The terms “real milk,” “farm fresh milk,” and “raw milk” are all used to refer to milk that has not been heated in the pasteurization process. But the terms encompass much more! Both farmers and consumers generally use these terms to refer to milk that has not been pasteurized AND:
- Has intact cream particles. In other words, it hasn’t been homogenized, and the cream rises to the top. You can see how much (or how little) cream is in your milk!
- Is from cows and goats raised on pasture, whether they are 100% grass-fed or supplemented with grain.
- Is from family farmers, not factory farms.
Raw milk serves as an excellent example of many of the issues underlying the local food movement. The opposition to raw milk comes primarily from the dairy industry, which is highly consolidated and under the control of a very small number of large companies; the public health arguments against raw milk are heavy on appeals to fear and authority figures but light on actual data.
The support for raw milk is based on a range of reasons that reflect the broader local food movement, from supporting family-scale farmers to seeking out natural, unprocessed foods. Whether you are a raw milk consumer or not, the information surrounding these issues is instructive of many of the forces in our agricultural and food system.
Is Raw Milk Safe?
Many of the warnings about the dangers of raw milk stem from widespread illnesses that occurred in the early 1900’s. But compared to 100 years ago, dairy farmers today can take advantage of many advancements that contribute to a much safer product, including stainless steel machinery, refrigeration, and common sanitation measures. Testing, for both animal health and milk quality, are also more thorough than when pasteurization became commonplace.
Dairies that are producing milk intended for pasteurization are not held to the same standards as Grade A Raw for Retail dairies, yet consumers often buy milk from these conventional dairies illegally. This “pre-pasteurization milk” poses a higher risk, as shown by the significantly higher incidence of positive pathogen tests from their bulk tanks. Thus, these numbers significantly overestimate the risk posed by raw milk from licensed, regulated dairies.
Nationwide, there were 1,414 illnesses, 80 hospitalizations, and 0 deaths attributed to raw milk in the 13 years between 1998 and 2010, or about 108 illnesses per year nationwide. The CDC does not indicate how many of these illnesses were attributed to raw milk that came from dairies that were not licensed to sell raw milk to consumers.
To put these numbers in context, there were 301,076 illnesses, 10,317 hospitalizations, and 223 deaths reported to the CDC in that time period from all foods. (See www.cdc.gov/foodborneoutbreaks)
To further put the numbers in context, consider the number of raw milk consumers. According to a CDC survey, an average of 3% of the population has drunk raw milk within the last 7 days. That translates to more than 9 million raw milk consumers. Out of 9+ million consumers, approximately 108 become sick each year allegedly from raw milk nationwide, or 0.001%.