Thursday, August 4, 2011

Rawesome Foods and the Raw Milk Debate

Recently, food co-op Rawesome in Venice, California was raided by the FDA for selling raw milk without a permit. This has re-kindled the on-going debate about the safety of raw milk, the operations of the FDA, and the individual liberties of Americans.

It should be noted that this is not the first time Rawesome has been raided. They were similarly raided in 2010. The recent raid raid came as a result of a sting operation the FDA has been running there for the past year, presumably since the first raid occurred.

While this seems to be a question of proper permits, the question of raw milk consumption is a debate between food safety and potential health benefits.

A Short History of Pasteurization in the US

After the discovery of germ theory in the 1890’s, milk was pasteurized to control the potential hazards of highly contagious bacterial diseases, including bovine tuberculosis, that could be easily transmitted to humans through the drinking of raw milk. At the time, no product testing was available to determine if a farmer's milk was safe or infected so, all milk had to be treated as potentially dangerous.

In the United States, milk pasteurization was widely used in the 1920s and it was considered a major breakthrough in public health. Pasteurization has been credited with reducing infectious disease rates in the U.S. more than 90% over the past century. In 1924, Grade A pasteurization became a recommended federal policy, but interstate commerce of unpasteurized dairy products was not limited via federal legislation until 1987.

Health and Safety Issues in Raw Milk

Pasteurized milk is heated to 161 °F for 15 seconds, killing harmful bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella, sometimes found in milk. The pasteurization process, however, also destroys some vitamins as well as healthy bacteria, such as L. acidophilous.

Exposure to harmful bacteria present in some milk can lead to tuberculosis, listeriosis, salmonellosis, and several other food borne illnesses. The symptoms range from nausea, to diarrhea, to death. According to the FDA, in 2002 there were nearly 200 deaths that could be directly associated with exposure to such bacteria by drinking raw milk. Pasteurization also kills many bacteria that lead to spoilage, contributing to a longer shelf life.

Pasteurization isn’t discriminatory in killing bacteria, however. It also kills “helpful” bacteria, such as L. acidophilous, used in culturing yoghurt and cheese. Milk products with L. acidophilus, have been associated with a decrease in pediatric diarrhea, decreased levels of toxic amines in the blood of some dialysis patients, aids in lactose digestion and has been linked to a a reduction in certain risks associated with coronary heart disease.

The FDA maintains that the benefits of pasteurization far outweigh the loss of health benefits. L. acidophilus can be found in pasteurized yoghurt and cheeses. Some raw milk advocates cite government regulation of raw milk consumption as a threat to civil liberties, noting that adults are allowed to consume more dangerous substances.

My Opinion on Raw Milk

The debate over raw milk is interesting. On the one hand, the benefits of destroying pathogenic bacteria in our food supply can’t be ignored. On the other, such bacteria can be re-introduced if the milk is handled improperly after pasteurization. Such bacteria is not present in all milk and there are several tests available to check for it before the milk is put in the refrigerator section of stores.

My own experience with consuming raw milk has been limited. There are a few farms in Utah that are licensed to produce and sell raw milk. They use incredible handling procedures to ensure it’s safety, going miles beyond the norm to maintain proper temperatures. By law, they make you sign a waiver sto ensure you know the risks, and they don’t sell to minors. I have occasionally purchased and consumed milk from them. Growing up, my grandparents and at least one uncle kept cows. Drinking fresh, raw milk while visiting them was not uncommon. They would pasteurize the milk in large batches on the stove before serving it, from time time, as well. I have never gotten sick consuming raw milk.

As for taste, I don’t find much difference. There’s a greater taste difference between organically produced milk, pasteurized or not, and other milk. Different brands have different tastes, as well. I’m guessing this is due more to the diet and living conditions of the cows than anything else. I prefer the organic variety, but it’s more expensive so, I purchase it as a treat, not a staple.

Currently, I want a legal choice between raw and pasteurized milk, as long as food production and sanitation guidelines are being held to the highest standards and enforced. It’s insane to think that we have to sign a waiver to buy raw milk, but adults can buy cigarettes without signing anything.

Raw milk with cookies? Evil! Cigarettes and whiskey? Go ahead and kill yourself, we don’t care. It’s ridiculous.

Does this mean I’m rushing out to buy raw milk? No way. I’ve already laid out the benefits of pasteurization and, like the FDA, I think they outweigh the loss of a few nutrients. I can get my daily doses of L. acidophilus by eating yogurt and cheese, thank you. (I make my own yoghurt and buttermilk from time to time using NFD milk. I’ll show you how, another day. It’s easier than you think.)

That doesn’t mean I’m riding on the FDA’s anti-raw milk bandwagon. I think the current policies and enforcement are too heavy-handed and hurt small, local farmers. The fact that the FDA uses federal tax dollars to help states that actively seek to counter raw milk consumption is an indirect way of pressuring states to give up the authority to govern food commerce within their own states.

That’s a debate for another day, though. I’d like to hear your opinion. Please share your thoughts with us by leaving a comment, below.


Kevin (BBQ Smoker Site) said...

A good friend of ours found that his infant son could not tolerate formula and his "mama's" milk was not available do to health reasons on her end. They started getting fresh goat milk from a local farm and he did very well on it.

J.W. said...

Interesting post. When I was at the breastfeeding class for my oldest, the LLL lady made an interesting comment that I will never forget; she said that if you pumped milk, to eith freeze it or to leave it in the fridge for no longer then a couple of hours, because after that the enzymes in the raw milk began to break it down, affecting the nutrition and making it in her words, " useless"

I think the same is probably true for cow's milk, so for now, I don't worry about raw unless I'm going to make cheese. Someday, though, the goal is a couple of goats.

John Newman said...

Thanks for the comments! Kevin, I'm glad to hear that your friend's son is doing well on goat milk. I've found a lot of data about how fresh goat milk is easily digested by humans and great for babies who have other milk consumption issues. You just have to be careful in making sure that the production/collection is hygienic to avoid the very small risk of tuberculosis.

Jesse! The enzymes in milk are interesting. I'm not so sure about "useless," though. I found some great resources on the science of milk and dairy production from this Cornell University site. http://

Anonymous said...

The issue is complex indeed.
As for the comparison with cigarettes and alcohol is concerned, don't forget that to buy these stuff you need to be 18/21 and older, where as anyone can buy milk.
But i totally agree with you on the point that I WOULD LIKE TO BE GIVEN THE CHOICE and i really don't like that someone else is making that choice for me.
I actually make my own cheese and I'd rather use raw milk than pasteurized the one.
Also, i don't buy that this crackdown on raw milk has been made in the interest of public health, given that FDA let people eat any sort of GMO food that has never been tested on its long term effects on human health.