Risk! It’s a two-sided coin. On one hand, a life without risks isn’t good for anyone; on the other, you’ve got to choose when, how and what to risk carefully. Reckless risks should be avoided of course, but healthy risks can yield extremely valuable benefits.
Which is which? Well, because we’re fortunate enough to live in a free country, that’s a question each person has to decide for themselves.
So, what kind of risks come with drinking raw milk?
There’s a debate that’s made a big stir over the last several years. The Rawsome Raids… FDA rebuttals… dueling power-point presentations…
Both sides are equally passionate. Both sides include people trying to do what’s best for their families, and for the country. Confusingly, both sides claim the authority of science.
How then to make sense of the disagreement? What are thereal raw milk risks, and how can you navigate them safely?
SO WHAT’S THE RISK?
In a word? It’s bacteria.
Bacteria can be either good or bad. The good kind are really good. There are billions of live cultures in traditional, fermented foods like yogurt and pickles, and cultures like these are vital for good health. You know all that talk about probiotics, microflora and cultivating a healthy gut? That’s good bacteria.
Other kinds of bacteria, though, are the culprits behind food-borne illnesses.
According to OxfordJournals.com, a dairy animal with a disease or an infection in her mammary glands will produce milk contaminated with bad bacteria. Even a completely healthy animal may have a variety of bacteria living in and around her teats, where the milk is produced. Once the milk has been expressed, if ever it’s exposed to any other sources of bacteria (for example, poop), it’s possible for it to be colonized by those, too.
To combat those risks, over the past 100 years dairy farmers have staged a three-point attack: better health for the animals, better hygiene while milking, and pasteurization.
No one’s arguing those first two points. Obviously, it’s better to have healthy animals and clean milking procedures. It’s the last point that gets the heat.
HOW RISKY IS RISKY?
According to Junkfood Science (a blog that examines studies on food and health), raw milk has been linked to over 90% of milk-borne illness incidents.
However, raw milk advocates aren’t automatically convinced by numbers like these, because there are factors not being taken into account. According to AlterNet.org (an award-winning news magazine and online community):
- Raw milk is illegal in a lot of States, which means if people are drinking it there, they’re doing so on the black market. Here’s the problem with that: if the milk wasn’t intended to be consumed raw in the first place, it’s likely it wasn’t produced using the same rigorous approach associated with raw milk. A dairy that pasteurizes can cut corners, because they know pasteurization will take care of anything they miss along the way. Which is why, if you’re getting raw milk from an unknown source, drinking it is risky. In short: if the statistics on raw milk-related illness don’t differentiate for cases like these, the numbers are going to be skewed.
- Even more telling, in some cases, foodborne illnesses get blamed on raw milk without having anything to do with raw milk at all! This skews the statistics further. Author David Gumpert cites examples of this in his book, The Raw Milk Revolution: America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights.
The point isn’t that raw milk is risk-free; few things in life are. But when it’s produced and handled responsibly, you may decide the benefits of raw milk are worth the risk.
KNOW YOUR FARMER
Raw milk is a great idea, if the health and hygiene involved are top-notch, if the animals are organically managed, and most importantly, if they’re 100% pastured.
Emphasis on pastured. Since grass, not corn, is the food that cows are evolved to eat, a diet of grass is necessary in order for their physiology to function as nature intended (read: for them to produce really healthy milk).
These and other guidelines are the non-negotiables among the raw milk crowd, as they make the difference between clean, safe milk, and milk that needs to be pasteurized.
How can you tell if your raw milk source is safe? Learn more from Krista Arias, author of MamaMuse.com, here.
Short answer, if you’re interested in raw milk, the best thing to do is get in touch with your farmer: by phone, by email, via farm tour, at a farmer’s market – whatever works for you. Ask about their cows, their milking, their values and approach.
And whatever you choose, celebrate the fact that the right to choose is yours!