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Raw milk and the big picture

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Would you imagine that a hundred years ago that there was a fight for pasteurization? The irony isn’t lost on me that now there is a fight for raw milk. But the main question hasn’t changed over the past century.

Would you want to eat or drink a product from any animal that’s diseased? Doesn’t sound very appealing does it?

But, ironically, because of pasteurization, that may be exactly what we are doing.

There are many reasons to fight for raw milk. It is not just about the health benefits of raw vs the safety of pasteurized. It’s about having quality food. It’s about the safety and the health of the cows. It’s about the right to choose or have access to raw milk. It’s about the impact on our environment. It’s about the intertwined relationship between our laws, our economy, and our health.

There are two ways to ensure that milk is safe for human consumption. The first is to ensure that the cows are healthy and the milk is produced in a sanitary environment. The second is to boil or pasteurize it. But if pasteurization ensures the safety of the milk, what are the consequences for the cows and the quality of the milk? It turns out the health of the cows is sorely neglected. For instance, in the US, milk is produced predominantly in factory farms. To summarize the worst transgressions – cows are confined and surrounded with manure without access to pasture, their udders are diseased or infected from being attached to milk machines too long, they occasionally develop lameness and limp around as they are stricken with parasites, and they are injected with growth hormone and antibiotics while being fed corn, slop, and other cows. The necessity of antibiotics in factory farms also has a side-effect of generating drug-resistant strains of bacteria[i]. Another unintended consequence is the environmental impact from untreated manure. For instance the dairy cows in factory farms in California generate more untreated manure than the sewage from the New York City metro area[ii]. By focusing on pasteurization as the solution to safe milk instead of healthy cows and sanitary conditions, we have created these factory farms.


The safety of raw milk has already been demonstrated across the world, in the US, Germany, Italy, France, UK, Australia, among other countries. US government data shows that it is 35,000 times more likely to become ill from other foods than raw milk.[iii][iv]. To put the raw numbers in perspective, there were 42 milk related illnesses among 9 million raw milk drinkers over a year while melons from Colorado caused 72 illnesses and 16 deaths over a month or so[v]. A note of caution, in most of my writing I verify the analysis from the root sources, and though I haven’t in this case, the numbers seemly roughly in the ballpark. Common sense would dictate that raw milk from healthy cows produced in sanitary conditions is reasonably safe. Common sense would also indicate that it’s probably riskier for infants, the elderly, or those with weaker immune systems to drink raw milk than healthy adults. However, drinking unpasteurized or unboiled milk from an animal on antibiotics being fed a diet of predominantly corn? Drink it at your peril.

So now to answer one of my favorite questions – how did we get here and what went wrong? There is an obvious need for pasteurization if the quality of milk is substandard or there is any doubt whatsoever about its handling. In fact, in India, where the cow is a revered and sacred animal, the family cows are usually taken care of quite well, but living in a village is not the most sanitary of conditions. In these conditions, why take any chances? Traditionally, milk has been boiled before being given to infants as it reduces their chance of illness. In fact, one technique is to keep a low boil and then keep the heat on the milk all day, and depending on the health of the child, perhaps separating the cream. When the children become older, depending on the family, they can begin drinking the milk straight from the udder. I can only imagine that this technique has been around for centuries.[vi] Ayurveda, the millenia-old traditional branch of medicine, also suggests boiling the milk with a mixture of spices for the purpose of improving digestion. Regardless if the milk could be consumed raw, Ayurveda states that there are more health benefits to drinking boiled milk than cold milk. Note, however, the differences between the Indian version of boiled milk vs pasteurized milk – the milk is consumed within 24 hours, boiling the milk and naturally cooling it is different than pasteurization, there is no refrigeration or storage involved, and the initial quality of the milk is much higher.

In the Western world, the history is much easier to track down. In the late 1800’s, milk was regarded as one of the leading causes of urban epidemics[vii]. With a migration from farm to city, a new urban market opened up and farmers would rather sell fluid milk to the cities rather than to manufacturing outlets which produced cheese, yogurt, condensed milk, etc. In fact, though there were existing regulation governing the quality of milk, there was genuine concern about fraudulent or careless practices of milk producers. The battle for quality milk is not a recent affair. Just like the recent Chinese melamine tainted milk scandal, 150 years ago milk was also being adulterated with lime and chalk.[viii] This was due to regulations being based on the quality and composition of milk, without involving any sanitary conditions. Then, despite opposition from some physicians, milk depots with pasteurized milk for mothers with young children were created. The usage of the special milk reduced infant deaths. In New York City, the death rate for children under 5 was reduced from 96 per thousand in 1893 to 55 per thousand in 1906.[ix] Thus, over the course of 20 years, health specialists were converted to pasteurization, with some considering it a temporary measure until such point in time that the dairies could produce clean milk.

However, the economic consequences of this are of great importance. With the regulations stating only a minimum required fat content level and low to no standards for cleanliness, selling milk to cities (vs creameries or factories) was the most profitable and the least effort. Why would a farmer produce ultra-sanitary milk with high fat content when it’s more profitable to sell low quality milk in bad conditions? With these economic incentives, Holsteins became the breed of choice and the Jersey cow relegated to butter and cheese making ventures. With declining conditions for the animals, fat content slowly decreased. Economically, homogenization of milk was now the order of the day. Homogenization was sold to the public as being “more digestible”, and it now became impossible to identify quality milk.

Fast forward to today and without pasteurization and homogenization, cheap corn, and the original reason for corn-fed cows, factory farms would not exist. With pasteurization and homogenization in place, there is no pressure to produce high-quality milk. In the US and Canada, why is there such resistance to raw milk under the guise of disease control? Is it because no one has objectively looked at the data? Is it because if consumers were provided milk from healthy cows the existing market might suffer? Is it not possible to produce good milk in the quantities necessary? Is it because the need for pasteurization has been engrained with an obsession of being clean of all bacteria? To be honest, I’m not sure what it is, it’s baffling to me.

But I do know what it means when you support or purchase safe and high quality raw milk. It means that you’re guaranteeing the ethical treatment of animals. A cow in a good environment is healthy and produces safe milk. It means that you’re supporting a more environmentally sustainable solution through small dairies and cow shares. The inherent problems of disposal of manure in large scale dairies are lessened. It means you’re supporting small farmers and helping the rural economy. Raw milk is of higher quality and therefore fetches a better price for the farmer while lessening their overall workload by reducing the amount of cows they need. It means that you’re supporting the right to choose our food – the right to have access to raw milk and the choice to boil it if we desire. Raw milk may not be for everyone, but what would you say if you weren’t allowed to grow carrots because they were declared a health hazard? And last but not least, it means that you’re choosing milk of a higher quality, so high, that it can be consumed raw if so desired. There is no doubt that pasteurization is necessary still for most of the milk produced, but wouldn’t we rather just drink milk produced in a clean environment from healthy animals?

tl;dr – Pasteurization is necessary for unhealthy cows or unsanitary conditions and milk regulation involving pasteurization is a root cause of factory farms. Supporting the production of safe to consume raw milk ensures the health and treatment of the cows, our right to choose high-quality food, and is a sustainable environmental choice.

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  6. Several 70-90 year olds confirmed that this technique was around in their childhood. []
  7. For instance, in 1818, it is said that Abraham Lincoln’s mother died of “milk sickness” when he was a young boy. The cause of the disease was later found to be drinking milk from cows were eating poisonous white snakeroot. []
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  9. The Rise of the Dairy Industry in Wisconsin; a study in agricultural change, 1820-1920 – Lampard, Eric . Chapter 7 []
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