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Raw Milk Is an Ingredient, Not Just a Drink

| 10/20/2015 9:51:00 AM


Raw meat. Raw eggs. Raw milk. Which of these is not like the other? Two are unremarkable features of American cuisine; consider rare steak and eggs over-easy. The other is unthinkable to many palates. Two are everyday staples; envision the cases of meat and eggs anchoring the back wall of most grocery stores. The other is a highly controversial substance sold, where legal, through loopholes and hurdles. Why the difference? Among other factors, we tend to think of the first two as ingredients, and the last as a final product, and this affects the way we produce, market, and consume milk.

All raw animal products carry an element of risk; this is why packaged meat and eggs, and restaurant menus, carry that ubiquitous warning to proceed at our own risk. For various reasons, our regulatory system and our culinary culture don’t treat milk the same way. Can you imagine if all meat and eggs came pre-cooked, in order to protect the consumer from possible harm? That’s effectively what pasteurization does for milk, changing it from a raw, “hazardous” ingredient into a finished, “safe” product, and altering our perception of its potential. Most consumers know lots of ways to prepare meat or eggs, but milk? That’s just for drinking.

Yet there’s a middle ground for milk-handling, one that is mostly ignored but is highly relevant for those with small dairy herds or who want access to fresh, local dairy: view milk as an ingredient, not as a drink.  As Anne Mendelson points out in her excellent book Milk (excerpted by MOTHER EARTH NEWS in 2011), for most of dairy’s history, fresh/raw milk was not something widely consumed for the simple reason that it spoiled too quickly in the absence of effective refrigeration and transportation. Most people soured, fermented, cultured, or otherwise altered the fresh product to make it tastier and/or more stable. This is a similar concept to cooking or curing raw meats, with the same benefits and results, yet it’s mysterious to most Americans, including our own farm’s customers.

When we started our home dairy goat herd many years ago, we began learning to make cheese, yogurt, and other products right away. Neither of us cared much for milk as a drink, but loved its products passionately. We could easily use 3-4 gallons in a week without drinking a drop. The goats were an important part of our diversified farm’s fabric, providing fertility, food, and land management services. But as our herd expanded to support our ingredient-milk addiction, we decided we had to start selling milk to pay for the significant extra work and investment, and to balance the spring overproduction that resulted from keeping enough goats to get our household through the winter. And that’s where we ran into trouble with raw milk’s unique status.

Missouri, fortunately, has one of the more lenient raw-milk laws on the books; anyone can sell raw milk on the farm, or deliver it to the final consumer, exempt from all other regulations including inspections. This was key to the economics of our situation, as we certainly couldn’t justify building a minimum-5-figure dairy facility to legally make cheese or bottle pasteurized milk, not for a small goat herd on a full-time vegetable farm. Yet we were uncomfortable selling raw milk for direct consumption; it really does carry some safety risks, and our local and state political climate wasn’t supportive of raw milk sales, despite the law. Other Missouri dairies had been persecuted by the government for perceived mishaps in milk and cheese handling; in two incidents we blogged about, a dairy was entrapped into selling milk the wrong way, and another was publicly accused of contamination without sufficient proof. We weren’t going to bet our farm on a few goats’ worth of extra milk. So we decided to sell our milk the way we consumed it: as an ingredient.

10/20/2015 12:57:31 PM

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