Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A raw deal

I read an article the other day entitled "Is raw, unpasteurized milk safe?" (http:// It got me thinking again about why folks are so polarized about raw milk. Good god, in foodie circles it's an issue as divisive as healthcare reform or the war in Iraq. Or perhaps abortion offers a more apt parallel: the legality of selling raw milk varies by state. (No joke.) In the few parts of the country where you can buy raw milk at the market, like the California co-op where I snapped this pic a few months back, there are labels reading "WARNING: This product may contain harmful bacteria." And yet plenty of folks seek it out, will find loopholes like "cow shares" (where one isn't *buying milk* but rather picking up a portion of the assets of an animal that they partly own -- an important legal distinction), will drive ridiculous distances to procure a gallon and pay a pretty penny for it. The milk has not been sterilized, begging the question: is it worth the risk?

Now, I've come to love raw dairy. The milk, cheese, and yoghurt that I've had the opportunity to sample at small family farms around the country taste different from the grocery store stuff I'd been consuming my whole life. Richer, creamier. Not only does it taste better, but frankly, I think it's healthier. While the FDA claims there are no benefits to unpasturized, raw milk, I am not convinced. (I guess that puts me nearer the "rabid supporter" end of the spectrum. I'm not rabid, though. I've had all my shots.) I swear my hair, my nails, my skin have never been so healthy as when I've had frequent access to the creamy deliciousness of raw cow, sheep, and goat milk over the past 11 months. It makes sense: the good stuff hasn't all been zapped out of it during the usual pasturization process.

I am not anti-hygiene, mind you, or anti-food safety. (I am, however, vehemently against antibacterial soap and hand sanitizers, but that is a soap box for another day.) There need to be standards, sure. The animals need to be healthy, the equipment clean, and the milk kept cold and free from harmful pathogens. It should be tested regularly (and it is). This is entirely possible at a small-scale dairy run by a conscientious farmer, like the place I helped out at in Foxboro, MA back in June. Heck, Terri was a USDA dairy *inspector* before she started her own raw milk dairy. She knows what she's doing and her loyal customers trust that she would not sell them something she would not drink herself.

Now, let me be clear: there are risks. I would tend to apply the same doctor's guidelines for raw milk as I would for, say, sushi. Probably best not to chance it if you're pregnant or under 2 years old. (Speaking of raw animal products being dangerous, why, I wonder, isn't the FDA trying to shut down the sushi industry? I may need to do a bit of sushi research.... Yum.) The Seattle Times article suggests many opportunities for fecal contamination during the milking process. (Ick. Did I really just type "fecal contamination"? Yes, I believe I did. Double ick.) It isn't that there's less poop in pasturized milk, but the germs (as well as the good stuff) are obliterated by the high heat exposure.

There are risks one should consider when consuming raw dairy (or raw anything, really, if you consider the tons of chemicals dumped on most crops these days). But I suspect that the chances of getting sick from a glass of raw milk from a small, local dairy are significantly smaller than, say, getting salmonella from your bag of grocery store spinach or e. coli from a fast food hamburger. Have you noticed the rise in factory farm food recalls in recent years?

I actually think the issue comes down to scale: raw milk can be safe if the dairies are small enough. Time and energy must be devoted to doing things safely, and a farmer's diligence and intimate knowledge of each animal are critical. Sorry, Big Ag, but raw milk operations should not (and cannot safely) be scaled up to your factory farm specifications. As such, it's no wonder that food academics like Michael Pollan suggest that it is "an emblem of noncorporate food." Ah, *another* reason to celebrate raw milk.

Want to try some? Well, you can't buy it in DC or Maryland. (There is hope, though slight: you can get it through a cow share in nearby Virginia.) Here's a great resource, including information on where you can (and can't buy) it around the country: (Thanks for the link, Mike!)

I love raw milk. If I lived in a larger place with a yard, I'd consider getting my own dairy goat. Unless that's illegal in DC, too.... (Have I mentioned lately that goats are my favorite barnyard animals?)

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry


  1. Hello from Clayton and Ann back in Southwick Massachusetts Hope all is well Looking foward to the book.

  2. Hi guys, good to hear from you. Um. Er. Ahem. A book. Well. Let me pedal my way back to DC and then, once I'm no longer living in mortal fear of getting run over by a mobile home along the Texas highways, maybe I'll see about doing a bit more serious writing. But, wow, a book? Wooh!


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