I’ve been meaning to write this commentary for… about a year and a half. There are many heated discussions about the merits vs. dangers of raw milk, and they flow over into the sustainable and local food worlds pretty often. Culinarily, I’m fairly strongly in favor of cooked milk. Not just pasteurized milk, but cooked milk. Preferably heavily flavored cooked milk, like chai masala or boiling hot cocoa. Perhaps, if I saw great culinary value in raw milk, I’d be less adamant in my opinion that pasteurization was a great advance in public health and that we should continue to practice it.
Please note: I am writing this as I syringe feed the abandoned goat kid who is huddled on a heating pad in the dishpan in the dining room. I have easy access to and control over my milk supply.
So, first, what are the public health risks? Mostly, there are many microbes in milk and a small portion of those microbes can make you ill or kill you. Microbes may come from the animal itself, the equipment, the storage containers, the water used to clean things, or even just a pinch of dirt from the floor. A mild reaction would just involve a bit of nausea or diarrhea; more severe illnesses like Listeria or tuberculosis can lead to death, especially in those with weakened immune systems. Much of the population does have a compromised immune system: anyone undergoing treatment for cancer, pregnant mothers, anyone on steroids, any immune-suppressing medication… Deaths from tainted milk were an enormous problem in 19th century cities, and still occur today (very rarely in countries where pasteurization is common).
In addition, every producer who sells raw milk is one mistake– just one udder not quite clean enough– from bearing the liability and bad press of a death or series of illnesses. Sadly, it could even be a mistake a by a customer that drives the producer out of business. The press, government agencies, and other customers would likely react before the investigation was complete. Other producers may see their business fall as well. Understandably, one large organic cooperative voted last years that no coop producer could sell raw milk in addition to selling their milk to the cooperative. Philosophy and public health approaches aside, the business decision was based on the valid belief that any issue with a raw milk producer would then reflect badly on the cooperative, and possibly bankrupt the cooperative as well (even though the cooperative’s milk was pasteurized).
Taking on your own dairy is one way to control the risks. First, it’s legal to GYO raw milk in all states of the US. You bear the liability because they are your animals and it is your production. Second, you control the cleanliness and health maintenance of the animals yourself. You can ensure that your equipment and animals are kept brutally clean; your animals are properly vaccinated; any animal with mastitis is removed from the milk supply and so on. Theoretically, a well-run dairy can reduce the risk of food-borne illness to a low level. I don’t consider a low level to be optimal when a simple measure can reduce it to nearly (but not entirely) zero. And, seriously, dairies are challenging places to clean. Go read up on cleanliness scores for dairy cows, or simply diseases transferred between goats and humans. Now, imagine a pastured cow being kept perfectly clean from mud. (It’s sooo muddy here. I swear, I’m going to be wearing barn boots everywhere for the next three months.)
As a common sense prevention of disease (like handwashing), I strongly advocate that you heat up your milk. Until it’s dead. Really really dead. Or find a suitable alternative, like turning it into a delicious aged cheese.
*If you produce your own responsibly, it’s not actually so foolish.