Policy

March 23, 2013 at 7:00 am

The Risky Business of Raw Milk

Born into a family of farmers, my father grew up in rural Western Missouri. The nearest town was miles away so being self-sufficient was a must. What they did not eat from their garden was canned and frozen. Meat was often hunted in nearby timber and milk was provided by two Jersey cows.

My father had farm chores, but it was his father who hand-milked the cows twice a day—early in the morning and at dusk. They drank the raw milk at home and sold the surplus to supplement their income, as did most of the neighboring farmers. A truck would come by daily and pick it up, then take it to a local processing plant where it was homogenized and pasteurized.

Contaminated milk started to become a problem and the processing plant demanded that the farmers stop milking by hand and start using milking machines. E. coli and Salmonella are common pathogens that thrive in the environment milk provides. Milk can become contaminated in several ways: feces coming in contact with the milk, infection of the udder, diseased cow, dirty milking environment, or cross contamination from insects, rodents and humans.

Milking a cow at MA Agricultural College
(Boston Public Library)

Milking the cows was already a hassle for my grandfather. When you’re out in the fields trying to harvest wheat before a storm blows in, the last thing you want to do is stop and go milk cows. He made is money from cash crops like soybeans, corn, and wheat. The overall cost of farming was rising and investing in milking machines and other upgrades wasn’t worth the time or money. They sold the cows and started buying pasteurized milk from the store. My dad remembers that he preferred the taste of raw milk, except in spring-time when it tasted of the wild onions the cows would graze on.

During a recent trip to Texas, I decided to get some raw milk. State regulations allow the sale of raw milk in Texas, as long as it is purchased from the farm where it was produced. Other states like, California, allow it to be sold in stores as long as they have a permit. In a few states you can acquire it for pet consumption or through a herdshare. In several states, like New Jersey, it is illegal to sell.

After a quick internet search I found Homestead Farm, run by a husband-wife team. They sell Grade “A” raw goat milk along with some vegetables and meats. Their website states that they undergo monthly government inspections and that their milk is routinely tested for infection in the animal and pathogens in the milk. Strict standards of production are important when looking for a raw milk provider.

This small farm is set just outside of Ft. Worth in a neighborhood you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find a farm. As I pulled up to their cute market I could see the goats, whose milk I’d be drinking soon, a few feet away. After paying $7.50 for half a gallon I transported it home in a cooler, eager to try it out. Raw milk advocates are willing to pay a high price for their milk, claiming it tastes better and has health benefits including clearing up eczema, relieving asthma, and even helping beat cancer. I have had raw milk before, both goat and cow, but I have to say that this milk was the best tasting milk I have ever had. It was beyond fresh—sweet, full-bodied and smooth.

So what makes the government so eager to lock this milk away?

There is a chance you can contract a food-borne illness by drinking raw milk. The government warns consumers to steer clear of raw milk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will tell you it is because of the numerous pathogen outbreaks and hospitalizations due to illness. However when you compare the data with other foods that contributed to illness and death, the egg and dairy category, raw and pasteurized, comes in third to meat/poultry and produce. So while there is a chance you can contract a food-borne illness with all milk and other dairy, there is a higher chance you will contract it from meats or vegetables. While I am far from a conspiracy theorist, it does seem like the raw milk industry is being unjustly targeted.

Our food safety system is not fail-proof. This is why it is important to be an educated consumer-to stay informed and follow a few guidelines to reduce the risk of contamination. There are certain groups of people who may want to consider not consuming raw milk: those who are pregnant and those who have a weak immune system: children, older adults, and those with an auto-immune disease. If you are going to consume raw milk, source it wisely. The most important thing you can do is to know your farmer. Ultimately, your health is your responsibility.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when sourcing raw milk:

● Establish a relationship with your farmer and ask questions. 
Visit the farm and make sure the milking area and tools are clean
● Know the farmers milking schedule so you can get the milk when it’s freshest
● Make sure the milk is certified Grade “A”

-Monica Johnson