At the time of this writing, a bill to allow the sale of Raw Milk in New Jersey just cleared a key Assembly committee. But its passage is far from assured, and I was somewhat disturbed to see some folks arguing against the bill, claiming that Raw Milk is unsafe. This blog post addresses those concerns.
Pathogens are introduced into milk in one of two ways: either because the animal is infected, or the milk is contaminated during handling. When pasteurization was introduced, we did not have the technology or know-how to detect early signs of infection. Today, however, two economical methods are readily available, and can easily be conducted as part of normal milking. The first is called the California Mastitis Test (CMT), which involves trickling a few drops of milk over a specially-prepared paper test strip, and the second involves squirting the very first milk onto a special fine-mesh screen. Consequently, it is quite easy to prevent contaminated mil from entering the milk supply.
Second, we now have effective short-term antibiotic and non-antibiotic treatments for these infections, which require that the animal be taken out of production for only a few days. This reduces the financial pressures farmers face when an animal gets sick.
Milk can also be contaminated during the milking process, but again, we have made a number of improvements to the milking process to reduce the risk of contamination. Chief among these are soap and warm water (you may laugh, but imagine how hard it would be to get warm water before the modern water heater came about–and could be installed in the milk house!). In addition, small-farm milking machines are now available and reasonably priced; some folks believe that machine milking is more sanitary because expressing milk into an open pail allows dirt from the animal to contaminate the milk.
In addition, we now have disinfectants that were simply unknown when pasteurization was introduced. Some are applied to the teats after milking in order to prevent bacteria from making its way into the teat from the outside while the “streak canal ” (ductus papillaris) closes, which can take an hour after milking. Other disinfectants are used on the milking equipment itself, which, for the most part is constructed of modern stainless steel.
We also have ways to filter milk that didn’t previously exist. On a small scale, paper filters are hygienic, disposable, and simple to use, while even better (finer) filtration methods have been developed for larger-scale use.
Finally, we have ways of more rapidly cooling milk after it has been expressed–ways that were simply not available 100 years ago. We also have modern packaging techniques and materials; again, none of this was available when pasteurization was introduced.
It is true that consuming improperly handled Raw Milk can be dangerous, but this is also true for any food product. According to CDC records, 2 people have died from consuming contaminated Raw Milk since 1998. In 2011, 30 people died from consuming tainted cantaloupe! In 2007, 2 people died from drinking contaminated pasteurized milk, and in 1985, nearly 50 died from contaminated cheese from improperly pasteurized milk. Looking at the deadliest food-borne outbreaks reveals that a wide variety of foods were to blame.
Although Raw Milk is demonized as being the most dangerous food product worldwide, that argument doesn’t apply to NJ. Milk is widely consumed throughout the world, under a variety of circumstances, and many of these countries have a much higher incidence of food-borne illness in general. In Europe, perhaps a much better analogy because of its comparative standard of living, Raw Milk is considered the norm. Here in the US, NJ would not be the first state to allow the sale of Raw Milk, and the doomsday forecasts about consuming Raw Milk have simply not come true.