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Is Raw Milk a Safe Bet?

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By David Martin, President and CEO of VeinInnovations

As part of his duties as a professor of chemistry at the University of Lille, French scientist Louis Pasteur was tasked with using his knowledge to help solve practical problems encountered by local industries. When the father of a student asked for assistance in his efforts to ferment beetroot, Pasteur made a discovery wine and beer drinkers still celebrate. The father hoped the fermentation process would yield alcohol; often, his efforts left him with lactic acid. Through his investigation of the soured alcohol, Pasteur proved that yeast was responsible for the transformation of sugar into alcohol, and that contaminating microorganisms found in the air were to blame for sour fermentation. He identified the microorganisms responsible for normal fermentation, as well as the microorganisms to blame for abnormal fermentation. He recommended heating, and then cooling, the beer, wine, or milk to kill the contaminating microorganisms, thereby sterilizing the liquid. We know this process as pasteurization. For this discovery, as well as his work establishing germ theory and his work on vaccinations, he was a national hero in France and was given a state funeral upon his death.

Pasteurization is considered one of the most significant and effective food safety interventions by public health officials. The wide-spread implementation of milk pasteurization was not without controversy. In the early 1900s a physician wrote to the the New York Times, criticizing the “… urgent demand for the general pasteurization of milk” in some of their columns. In his letter to the editor, he claimed that he and other physicians “… prefer to run the risk of typhoid, scarlet fever, diphtheria, and tuberculosis rather than the evils that I believe would follow the systematic and prolonged use of pasteurized milk.” Still, objections like the physician’s aside, the practice became routine in the 1920s and widespread by 1950. The incidence of milk-borne illnesses became less common. Today, the Center for Disease Control claims that millions of lives have been saved by pasteurization.

Raw milk is described by its proponents with sensuous fervor. Yellow-tinged and creamy, with unexpected, delightful tanginess. The flavor changes seasonally as the cows transition from summer grasses to winter grains. In a September/October 2012 article published by the left-leaning political blog, Mother Jones, Mark McAfee, CEO of Fresno, California-based Organic Pastures touted merits beyond the taste of raw milk. McAfee claims that children who drink raw milk will be cured of allergies and ear infections. He argues that the majority of consumers will benefit from stronger immune systems, but admits that no standard of cleanliness can eliminate the possibility of contamination. The author, Kiera Butler, describes her year of drinking (and enjoying) raw milk before ultimately concluding that the risk isn’t worth the reward. In her article, Is Raw Milk Really Good For You?, Butler shares the story of Chris Martin, a seven-year old who became infected with E. coli after drinking raw milk purchased from Organic Pastures.

Back in 2006, pasteurized milk was making seven-year-old Chris congested, so his mom, Mary McGonigle-Martin, began buying raw milk from Organic Pastures—which is rigorously inspected and which, at that time, had no reported outbreaks. A few weeks later, Chris picked up E. coli from a tainted batch, a state investigation concluded. His kidneys failed, landing him in the hospital for two months. Now 13, he is off dialysis, but doctors aren’t sure whether Chris’ kidneys will hold out. “It was the shock of a lifetime,” his mother told me. “If not for modern medicine, he would have died.” (The family filed a legal claim against the company, which disputed the source of the bacteria but settled the case out of court.)

Organic Pastures, some might argue, is too large and too similar to a common industrial dairy system to be trusted. The danger lies with their process and not in the raw product they provide. If you find better sources, such as small, local, and sustainable farms, the danger will be lessened. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. McAfee’s positive claims about raw milk are unsupported by current scientific study, but he spoke true when he said there was no process clean enough to guarantee raw milk will always be safe. According to the CDC, “Germs such as Escherichia coli O157 [E. coli], Campylobacter, and Salmonella can contaminate milk during the process of milking dairy animals, including cows and goats. Animals that carry these germs are usually healthy.”

In Georgia, it is illegal to sell raw milk. (There are several distributors of raw goat milk – for pet food – under license.) In other states where the retail sale of raw milk is illegal, a commonly-used loophole is to sell raw milk as pet food. Once it’s purchased, it’s up to the consumer to decide how it’s used. Consumers may even decide to pasteurize their raw milk at home, and enjoy non-homogenized milk.

Home pasteurization may be the happy medium families and individuals seeking more natural milk products settle on. Homogenization, not pasteurization, is the process that creates such a difference between raw milk and its grocery-store counterpart. Homogenization is a mechanical process that breaks up fat globules to such a small size that they stay suspended evenly in milk. The end result is a homogeneous liquid with a longer shelf life. Milk pasteurized at home (and not homogenized) will still have the layer of cream on top seen in raw, unpasteurized milk. The real difference between raw and pasteurized milk will be in the safety of the two products.

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