “An honest and industrious man, but without a knowledge of hygiene…On visiting the farm, I found three cases of diphtheria in his house, and he was the patients’ caretaker for the night and the dairyman of all work for they day.” USM Page 53 In many dairies, disease was passed from sick and dirty milkers directly into the milk supply. Milk pails and other items used for milk were unsanitary.
The infant mortality rate in New York city was high. Approximately 50 percent of all deaths were infants. Contaminated milk played a large role in the mortality rate. It is no wonder that in these conditions, pasteurization became so popular and necessary. New York was the first of many large cities to start pasteurizing milk and as they pasteurized, the mortality rate declined.
Not all raw milk was dangerous, just the vast majority of it in cities was dangerous. There were a couple of safe alternatives to pasteurized milk: Certified Raw Milk and pasture based country dairies. Henry Coit led a movement to get clean, safe raw milk available to the people of New Jersey through Certified Raw Milk. He worked with other physicians in 1893 to create the Medical Milk Commission. They educated and taught dairyman how to produce safe raw milk. The dairymen were then “certified and inspected” and their raw milk was made available to drink. In the beginning, Certified Raw Milk was endorsed by leading physicians and legislators.
Unfortunately, money has a way of tainting good things. Pasteurization could have been a “stop gap measure” until dairymen could be trained how to produce safe raw milk but it became the way of life. Pasteurizing equipment was not cheap. If investors were going to invest in the equipment, they had to insure that laws would require the pasteurizing of milk for a long time. Money and the evidence of the positive effects of pasteurization led to the passage of laws requiring pasteurization.
In 1929, my great grandmother, Myrtle Mary Wear Tenney (pictured below), and her family decided to invest in a goat dairy and sell to individuals in the Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Prescott, Arizona. Laws requiring pasteurization put them out of business. She describes what happened in her own words,
“I had heard about the benefits of goat’s milk and was interested in the possibility of getting the dairy and thereby making it possible to have milk for our own children, as well as selling it on the side to make the necessary cash to buy incidentals that every family needs. I talked to Mr. and Mrs. Herring [sellers of a dairy] and they practically agreed to let us take over without any stipulation of cash payment. If we made a profit, we would pay them out of our profits. With the help of the children, I took over the operation of the dairy. Goat milk was selling for 20 cents a quart when the cow dairyman was only getting 7 cents a quart. We had a large enough family that we could handle the entire operation without hiring help. After one month of operation it was very apparent that we had a little gold mine…We took a trip to Kingman, Arizona where we visited a first rate goat milk dairy to see how it was run. We learned much about blood strains, mechanics of a good milk barn, etc. We bought some very fine blooded stock from this dairy and built our own herd; at its height to 80 milking goats. The average yield from each milking, per goat was at least 3 quarts. Our very best milkers would produce 4 to 5 quarts at a time.
“Dad and I went to Whipples [the T.B sanitarium in Prescott, Arizona where they lived] and did a good sales job of convincing the T.B patients that goat’s milk would help them to recover. Our first customers were some of the most severely ill, who had little hope of getting well. Their improvement was so spectacular that we soon had maximum demand from the patients and were selling 180 quarts of milk daily to the Whipple inmates. We also contacted many asthma and private T.B patients scattered in the pines throughout Prescott. Our business was booming, with an average profit monthly of $340. In the days of the depression that was a fortune.
“Somehow the weakness in human nature can’t stand for one being to see another being, get ahead. The cow dairymen became jealous of our good fortune and combined to put us out of business. First they reported, we weren’t testing according to state law. Investigation proved their accusations completely unfounded. They weren’t satisfied, however, until they found something else to give us trouble. They finally went through the legislature and got a law passed that said, goat’s milk should be pasteurized. We investigated through the dairyman’s journals for goat’s milk and learned that pasteurizing ruined the beneficial effects of goat’s milk. We went so far as to build a pasteurizing house and then Dad got “cold feet” when he saw the great cash outlay it would require for pasteurizing equipment. So, we sadly gave up the dairy and once more were faced with poverty and hard-times.”
In the 1940s raw milk was still sold throughout the United States on family farms. However, more and more political campaigns against raw milk led to ever decreasing raw milk sales and ever increasing of pasteurization. One of the more widely known campaigns was that against Brucellosis (also known as Undulant Fever or Malta Fever) caused by the Brucella bacterium. Brucellosis is an infectious disease that can occur in animals and be transmitted to humans (the Merck Veterinary Manual states that it is now rare in animals in the United States). According to USM, brucellosis was widely over exaggerated and was used as a fear tactic to get people to drink only pasteurized milk. It states that according to the U.S. Public Health Service statistics, from 1923 to 1944 there were only 256 cases of Brucellosis (Undulant Fever or Malta Fever) with 3 deaths. USM Page 151.
While I agree that the problem of Brucellosis was blown out of proportion, I know from personal family experience that it was a problem among dairy men and could reek havoc on a person’s life. In the 1932, my grandfather, Orson Pratt Lane (picture to the right), was kidding out about 3000 head of goats (this was a different set of goats than the goats used to supply milk to the tuberculosis sanatorium by Myrtle Mary Wear). At someone point during the kidding season, he contracted “Malta Fever”. According to his personal account, “The Doctor said there was no way that I was going to live. I was out for 17 days. I really was at hell’s gate. Anyway, I didn’t die. I lived. My legs and feet were bothered and they are still bad. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t use my feet or my legs and had to run everything by hand [for 2 years]. I finally got to the point where I could use both of my legs.” My grandfather was not the only victim of “Malta Fever” but he was the most severely affected by it. All of the family ended up with Malta fever, including his 18 month old daughter who died. My mother has always told me that the goats that caused the infections came from the Malta Islands and were slaughtered shortly after the outbreak. I have had a healthy respect for Brucellosis because of my family history which is why I have all of my animals regularly tested for Brucella. We never hear of Undulant Fever anymore. Perhaps that is because of pasteurization but more likely it is because dairy animals were tested and those testing positive were slaughtered. It still can crop up but is well controlled within developed countries.
From the 1950s to 2011 (2011 is the year this was written), small pasture based farms have been slowly closing their doors and large commercial dairies are springing up to take their place. Between government legislation and ever increasing costs for doing business, small farms cannot compete with corporate giants. Nearly all states require milk to be pasteurized to be sold in retail establishments. As a result, most farmers are forced to sell their milk to one of the four commercial milk corporations. Milk from small, pasture based farms is pooled with commercial dairy farm milk. It is cheaper to produce milk on factory farms or commercial dairies and as a result, they are becoming the predominant basis for the public milk supply. Approximately 50% of all milk comes from large commercial dairy farms (operations housing over 500 cows). Today, farmers are paid just slightly more for their milk than they were paid after WWII, approximately $1 a gallon. Large commercial dairies are paid “dairy price supports” which amounts to subsidies which helps encourage the growth of large dairy enterprises. USM Page 163. Quality is being replaced with quantity in the name of efficiency.
Throughout the 1900s and even today, raw milk has been slandered in an effort to keep people from consuming it. In the USM, Ron Schmid cites several cases of “infectious outbreaks” that have been attributed to raw milk. He carefully explains what happened and then shows how those outbreaks were likely not caused by raw milk. According to the government, there are about 60 reported illnesses from raw milk every year. Certainly some of those are legitimate but likely not all of them. According to the government, there are no benefits to raw milk – EVER. My doctor has the following statement posted in the waiting room by Thomas Jefferson: “If the people let government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.”
The government controls much of the milk supply in the United States. Ten states allow for some retail sales. Twenty six states allow “on farm” sales. Seven states have limited raw milk sales to “pets only” (with two that tried to pass legislation to require charcoal dye be added to raw milk). Two states do not allow any sales of raw milk (without doctor’s orders). Fifteen states do not allow any sales of raw milk at all.
What effect does herd management have on milk quality?
The nutritional quality of milk is dependent on the health of the cow that produced it. Sick cows do not produce healthy, nutritious milk. Cows fed high grain diets do not produce healthy, nutritious milk. Cows that are given growth hormones and constant antibiotics do not produce healthy, nutritious milk. Animals that are housed in cramped quarters in an unnatural environment do not produce healthy, nutritious milk. Herd management matters! What are the living conditions of the cows or goats that produce the milk you drink? Do you know? Do you care? For years I didn’t know and for years I didn’t care. Now I know and now I raise my own cows and goats so I can guarantee that I can drink healthy, nutritious raw milk.
I tried to research the difference between commercial dairies designated as Factory Farms or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) and pastured based farming on the web. I looked up the terms such as “description of large commercial dairy operations”. I didn’t get very far so I turned to books. Once again, The Untold Story of Milk, gave me a clear view of what I wanted to know and am presenting here. I realize that not all pasteurized milk in stores come from Factory Farms but some of it does so I think it is worth comparing the two approaches to farming. I also realize that not all pasture based farms are run like my farm but I will use my farm as a basis for my comparison.
Comparison of Factory Farm for Dairy Cattle to Pasture Based Farming for Dairy Cattle
What is the difference between pasteurized milk and raw milk?
This is a loaded question and up for debate, depending on who is talking. According to the USDA, there is absolutely NO DIFFERENCE between the nutritional quality of raw milk verses pasteurized milk. They also claim that milk produced from large commercial dairies is equally as nutritious as milk produced from pasture fed cows. They claim there is no flavor difference. They claim pasteurized milk is safer than raw milk; that raw milk is completely unsafe and should not be consumed by anyone, EVER. Unfortunately for big dairies and the government, there are a growing number of people who disagree with their stance. People who are willing to “risk” their lives to drink raw milk that tastes better, makes them feel healthier, and comes directly from known source. People who believe that pasteurization destroys the nutritional quality of milk and creates chronic health problems. In the table below, I hope to show the difference between pasteurized milk and raw milk from the perspective of pro raw milk drinkers. Again much of the information is taken from The Untold Story of Milk. It must be noted that his book has hundreds of citations and was well researched – but definitely from the pro raw milk perspective.
Pasteurized Milk Verses Raw Milk – What happens to milk when it is pasteurized?
How dangerous/safe is raw milk? What do the statistics show?
In the book, The Untold Story of Milk, Ron Schmid summarized the safety of raw milk with the following statement:“There are about sixty government-reported illnesses from raw milk per year – a number that is probably greatly exaggerated – and about one-half million raw milk drinkers in the U.S. – a number that is conservative. But using these figures, the rate of illness from raw milk can be calculated at about the one one-hundreth of one percent per year – the actual percentage is probably much lower. The rate of illness from other foods is about twenty-five percent – 76 million cases per year in a population of about 300 million. Thus even using inflated government statistics, on illness from raw milk, you are over 2,500 times more likely to contract illness from other foods than from raw milk.” USM Page 321
The statistics from my own family are similar to those stated by Ron Schmid. My mother’s family raised dairy goats for over 40 years. They had two incidents of Malta Fever but no other illnesses associated with raw milk. My fathers family ran a cattle dairy for 50 years. During that time, they never had any illnesses traced to raw milk. In fact, both families were quite healthy despite being on the poor side. Both families had excellent teeth and to this day have good bone density. My father is 80 years old and jogs/walks 5 miles a day.
|Raw Milk Information Link and Title
||Brief Description of the Raw Milk Link
|Drink it Raw: Why is unprocessed milk the only illegal food in North Carolina by Suzanne Nelson||I love this article. It may not be the most scientifically based article on raw milk but it shows the absurdity surrounding banning the sales of raw milk. Suzanne Nelson explains what she had to go through to purchase raw milk in North Carolina, a state that has banned the sale of raw milk from home based dairies because it is a “dangerous” substance (never mind that alcohol and cigarettes are easy to obtain and contribute to premature death). She explores who benefits from restricting the sale of raw milk.|
|A Campaign for Real Milk|| FDA and CDC Bias Against Raw Milk:This article compares the so called food poison outbreaks of raw milk with food borne illness from other foods. The raw milk article explains the benefits of raw milk and the dangers of pasteurized milk. Realmilk.com is a arm of the Weston Price Foundation.
The Health Benefits Of Raw Milk From Grass-Fed Animals by Ron Schmid: Dr. Ron Schmid is a licensed naturopathic physician, graduating from National College of Naturopathic Medicine in 1981 as well as a graduate of MIT. He served for a year as the first Clinic Director and Chief Medical Officer at the University of Bridgeport College of Naturopathic Medicine. He is a member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians and the Connecticut Society of Naturopathic Physicians, and is on the Honorary Board of the Weston A. Price Foundation.
REBUTTAL TO FDA POSITION ON RAW MILK by Rod Schmid: Dr. Rod Schmid responds to accusations about the dangers of raw milk by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in a letter summarizing their arguments against raw milk.
|“The Devil in the Milk” — Dr. Thomas Cowan on how the A1 – A2 factor explains why even raw milk sometimes does not seem to be enough of an improvement over “store-bought”||This is not an article specifically about the benefits of raw milk. It talks more about the benefits of the A2 protein in milk. Goats have A2 protein milk and some cows have it as well. I will be testing my cows to see if they carry the A2 or A1 protein. Well worth reading.|
|Enzyme Nutrition by Edward Howell, MD||Pioneering work on the role of food enzymes in diet and health. Reveals the dangers of diets composed entirely of cooked foods and problems posed by pasteurization of dairy products.|
The Raw Truth About Milk by William Campbell Douglass II, MD
|Excellent explanation of the dangers of pasteurization, written in a highly amusing style.|
Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats by Sally Fallon with Pat Connolly and Mary G Enig, PhD
|Full spectrum nutritional cookbook that dispels many myths about animal fats and traditional foods.|
|Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston A Price, DDS||The classic study of isolated populations on native diets, and the disastrous effects of processed foods and commercial farming methods on human health.|
|The Ploy of Soy: A Debate on Modern Soy Products by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, PhD:||An exposé on the dangers of modern soy products, often promoted as “better than milk.”|
|The Untold Story of Milk by Ron Schmid, ND||The Untold Story of Milk chronicles the role of milk in the rise of civilization and in early America, the distillery dairies, compulsory pasteurization, the politics of milk, traditional dairying cultures, the modern dairy industry, the betrayal of public trust by government health officials, the modern myths concerning cholesterol, animal fats and heart disease and the myriad health benefits of raw milk.|
|The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan||A New York Times bestseller that has changed the way readers view the ecology of eating, this revolutionary book by award winner Michael Pollan asks the seemingly simple question: What should we have for dinner? Tracing from source to table each of the food chains that sustain us—whether industrial or organic, alternative or processed—he develops a portrait of the American way of eating. The result is a sweeping, surprising exploration of the hungers that have shaped our evolution, and of the profound implications our food choices have for the health of our species and the future of our planet.|