One day my husband announced that he wanted to buy a cow so that we could drink raw (non-pasteurized) milk. Now this wouldn’t be a new animal for our farm, since we live in New York City. Hmmm. And, isn’t pasteurization a good thing? The debate about raw milk versus pasteurized is a heated one, and comprises the second part of our series on milk. Here’s what I found about raw milk (and whether or not we bought the cow).
The Raw Milk Laws
As it turns out, my husband didnít want to install a cow in our urban garden, he wanted to join a cow-share program; a covert way of gaining access to a beverage pretty difficult to buy in our state. Drinking raw milk is not illegal, but in many areas, purchasing it for human consumption is. Each state determines the details of raw milk sales. It is illegal to sell it for human consumption in 15 states, and available with restrictions in 26 states. Around these restrictions raw milk lovers have been scrambling to set up clandestine routines to get their milk. One of several loopholes used by consumers is a cow-share program, which allows the shareholder a percentage of milk from ďtheirĒ cow. The cow lives on a dairy farm and is cared for and milked by a farmer, the milk is then delivered to you-thus no money is actually exchanged for the milk itself.
When I first starting hearing about raw milk my mind went straight back to a grade school black and white educational film about the miracle of pasteurization-how treating milk with heat followed by rapid cooling would kill all of the evil pathogens lurking in there. And looking at the history of the dairy industry, pasteurization was indeed a bit of a miracle. With 19th century industrialization came very unsanitary dairy farms. When pasteurization was introduced to dirty Victorian milk, infant survival rates saw a dramatic increase. By 1917, pasteurization was legally required or officially encouraged in most big cities.
By eliminating most of the pathogens that cause disease, including E. coli, salmonella and listeria, health official say that pasteurization has helped lower infectious-disease rates in the U.S. more than 90 percent over the past century. So pasteurization seems good-but I am also inclined to have a deeper trust in food that has seen as little processing as possible, albiet from clean farms, so the idea of raw milk was very intriguing. And if itís so unhealthy, why are so many seemingly intelligent people drinking it?!
Types of Pasteurization
There are four types of pasteurization, each with a designated minimum temperature to which the milk must be subjected for a minimum amount of time. They range from Vat Pasteurization which requires that milk be held at 145 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes, to Ultra Pasteurization (UP) which requires a minimum temperature of 280 degrees Fahrenheit for 2 seconds. Most national brands of milk are ultra-pasteurized because it is quick and dramatically increases shelf life (UP milk can stay fresh for up to two months). Vat pasteurization, the most gentle of the methods, is a costlier process and the milk has a shorter shelf life. (Hence it is not viable for large-scale dairy farms.) Vat pasteurization is the method for preparing milk for starter cultures in the processing of cheese, yogurt, and buttermilk-that suggests to me that the vat process leaves some life in the milk.
Advocates for raw milk claim that the process of pasteurization destroys the beneficial bacteria, proteins, and enzymes that aid in digestion. Specifically, raw milk contains immunoglobins, lipase and phosphates that are killed by heat. Raw milk contains vitamins C, B12 and B6, much of which can be lost to pasteurization. Healthy bacteria naturally found in milk, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, is also lost during heat treatment. Raw milk proponents point out that these “friendly” bacteria aid in digestion and boost immunity. According to an article in Time Magazine, some people with a history of digestive-tract problems, such as Crohn’s disease, swear by the curative powers of non-pasteurized milk. Others praise its nutritional value and its ability to strengthen the immune system.
A common observation among raw milk proponents is that the dangerous pathogens found in raw milk are directly connected to the outrageously awful conditions of factory farming-mostly due to diseased animals. It is far easier to pasteurize milk than to stop industrialized farming. When you get milk from a clean, smaller farm where the animals are healthy, raw milk is not dangerous.
Quite frankly, the argument for raw milk makes perfect sense to me, but in the end I just couldnít completely shake a lifetime of pasteurization dogma. Maybe if my husband and I could buy raw milk legally and locally I would have been swayed-but as it is we ended up with a compromise. We take occasional trips two hours north to buy raw milk at Hawthorne Valley Farm, one of the farms in our state that is certified to sell raw milk. But the bulk of our milk is purchased weekly at our local farmers market. We are fortunate to have an amazing dairy farm that supplies high-quality milk to the city markets. The milk is minimally processed-it is not homogenized (meaning that the cream can separate to the top) and it is vat pasteurized, retaining some of that healthy bacteria.
By purchasing this less processed milk we get clean milk that hasnít had the daylights zapped out of it, we support a local family farm, cut down on waste with returnable glass bottles, and it is actually cheaper than supermarket organic milk. But the best part? We get to drive upstate to the farm and visit the 55 hormone-free, grass-chomping cows that are making our milk-itís almost like having our own cows.