Home » Back to nature: the benefits and dangers of raw milk

Back to nature: the benefits and dangers of raw milk

I have a friend who speaks of raw milk from a farm in the Alps in the rhapsodic language that the French normally use for wine:  “It was fresh from the cow, full of cream and it smelled of the flowers in the meadows.” Tempting, certainly. There is, however, a case for caution.

In 1909, the Public Health Service reported that since 1880 there had been 500 outbreaks of milk-borne diseases. That year there was an outbreak of typhoid fever that was traced to a dairy farm worker who seemed well, but like Typhoid Mary, shed the lethal typhoid bacteria. New York City began to introduce regulations, creating safer milk but initiating a skirmish in the ongoing conflict between ensuring the public health and an individual’s right to raw milk.

The combination of healthy cows, clean milking techniques, refrigeration and pasteurization largely solved the problem of milk-borne disease in the first two or three decades of the 20th century.  The nutrition provided by milk was now safe for babies and the diseases that resulted from raw milk, especially in summer, disappeared. Louis Pasteur, the great French chemist and biologist (1822-1895), developed his method in the 1860s to improve the wine of his native Jura region, which was often contaminated with bacteria. Killing them with heat improved the wine. It was only later that pasteurization was applied to milk. Milk from a clean udder may contain tens of thousands of usually harmless bacteria in a milliliter (about 20 drops). Heating the milk briefly kills most of the bacteria, harmful or otherwise. Tragically, three of Pasteur’s five children died of infection before their father’s principles were applied to water and milk.  

Wayne Karacek, assistant director of the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, wrote me that there are 16 retail raw milk producers in the state but some only manufacture raw milk cheeses. Karacek said the total volume in Connectictut produced by raw milk producers is about 200,000 gallons per year, contrasted with pasteurized milk production of about 75 million gallons statewide. Regulations on the production of milk are stringent and those on raw milk, particularly so, after 14 people were infected with pathogenic E. coli O157 in 2008 from a farm in Connecticut.  

I talked with Chris Hopkins of Stone Wall Dairy Farm on Route 7 in Cornwall Bridge, who sells raw milk. There is a lot of hyperbole about the benefits of raw milk on the Internet. Hopkins does not belong to this camp. As a farmer, he is realistic and understands the need for oversight in order to ensure the best possible product. His cows are tested for harmful bacteria quarterly and he happily showed me the reports done by the state. As far as he is concerned, the state could test more frequently. He never wants to see an outbreak like the 2008 incident that put several children on dialysis.

Hopkins agrees that raw milk should be bought at the farm, which is the current law in Connecticut. Mixing unpasteurized milk from many cows is dangerous — the bacteria from one infected cow would contaminate the whole lot. Since 2008, all customers who buy raw milk are recorded in case there is a recall. There have been no problems in the state since then, although there have been in the rest of the country and in Europe. Pregnant women should avoid any raw milk product because of a nasty bacterium called listeria that grows in soft cheeses and causes miscarriages.

The milk I bought was very good, particularly if you are used to skim. I can understand how people swear by it.

Why is there still such a desire for raw milk? Well, there is an enduring human belief that natural is better — a belief that is not always shared by scientists and physicians. Proponents argue that raw milk has disease-fighting antibodies. However, this and other claims for health-giving properties of raw milk, found in a brochure available at Hopkins’ Stone Wall Dairy Farm, are anecdotal and do not stand up to scrutiny. Most vitamins survive pasteurization, for example, because antibodies and vitamins are stable molecules that survive modest heating.

I suspect there is something deeper at work as well, in that some of us just do not like being told what to do. Whether it is government regulation of raw milk or insistence on vaccinations, it just rubs us the wrong way.

If you want to drink raw milk there are precautions to take: keep it cold, use it soon, avoid it if you are pregnant or immune-compromised, and on the advice of Dr. Adam J. Ratner, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Columbia, don’t give it to children. They tend to be more susceptible to pathogens which might always slip into the supply, as in 2008.

That said, there are probably more dangerous things for the rest of us than buying fresh raw milk from a well-run dairy.

Richard Kessin, Ph.D, is Professor of Pathology and Cell Biology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University. He and his wife Galene live in Norfolk. He can be contacted at rhk2@columbia.edu.

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