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The Hoopla about Raw Milk

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By: Candess Zona-Mendola

Super food. Nature’s perfect food. Fresh milk. Unpasteurized milk. Raw milk.

These are just some of the names of raw milk. No food or drink sparks more controversy in the food safety world than this topic. Supporters laude it as the most nutritious food there is. But there is one major concern – no one, even the best farmer in the history of dairy farming, can guarantee it is safe. Raw milk sales are currently legal in 42 states. That is a lot of risk without a guarantee. In 2017 alone, two deaths have been linked to the ingestion of raw milk cheeses.

But What Does This Mean? Isn’t Minimally Processed Better?

The mere mention of raw milk can, at times, cause confusion. Isn’t all milk raw? What is raw milk? Why is it dangerous? Aren’t items that are less processed better overall for our health?

Let’s talk turkey… or rather cow. We tend to forget sometimes that we live in a world of processing. We no longer forage for our food. Milking a cow by hand is a rare practice that few people actually know how to accomplish. A banana that we purchase at a grocery store has likely travelled more than half of the people in the United States. Many hands have touched it from the person who plucked it from the tree to the Produce Grocer who washed it. Yet, simply because it is labeled organic, we automatically assume nothing has been done to process it. This could not be further from the truth.

Processing is more than just a conveyor belt or heating something over a hot stove. The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines processing as “a series of actions or operations conducing to an end.” If you use this definition relating to our food system, everything we eat is processed – unless you grew it in your own backyard. Processing as a word has garnered a reputation in the food world to mean fake in some way. We automatically associate processed food with snack cakes and potato chips. But what does this have to do with raw milk? More importantly, why does this mean pasteurized milk is bad?

What is Raw Milk?

Raw milk is simply milk that has not been pasteurized. It has not undergone the “process” to kill any harmful bacteria. But that does not mean raw milk is an unprocessed food item. The fact that it is minimally processed is part of the reason raw milk is dangerous. Without a kill step (a means to kill harmful bacteria) raw milk gathers bacteria like a young girl does flowers – easily and unpredictably. From the equipment or hands used to milk the cow to the contact with a cow’s skin to the accidental kicking up of hay or dust from the grown to the farmer’s clothing, there are just too many ways milk becomes contaminated. And contaminated it does become.

Doesn’t raw milk’s “good” bacteria” have the strength to fight off the bad ones – like antibiotics fight off infections?  No. Not even close. I posed this similar question to a microbiologist. Not all bacteria wage war against each other. There is no “good” versus “bad” bacteria when you think about it. As human, we assume anything that makes us sick is bad. E. coli, for instance and depending on the strain, can live in harmony with our digestive systems or cause us deathly illness. Also, what is natural to the cow is not always natural to human beings. To the cow, E. coli O157 is just another gut bacteria. To us, it could mean anything from a bad week to kidney failure. It is in the gut of the beholder. Again, no one can guarantee that the cow’s bacteria does not contaminate the cow’s milk.

But Raw Milk is Better Tasting! Is it not?

Raw milk enthusiasts always jump to this argument. Rightfully so. Taste is dependent on each person. There is a fine line with this argument, and one should agree to disagree. Honey tastes good, but that does not mean children under one should eat it.

Despite this, one group of scientists from Belgium decided to pose a study. Their premise was simple, “is raw milk worth the risk?” They did not think so. According to the study, which was published in Food Control,

“Almost all arguments put forward by raw milk proponents for not heating milk, can be refuted, and the only substantial disadvantage of heating is the change in the organoleptic profile of milk. It is clear that this ‘detrimental’ effect of heating does not countervail the risk posed by raw milk consumption, namely of a milk-borne pathogen infection, which can have serious health consequences.”

The study found that pasteurization did not change the nutritional value of raw milk or remove any of the “benefits” of raw milk drinking. Pasteurization just removed the harmful bacteria. As for flavor, the scientists commented that new processing techniques allowed for methods to produce pasteurized milk with a similar taste to raw milk.

The CDC ‘Weighs In’ on the Raw Milk Debate

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report recently, called the Outbreak-Related Disease Burden Associated with Consumption of Unpasteurized Cow’s Milk and Cheese, concerning raw milk and raw milk cheese products. The study comes at the right time, as the United States adopts the whole foods tends and growing popularity of minimally processed foods. According to the report, which can be found here,

“Unpasteurized products are consumed by a small percentage of the US dairy consumers but cause 95% of illnesses; the risk for illness was found to be >800 times higher for consumers of unpasteurized milk or cheese than for consumers of pasteurized dairy products.”

So, a small population of people drink raw milk and a lot of them get sick. If that is not concerning enough, the CDC took the study, statistically, one step further. According to their findings, “As consumption of unpasteurized dairy products grows, illnesses will increase steadily; a doubling in the consumption of unpasteurized milk or cheese could increase outbreak-related illnesses by 96%.”

Nature’s super food is just a little too risky at the end of the day.

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