It’s a dichotomy.
Picture a pastoral farm, dairy cows grazing peacefully on organic pasture. When the cows are milked, the fresh, frothy substance they produce is known as raw milk. Fresh from the farm, directly from the cow, raw milk is nowadays sought out for its purity and unadulterated health benefits.
Google “raw milk” and you will find articles extolling the the health benefits of what some claim is an elixir, but also of the FDA issuing warnings to avoid it. Since the 1987 Federal Ban On Raw Milk For Human Consumption - which prohibits any unpasteurized milk or milk product crossing interstate lines - and the 2006 FDA enforcement of that ban, there have actually been dozens of armed, federal raids of dairy farms, including families held at gunpoint. All because they have either provided, or attempted to purchase, raw milk.
Difficult to imagine: Armed federal raids of bucolic dairy farms.
Not at all.
The milk you buy at a supermarket has been pasteurized and homogenized. These two processes that have been utilized for over one hundred years to safeguard the public from food-borne illness. The milk is superheated to kill off harmful pathogens and bacteria. There is still a limited shelf life, as indicated by a date on the packaging, but it has been prolonged by the processing.
Raw milk, on the other hand, is...well, raw. It is fresh, unheated, untreated and highly perishable. Raw milk contains beneficial bacteria and enzymes which are said to have an inverse effect on allergies and asthma,(1,2) a claim that has been supported by numerous medical studies, but is still challenged by the FDA. In any case, it’s what accounts for the current rage for raw milk consumption. While raw milk can be the stuff of picture books - you head on down to a farm, see the pretty cows and get it from a farmer - you really need to know that farmer to ensure that safe handling practices have been adhered to. Pathogens are not something to be taken lightly.
These are no CAFO cows, by the way. Integral to the health benefit of raw milk is the healthfulness of the cow. Antibiotics, pesticides, growth hormones (rBGH) and GMO feed are not part of the cows’ regimen. The fact that most cows raised to provide raw milk graze on grass, as opposed to grain like commercial dairy cows, changes the composition of the fats in the milk, especially the CLA content. Raw milk provides nutrients not found in pasteurized milk, including beneficial bacteria such as lactobacillus acidolphilus.
However, the Interstate ban holds fast. New Jersey is one of only eight states and Washington, D.C., that enforces a total ban on raw milk. The law states “No person shall sell or distribute to (the) ultimate consumer milk that is not pasteurized.”
(To view state laws in detail: http://www.farmtoconsumer.org/raw_milk_map.htm).
But armed raids? What is the FDA literally up in arms about?
As gatekeeper of public health and safety, the FDA (as well as the CDC, the Department of Health and Human Services, and numerous other agencies) claim that raw milk, and raw milk products, are conduits for contaminants that could cause massive outbreaks of food-borne illness, such as Listeriosis, Salmonella and E. coli. As such, they claim that these unpasteurized products are public health hazards. Furthermore, the FDA claims that pasteurized milk provides extra nutritional value, as it is fortified with vitamins A and D. The claim is disputed by raw milk proponents, as these are the very vitamins that are initially destroyed during high heat processing, only to be added back as “enrichment.”
The FDA reports, “according to an analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 1993 and 2006 more than 1500 people in the United States became sick from drinking raw milk or eating cheese made from raw milk. In addition, CDC reported that unpasteurized milk is 150 times more likely to cause food-borne illness and results in 13 times more hospitalizations than illnesses involving pasteurized dairy products.”
Opponents of the FDA claim that there are actually very few illness outbreaks caused by raw milk or raw milk products. This information was most recently challenged in May, 2013, in a report titled Raw Milk: Myths and Truths.(3)This report gave evidence that raw, “unpasteurized milk is a low-risk food, contrary to previous, inappropriately-evidenced claims suggesting a high-risk profile.” Indeed, the report goes on to present evidence that green leafy vegetables are the most common cause of food-borne illness in the U.S. today. The report finds a “forty-year worldwide absence of listeriosis cases from raw milk” though it does support continued rigorous practices to minimize risk.
Those who are fighting for the legalization of raw milk and raw milk products say that it is the “Big Dairy” lobby that is seeking to quash the raw milk movement. Aside from the obvious reason, keeping supermarket sales of pasteurized, homogenized milk products strong, there’s another reason “Big Dairy” might seek to suppress the Raw Milk movement: it’s an obvious gateway to small farm prosperity. Once a consumer heads to a small farm to purchase raw milk, they often purchase other fresh products, such as eggs, vegetables and fruit, not to mention other dairy products such as raw milk cheese and yogurt.
Raw milk advocates, led by associations such as the Weston A. Price Foundation, maintain that pasteurized milk is a completely different product from raw milk because it is cooked. Cooking changes the properties of many foods, and often the nutritional values. Milk is no different.
While it is true that pasteurization eliminates the risk of pathogens in dairy products, it is also true that obtaining raw milk from a healthy cow with safe handling practices provides a low risk of pathogens as well.
Yet, even the IDFA (the International Dairy Foods Association) admits soft and semi-soft cheeses such as Camembert—whether from pasteurized milk or not—pose little to no risk. “The last outbreak in the United States was in 2006,” notes the IDFA.
Proponents of raw milk consumption remain exuberant about its health benefits, and defend their right to drink it.
The issue is not a complicated one to understand. While the high heat of pasteurization kills off the dangerous bacteria and makes milk safe for transport and extends its’ shelf life, the flip side of the coin is that it also destroys the beneficial bacteria as well, diminishing the nutritional value of the milk. Herein lies the crux of the debate, while the FDA claims that this is false, this claim is widely disputed and those who want to partake of raw milk and not simply enjoy its health benefits, but reap them, are in a position of legally fighting to do so.
If you decide to seek out raw milk for yourself, take care to know the farmer you are obtaining it from and make certain the cows have grazed on pasture that is organic. Safe handling practices and good refrigeration are key, as raw milk is highly susceptible to spoilage. While it is true that pasteurization (high heat processing) eliminates the risk of pathogens in dairy products, it is also true that raw milk from a healthy cow with safe handling cow with safe handling practices provides a low risk of pathogens as well.
1 - Waser M, Michels KB, Bieli C et al. (May 2007). "Inverse association of farm milk consumption with asthma and allergy in rural and suburban populations across Europe". Clin. Exp. Allergy 37 (5): 661–70. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2222.2006.02640.x. PMID 17456213.
2 - Loss G, Apprich S, Waser M, Kneifel W, Genuneit J, Büchele G, Weber J, Sozanska B, Danielewicz H, Horak E, van Neerven RJ, Heederik D, Lorenzen PC, von Mutius E, Braun-Fahrländer C. GABRIELA study group. The protective effect of farm milk consumption on childhood asthma and atopy: The GABRIELA study. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2011;128:766–773. doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2011.07.048. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21875744
3 - Raw Milk: Myths and Truths. http://www.bccdc.ca/NR/rdonlyres/00E8757C-99E4-4414-8C54-2C92BB776567/0/RevisedPresentationJuly8RawmilkmythsandevidenceNadineIjaz_
Copyright © 2013 Michele Jacobson, CNN. All rights reserved.