You might wonder what exactly raw milk is? Well it's simply milk straight from a cow or goat that hasn't gone through the pasteurization process. It's usually purchased fresh from a local farmer. I started purchasing raw goat's milk from a local farmer about a year ago and will soon change to raw cow's milk from another local farmer. The goats and cows are pastured as much as possible and fed pesticide-free grain when supplemented.
There has been a lot of negative press about raw milk and the public perception is that you will contract horrible diseases like listeria if you consume milk raw. Let me give you some interesting information about the safety of raw milk.
Raw milk has built in protective systems, most of which are destroyed during pasteurization
- Raw milk contains lactoperoxidase which uses small amounts of H2O2 and free radicals to seek out and destroy bacteria. Interestingly other countries are looking at using lactoperoxidase instead of pasteurization to ensure the safety of commercial milk as well as for preserving other foods.
- Raw milk contains lactoferrin which steals iron away from pathogens and carries it through the gut wall into the blood stream and uses it to stimulate the immune system. Lactoferrin will kill a wide range of pathogens but does not kill beneficial gut bacteria. In fact, in a study involving mice bred to be susceptible to tuberculosis, treatment with lactoferrin significantly reduced the burden of tuberculosis organisms.
- Raw milk contains B-lymphocytes which kill foreign bacteria and call in other parts of the immune system for support.
- Raw milk contains macrophages which engulf foreign proteins and bacteria.
- Raw milk contains neutrophils which kill infected cells and mobilize other parts of the immune system.
- Raw milk contains T-lymphocytes that will multiply if bad bacteria are present and produce immune-strengthening compounds.
- Raw milk contains Immunoglobulins (IgM, IgA, IgG1, IgG2) which transfer immunity. This is especially helpful if you purchase milk from a local source as the cow/goat will build immunities to local bacteria, virus, and allergens which will then be passed through the milk.
- Raw milk contains antibodies which bind to foreign microbes to prevent them from migrating outside the gut and initiate immune response.
- Raw milk contains polysaccharides which encourage the growth of good bacteria in the gut and protect the gut wall.
- Raw milk contains oligosaccharides which protect other components from being destroyed by stomach acids and enzymes; bind to bacteria and prevent them from attaching to the gut lining; and other functions just being discovered.
- Raw milk contains medium-chain fatty acids and enzymes which disrupt cell walls of bad bacteria.
- Raw milk contains hormones and growth factors (natural ones - not the added synthetic kind) which stimulate maturation of gut cells and prevent leaky gut.
- Raw milk contains mucins which adhere to bacteria and viruses, preventing those organisms from attaching to the mucosa and causing disease.
- Raw milk contains fibronectin which increases anti-microbial activity of macrophages and helps to repair damaged tissues.
- Raw milk contains glycomacropeptide which inhibits bacterial/viral adhesion, suppresses gastric secretion, and promotes bifido-bacterial growth.
- Raw milk contains B12 binding protein which reduces vitamin B12 in the colon which harmful bacteria need for growth.
- Raw milk contains bifidus factor which promotes the growth of Lactobacillus bifidus, a helpful bacteria which helps crowd out dangerous germs.
- Raw milk contains beneficial bacteria like Lactobacilli and bifidus bacteria which crowd out bad bacteria and produce lactic acid that kills bad bacteria.
Here's the bad news. When milk is pasteurized most of these components are completely inactivated and those that remain are greatly reduced in their capacity to fight bacteria. Studies as early as 1938 showed that heating milk actually supports the growth of harmful bacteria by inactivating "inhibins" (factors that inhibit bacterial growth).
Raw milk is often blamed for causing infections with dangerous ornganisms. One such organism is Listeria monocytogenes which is a deadly food pathogen that can cause severe illness, fetal death, premature birth or neonatal illness and death. A 2003 USDA/FDA report, compared to raw milk one is 515 times more likely to contract Listeria from deli meat and 29 times more likely to receive Listeria from pasteurized milk than from raw milk. In response to a Freedom of information request the CDC provided data on raw milk outbreaks from 1993-2005. During this time there were no cases of food borne illness from raw milk caused by Listeria.
In addition to not containing harmful bacteria, there is some evidence that suggests that raw milk will actually fight harmful bacteria that comes into contact with it. Researchers in 1987 added Campylobacter to chilled raw milk. On day 0 there was 13,000,000 bacteria per ml. On day 9 there were less than 10 bacteria per ml. In another challenge test in 2000, researchers found that Lactoperoxidase in raw milk kills added fungal and bacterial agents. As recently as 2002 BSK Food and Dairy Laboratories inoculated raw colostrum and raw milk with three pathogens. The pathogen counts declined over time and in some cases were undetectable within a week. The conclusion of this test was that raw colostrum and raw milk does not appear to support the growth of Salmonella, E. Coli or Listeria monocytogenes. Just as a point of reference it's interesting to note that E. Coli can survive on coins for 7-11 days at room temperature and Salmonella can survive 1-9 days on pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. These are fairly hardy organisms.
Raw Milk versus Pasteurized Milk
From 1980 to 2005, the CDC attributed 19,531 illnesses to consumption of pasteurized milk and milk products. This is 10.7 times the number of illnesses attributed to raw milk during the same period. Raw milk sales represent about 1% of the nations total milk sales. Adjusting for bias, pasteurized milk is 1.1 and 15.3 times more dangerous than raw milk on a per-serving basis.
Why do we pasteurize?
During the 1800s the death rate was 50% among urban children drinking "Swill Milk" or milk produced in inner city confinement dairies. The cows in these dairies were fed brewery swill and raised in unimaginable filth. In addition, water was often added to the milk to make it go further. To combat the poor quality milk the famous germ scientist, Louis Pasteur, called for pasteurization, or heating, of all milk in order to make it free of any potentially harmful bacteria, no matter how it changed the quality of the milk. It was never meant to be a permanent fix, but only a temporary remedy until milk could be clean again. In time, inner-city swill dairies were outlawed, milking hygiene was improved, and consumer access to refrigeration was improved thereby making pasteurization unnecessary. Unfortunately though, pasteurization has become a way of life and most can't imagine drinking milk any other way.
So in a word, yes, raw milk is safe and arguably safer than pasteruized milk. However, raw milk like any food is only safe if it's produced under safe conditions. It's very important when choosing a raw milk source that you know your farmer and make sure that he is following safe farming practices. For more information check out the Campaign for Real Milk site.