Raw Milk and Your Health

The country vet discusses pasteurizing milk at home.

| August/September 1998

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  • Although the raw stuff has its advocates, consider pasteurizing milk at home it you want to be safe from infection.

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Raw milk and your health.Ā 

Well, the seasons continue to march along, and the dog days of summer are nearly over. As I drive from farm to farm, it is a never-ending source of joy to see the foals, calves, and lambs growing and frolicking in the pastures and to see the progress of this year's field crops growing to maturity. Veterinary medicine is a source of endless challenges, both physical and mental. If I accurately diagnose a sick animal at a farm, I turn around and am faced with questions from the owner that keep me thinking. Recently, I was faced with a question that was the impetus behind the topic for this article. A client had a goat that was the source of milk for herself and her young children. Her goat was diagnosed with a disease that is known to be transmitted in both cow and goat milk and she and the children had been drinking the goat's raw (unpasteurized) milk. She was concerned about contracting the disease and asked about the risk of infection to herself and her children.

The topic of raw versus pasteurized milk is a controversial one that always stirs up heated discussion. Many farm dwellers and food purists find raw milk more delicious and perhaps more nutritious than pasteurized milk. As a veterinarian, I took an oath to protect the well-being of animals and to ensure a safe food supply for humans. The drinking of unpasteurized milk should be an informed choice. There are hazards associated with the consumption of raw milk and there are effective methods of pasteurization available for home use. The sale of raw milk is a very small local market available to a small number of dairies that are required by law to adhere to very stringent sanitary requirements. The sale of raw milk is prohibited across state lines within the United States, but almost half of the states permit the sale of raw milk within state borders. The USDA has passed these regulations because of the known hazards associated with consuming raw milk. Pasteurization of milk was begun initially to prevent the passage of two important diseases from animal to humans through raw milk: brucellosis and tuberculosis. There are regions of the United States where these diseases have been eradicated through vigilant efforts by the government, producers, and veterinarians. So it may seem that the necessity for pasteurization of milk is antiquated; however, there exists an ever-growing number of additional infectious agents that have been isolated in raw milk.

There are two categories of diseases that are potentially transmitted in raw milk. The first category includes those causative agents that are secreted in the milk directly from the mammary gland. The second category includes fecal contaminants in milk. Many of these are not serious in immune-competent, healthy people. But babies that are chronically ill, older people, pregnant women, people infected with HIV, and those receiving cancer therapy are less able to withstand infection by such organisms and are more susceptible to disease. The American Veterinary Medical Association has taken a stand against the sale and consumption of raw milk. When raw milk is used in cheese production, a test is run on the milk to test for actual numbers of bacteria. This screening detects any lapses in sanitary procedures during milking which could lead to the increased possibility of potentially dangerous fecal contaminants in the milk. This is a protective measure required by law in the production of cheese because many soft cheeses are made with raw milk. Zoonotic diseases are those that are passed from animal to man. Ringworm, brucellosis, and E. coli are just three better known examples of such diseases. There are many zoonotic diseases potentially transmitted in raw milk. Some of these include: brucellosis, listeriosis, Q fever, cryptococcosis, leptospirosis, louping ill, meliodosis, staphylococcal food poisoning, toxoplasmosis, and tuberculosis. Many others are passed in raw milk through contamination of milk with feces containing the following bacteria: Campylobacteria, Escheriacoli, Yersinia, Salmonella, Cryptosporidia, and Listeria. The intent of this article is not to expound on the numerous potential pathogens that are found in raw milk, but rather to educate about the hazards of raw milk, and provide ample information to enable the home consumption of safely and accurately pasteurized milk.

Milk is the ideal host for many spoilage organisms, and pasteurization will increase the shelf life and decrease the bad flavors produced by such organisms. Pasteurizing milk is very simply the heating of milk to a specific temperature for a specific time to kill the microorganisms that can transmit disease to humans. The source of these bacteria varies widely; they can be excreted directly into the milk by the animal, they can come from fecal contamination of the milk, from contamination of the milking and storage equipment, or even from the handler of the milk.

The process of pasteurization dates back to the work of Louis Pasteur between I860 and 1867. He was also the inventor of the vaccine against rabies. Pasteurization and proper handling of the milk, in addition to destroying the potential disease causing bacteria, can greatly increase the storage life of milk by inactivating the enzymes, elements in the milk responsible for rancidity. The process of pasteurization does NOT significantly alter the nutritional content of milk.

laura wilder
9/19/2018 10:33:13 AM

Many people seem to want to make this a political issue and peehaps it is in some ways. I will point out that I doubt pasteurization was invented for political reasons- it exists purely for the purpose of making food safer for consumption. Either way you see it, that does not take away from it being a health issue. Especially when you are giving raw milk to infants or others without a sufficient immune system. Or those who have taken antibiotic therapy- most people today. Or elderly. If you have only read about the microbes which can be consumed through raw milk it may be easy to keep your stance and imagine all the benefits you are getting are worth the risk. I am a health care professional who has directly cared for otherwise healthy individuals which became ill from some of these organisms. Let me tell you, if you or your child or loved one is hospitalized with kidney failure, sepsis, encephalopathy, bloody stools, or possibly DEATH- you will not be thinking wow this was worth it for benefits I could have easily gotten from eating kefir!

Lisa Zandt
8/29/2011 11:40:28 AM

Very disappointed in the article!! I am supposed to just take your word for it that Pastuerizing does not take any of the nutrients from my raw milk. I have read and talked to hundreds of sources that say differently. I was looking for the other side but apparently there isn't one. Just an opinion. Maybe all of that got lost in editing? along with the proper proceedures you refer to in the last paragraph. You have altered my opinion of this magazine with just one article.

Dr. Akalpita Paranjpe
10/2/2010 5:03:07 PM

I am an Indian brought up in a small city. We always used to have a cow and a buffello in our house. We drank milk strainght as it was milked (in our own glass by ourselves). In india even today, we get fresh milk daily. Traditionally, we boil milk every day before using it. We always add hot milk to our tea/coffee. Our cows are always fed on grass/hay or fodder of vegitable origin. Where ever possible, they graze in jungles (forests) where they get a variety of green food of their choice. Though we do clean the animal before milking, we use cow dung as well as cow urine for medicinal purposes. In our childhood, we used to clean our hands with cow dung after toilet. We always used cow dung for keeping our floor clean as we used to sit on the floor for eating. Even today we prefer houses where the floor is pasted with cow dung, except for the fact that it is difficult to maintain. We never consider fresh cow urine or fresh cow dung bad for health. Infact, cow urine is also used for making a spray for organic paste control. Akalpita

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