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Davis, California

Friday, June 2, 2023

Sustainable Ag: Got raw milk?

Raw milk is a controversial topic, especially among food scientists and public health officials. Why? Because raw milk has not been pasteurized, or heated to the point where microbes are killed, and thus is considered “dangerous” by the Food and Drug Administration.

Pasteurization of milk began during the Industrial Revolution when raw milk was linked to the spread of tuberculosis, a deadly infectious disease common at the time. Pasteurization succeeded at decreasing the amount of illness associated with raw milk consumption and was hailed as a public health achievement. Throughout the 20th century, pasteurization became the norm for nearly all dairy products destined for consumers.

The same is still true today. If you go to a grocery store, you’ll likely find rows of milk products from various producers. Nearly all of those cartons and jugs hold pasteurized milk. Although less common, fluid raw milk products can be hiding somewhere among that aisle. Hard cheeses made from raw milk are also popular enough to be stocked by major grocery stores like Trader Joe’s. But why do I care about raw milk?

I’m a dairy lover who has worked the past two summers on raw milk dairies. The first was a raw cow dairy in Massachusetts and the other a raw goat dairy in California. I had never had raw milk before working on the farms. What did I experience? Farmers exceptionally devoted to their herds that provided me with about as much raw milk as I could consume. The pleasure I took in drinking their raw milk is something akin to the satisfaction of drinking a chilled beer on a sweaty, humid day, only I drank the milk in the morning before I tromped out to the barn for some teat-time. We took great strides to ensure the quality of the milk or cheese, and I felt far from an accomplice in a “dangerous” activity.

The messages being sent to the public about the safety of raw milk are contradictory. The Center for Disease and Control (CDC) clearly label raw milk as “dangerous,” yet it is legal in the European Union and 11 U.S. states to sell in retail stores — including our very own Golden State. An additional 18 U.S. states allow raw milk sales from farmers directly to consumers. Clearly, people throughout the U.S. and Europe are drinking raw milk without any catastrophes.

The danger of raw milk exists if it is produced in unclean conditions and handled irresponsibly. If dairy herds are healthy, their living conditions are clean and the dairy farmer upholds responsible sanitary standards, then there is no reason why I shouldn’t be able to squirt milk directly from an udder straight into my mouth. The European Union and several U.S. states have proven that the production of raw milk can be regulated in such a way that is safe for the public’s consumption. For many, the successful regulation of raw milk is overshadowed by the claim-making and myth-busting gossip surrounding it.

Raw milk enthusiasts claim that raw milk is more nutritional than pasteurized milk. Opponents claim there is no significant difference between the two. Raw milk enthusiasts claim lactose intolerant individuals can drink raw milk without digestive troubles. Opponents say that is based on anecdotal, not scientific, evidence. Any attempt at researching the debate will return endless pages of results both for and against raw milk. More scientific studies would certainly help people make better decisions about their health, but should it change the raw milk debate?

Ultimately, the consumption of raw milk should be considered a personal freedom. After all, people are not banned from consuming raw fish in sushi restaurants based on food safety concerns. Nor are they banned from ordering their steaks cooked rare while out to dinner. It is overextension of the government to completely ban an entire industry based on food safety concerns when it readily allows and regulates so many food industries that are susceptible to the same microbial contaminations. Enough with the scare tactics. Just label the milk, and let consumers make their own decisions.


If you’d like to call ELLEN PEARSON raw or dangerous, you can email her at erpearson@ucdavis.edu.