From Farm To Fridge: Should Raw Milk Be Easier To Get?

Nathan Greenwood-FreeDigitalPhotos

For Pamela and Ray Robinson, producing raw milk has been an economic lifesaver for their small, organic farm in Hardwick, Mass. Back when they used to send their milk for pasteurization, they earned less than they spent.

“Being conventional dairy farmers wasn’t paying the bills” says Pamela Robinson, a retired nurse midwife whose husband is a fourth generation farmer.

But their new source of income puts them in direct conflict with public health officials, who say raw milk is dangerous.

Massachusetts legislators are currently considering whether to make it easier for boutique farmers to sell raw milk – a measure backed by farmers like the Robinsons and advocates who say raw milk is more nutritious than pasteurized milk, which is heated to kill off pathogens. They say proper farming techniques, including a more stringent routine of cow care, milking procedures and testing, ensure safe milk.

But health officials say that farmers’ good practices can’t guarantee safety, and the extra health benefits come at too high a cost: a 150-times higher risk of food poisoning.

“Don’t drink it!” says Dr. Barbara Mahon, a CDC epidemiologist. “It is one of the likeliest foods  there is to carry germs that can make you seriously sick.”

House bill 717 would allow Massachusetts farmers to bring their raw milk closer to customers. Right now, raw milk and soft cheeses made from it can only be purchased on the farm where they are produced.  The new bill would allow farmers to transport their own milk to their customers directly to their homes, pre-established receiving spots or through community supported agriculture (CSA) arrangements.  Before purchasing their raw milk products, customers would be required to establish a contract with the farmer they plan to buy from.
Pamela Robinson spoke in favor of the bill earlier this month at a public hearing held by the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources & Agriculture at a high school gym in Spencer, MA.

Robinson says she’s frustrated by the current law.

“A lot of our customers come from urban areas,” she says.  “All the border states have looser raw milk laws, so we lose business to them.”

Milk is a big deal in the American diet.  The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey defines it as a dietary staple, with the average American drinking 23 gallons of milk a year.  The bulk of the milk consumed in this country is pasteurized.  The practice of pasteurization came about in the late 19th century when, according to the Center for Disease Control, infections attributed to milk consumption were commonplace.  The FDA banned the interstate selling of raw milk in 1984, and the legal status of a raw milk sales is up to state legislation.John Kasawa-FreeDigitalPhotos

Mahon and a team of CDC epidemiologists published a report last year on dairy-related outbreaks, specifically comparing those attributed to pasteurized and non-pasteurized milk and cheese.

They compared the incidence of foodborne outbreaks attributed to non-pasteurized dairy in states where its sale was legal compared to states that prohibited the sale of raw dairy products between 1993 and 2006. They found that of all the dairy-related outbreaks that occurred during those years, 60% were attributed to unpasteurized products and 75% of the outbreaks occurred in the 21 states that gave the green light to the sale of raw milk. They reported that, on the basis of the amount consumed, raw dairy products are at least 150 times more likely than pasteurized products to cause an outbreak.

Of the outbreaks studied, those attributed to raw dairy contamination had a 13% hospitalization rate, in contrast to the 1% hospitalization rate of the outbreaks stemming from pasteurized milk.

Laws that restrict the sale of non-pasteurized dairy products greatly reduce the risk of outbreak, Mahon says. Increased access to raw milk by the general public will put kids at highest risk, she says,  because unpasteurized dairy outbreak-related illnesses disproportionately affect them.  The study found that 60% of illness that resulted from raw milk contamination affected people who were 19 years old or younger.

“I’m a pediatrician, so this speaks loudly to me,” she says.  “The worst illnesses associated with the raw milk outbreaks were in children. It is so regrettable and dangerous.”

Winton Pitcoff, a raw milk activist and coordinator of Northeast Organic Farming Association, says the bill is intended to help people who are already drinking raw milk – not bring in a bunch of new customers.

“The point of the law is to meet the demand for raw milk in Massachusetts,” he says.

The current lack of regulatory oversight gives rise to nebulous situations like raw milk “buying clubs” – informal arrangements amongst consumers who designate one person to drive to the farm and pick up the raw milk supply for many.

“It’s hard to make it to the farm stand each week,” he says. “With a buying club, you have a minivan with a blanket over the milk in the back and there could be problems.  But if the farmer brings directly to customers, they want to make sure the milk is handled using excellent transportation standards.”

Pitcoff also suggests that laws that bar farmers from moving their raw milk off their land for sale is in opposition to Massachusetts’ strong environmental commitments.

“The state is committed to decreasing the burning of fossil fuels,” he says, “but the laws that govern raw milk distribution promote the opposite.  One farmer driving to Cambridge to serve 100 customers is a lot more efficient than 100 customers driving to farm.”

Readers? Thoughts? Raw milk experiences? 

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  • Zim

    I grew up believing that raw milk is poisonous. Now, I milk a cow every morning, and my whole family enjoys raw milk products. We make our own cheese, butter, ice cream, and yoghurt, and still have enough to share with several other families.
    Milk isn’t as delicate as people believe. A bottle of raw milk stays perfectly fresh for well over a week. The cream rises to the top and creates a thick cap over the milk, protecting it from oxidation. Even after two weeks, it can still be used for baking and making cheese — it’s tangy, but not putrid. The best butter is made from cream that is slightly sour.
    There are some terrific reasons to have a cow. Our fridge is always stocked, we have manure for the garden, and every year, we fill our freezer with beef, because a cow produces more than just milk.
    For me, the reason I keep a cow is to promote food safety, but in a broader sense. Sure, the usual arguments apply: I know my equipment is clean, and I know that the animal is happy and healthy. But there is another argument that no one here has articulated: I feel safe knowing that our food is within our reach. If my business income were to evaporate, we would still eat really well. What’s more, we would still be able to share our good fortune with our neighbors and friends. Our food is safe, and so are we.

  • m jacobs

    The assumption by raw milk advocates is that after delivery the consumer will take proper care that the milk will remain safe. My experience is the opposite. Children especially leave glasses around without caring that as it warms the pathogens grow.
    Having grown up on a dairy farm even the farmers wereVERY careful with their milk. All the data shows that children are disproportionately affected.
    Surely the advocates for raw milk must realize that pasteurization was developed for a reason. Increased careful handling does not eliminate the risk. The supposed advantages to raw milk do not outway the increased risk.

    • nancykp

      You have that backwards. Raw milk left on the counter continues to grow beneficial bacteria that will eventually turn into cheese, pasteurized milk left on the counter will grow pathogens that can cause disease. Raw milk sours, pasteurized milk rots. Big difference. Raw milk is a living food. Pasteurized milk is a dead food. I have happily drunk a glass of raw milk left out over night, it tasted no different than it did the day before. I would never drink a glass of pasteurized milk left out over night, it would taste putrid.
      Also pasteurization was introduced to milk products because of the poor conditions the cows were kept in not because of any inherent danger in the milk. Clean healthy cows = clean healthy milk.

  • Steve

    The laws for how milk is transported in Massachusetts are very strict. The laws governing how milk can be produced are similarly stringent. If transporters of pasteurized milk are able to bring their product to the marketplace because they adhere to the demanding requirement set out for them in legislation, it only makes sense that producers of non-pasteurized milk be able to do the same so long as they adhere to a similarly high standard. Even if the standard is higher – which many will argue it should be – there should BE a standard. It makes no sense for it to be completely illegal. The illegality of raw milk sales decreases the ability of small producers to participate in the marketplace.

  • Vreni

    Please view this recent, well researched presentation entitled “Raw Milk: Myths and
    Evidence” presented by independent researcher Ms. Nadine Ijaz MSc at the
    BC Center for Disease Control, May 16, 2013.

    Definitely worth the watch! She deconstructs the statement that raw milk is 150 times more likely to cause an outbreak than pasteurized by looking at the science.

    Recent Quantitative Microbial Risk Assessment studies (the gold standard in food safety studies) suggest that raw milk is a low-risk food – far safer than leafy-green vegetables. Food borne illness caused by dairy, (including both raw and pasteurized) ranges from 1-6%, whereas by leafy-green vegetables is about 20%.