By Donald “Doc” Sanders
While growing up I drank raw, unpasteurized milk harvested from my dad’s dairy cows. You could always bank on three inches of cream in the neck of my mother’s glass milk bottles.
Dad’s cows produced milk with cream so thick, that after it had been refrigerated, it took a knife to break through so it would pour. On the other hand, one of dad’s cows, Star, produced so little cream you could drop a quarter into the bottle and be able to read “In God We Trust,” assuming it landed heads. Star produced an incredible amount of “skimmed” milk. Her life was never in danger for being a loafer.
I like the taste of raw milk, but it poses too much health risk to be drinking it. My mother realized this, when I was a teenager, she purchased a home pasteurizer from Montgomery-Ward. She had us drinking pasteurized, non-homogenized milk.
Recent studies suggest that a major portion of the risk relates to the time it takes to get raw milk from the cow to the consumer’s refrigerator. The less time it takes to get the milk from the farm bulk tank cooler to the consumer’s refrigerator, the less chance there is for illness.
Risk increases when raw milk is transported from an on-farm dairy store to the consumer’s refrigerator. And the risk of illness gets out of hand when the consumer purchases the milk from a retailer who may have had it sitting in the dairy cooler for a couple of days. As a matter of fact, you should consider this scenario dangerous.
Likewise, do not keep raw milk in your refrigerator for more than a week. And there is just too much risk that pathogens will multiply when you place the milk jug on the table during dinner, allowing the temperature to rise.
The number one pathogen to be concerned about is Listeria monocytogenes. This $10 name identifies a bacterium that thrives in milk kept in the cold confines of a refrigerator, unlike other pathogens, which grow poorly under cold conditions. Listeria poses a huge risk for miscarriages in pregnant women. Likewise, it threatens small children and elderly adults.
Food safety scientists also implicate the usual lineup of bad — Salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli. These bugs often cause health problems in herds, so the general health of a cow herd may indicate that the cows’ milk could pose a health risk. Small herds housed in primitive conditions that lack electricity for cow care and management are always suspect in my book. This is a situation where you have to put a lot of trust in the dairyman always being on top of his game.
It is legal to market raw milk in 28 states, and several other states’ health experts and legislatures are considering the option of legalizing raw milk sales.
Elsewhere, there is subterfuge to skirt the laws. Where raw milk sales are illegal, some dairymen lease or sell a cow to a raw milk customer. The customer pays an ownership fee for the cow, and the dairyman charges the customer a management fee for caring for the cow. The customer regularly picks up milk harvested from the cow to which he holds title. So, technically, there’s no money passing from the consumer to the farmer for the purchased milk.
Dr. Jeff LeJeune at OARDC (Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, a research arm of The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine and the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences) has performed important research on the question of milk quality and milk safety. Extensive testing in his lab has demonstrated that there is positively no difference in nutritional value of raw milk and pasteurized milk.
Probably the biggest difference between raw milk and pasteurized milk, I suspect, is perceived palatability. Reducing or fully removing butterfat from pasteurized milk alters the taste. Some cows produce milk with a butterfat content of 5% or higher, but the milk you buy at the store contains butterfat at closely standardized levels — 3.5%, 2%, 1% and, in the case of skimmed milk, 0%.
Homogenization reduces the fat particle size so that the cream doesn’t rise, as it did in the milk bottles back home when I was growing up.
When you are drinking milk with reduced and homogenized fat, it does affect the flavor, just because of the lower concentration of cream in it. But remember, pasteurized milk is the safest. (And just between you and me – please keep this from my doctor – I do prefer the cream, even if I have to spike my pasteurized, no-fat milk.)
The bottom line I leave you with: If you wish to reduce your risk of food poisoning from consuming milk — make it pasteurized!