Depending on what you read, raw milk is either going to cure all your ills, or kill you on the spot. Both advocates for raw milk and crusaders against it tend to use highly emotional, hyperbolic language. In some states, the FDA conducts raids of farms and stores and arrests the farmers and sellers of unpasteurized milk, while in some states you can pick up a gallon at your local health food store. In the United States, a land of endless rules and regulations, it is hardly surprising that there are laws restricting the consumption of raw milk, even while demand for it increases every year. It is true that unpasteurized milk can harbor dangerous pathogens, but like any other food, proper production and handling can make it safer. To see how a dairy can do its due diligence to ensure the safety of their raw milk, I visited the largest raw dairy in the US, Organic Pastures, near Fresno, CA.
The countryside near Fresno is bucolic - it looks just like the pictures you see on your milk cartons. There is seemingly endless green pasture under big skies, the road is dotted with cattle and fruit trees and farmhouses. Mark McAfee had only been running his organic dairy here for about two years when customers began to approach him asking for raw milk after another large dairy ceased production in 1999. With a medical background, McAfee (who spent 17 years working as a paramedic) wanted to be sure he was not only selling a safe product, but the most nutritious one possible, and his research convinced him to switch from pasteurized to raw milk sales.
The demand for raw milk comes from people who simply prefer the uncooked taste of fresh milk, and from people who are trying to eat the most healthy food possible. These people believe that unpasteurized milk is more nutritious because the pasteurization process kills beneficial bacteria along with bad, destroys enzymes, and alters various proteins in the milk. Many vocal raw milk advocates appear to be people on the fringes, grouped with anti-vaxers, their health concerns dismissed. But considering the amount of exciting new research coming out about the microbiome of the gut, and how it effects everything from allergies to our weight to our mental well-being, it is a dated and uninformed stance to be so dismissive of people who want unprocessed food in the effort to have healthier digestive systems. The FDA and CDC argue that unpasteurized milk is riskier to consume due to the pathogens that can be contained within raw milk such as campylobacter, E. coli, salmonella, and listeria. I’ve read enough comments by raw milk farmers on blogs in my research for this article to be somewhat alarmed by their own safety methodologies. Several seem to think that by inviting customers to visit their farms, look them in the eye, and see their facilities, customers should trust them and the cleanliness of their milk. The problem is, you cannot see salmonella. Even farmers with healthy cows and closed herds cannot prevent migratory birds or wild rodents from introducing pathogens onto their farms. Clear laws for producing and handling raw milk, including laboratory testing, all scalable for small to large farms, are in the best interest of public health. In an effort to create a system that dairy farms could adopt in order to comply with their respective state regulations and produce safe products, McAfee took the initiative to lead the creation of the Risk Analysis and Management Program (RAMP). RAMP is a “food safety program specific and appropriate to farm size,” developed by a group of farmers, medical, and scientific professionals. Considering that much government regulation works against small farmers in favor of massive corporations (case in point, slaughterhouses) there is real value in a program that is scalable. If raw milk is legal, it can be regulated, and that can make it safer. As McAfee says, “raw milk has an innate value added because you can’t do it sloppy, because if you do someone’s getting sick, you’re getting sued, and you lose your farm.”
“Grass to glass” is the stewardship motto at Organic Pastures. They mob graze their herd 365 days a year, ensuring both pastures and cows that are healthy and less likely to harbor pathogens. Walking the pastures at sunrise with McAfee’s daughter, I observed the different growth stages and diversity of plants in the pastures, and some very curious and relaxed cows. We started off on our own, and after just a few minutes were being followed by a large group of cows who didn’t want to be left out of the tour.
One of the biggest challenges to producing pathogen free raw milk is cleaning large amounts of manure off of each cow prior to milking. To assist in this process, McAfee built a state-of-the-art milking barn. The cows move through stages of cleaning, using both hose downs and individualized udder cleaning with sterilizing solutions. As each point in the milking barn is passed, the cows’ udders are left cleaner and cleaner until they get to their individual milking station where they are cleaned with one final solution and the milking apparatus is attached. The milk is pumped straight into refrigerated holding tanks, where the milk is held until pathogen testing comes back from the lab a couple of hours later. Some of the milk that has higher bacteria counts and cannot be bottled and sold as fresh milk can be used in cheesemaking, and if harmful pathogens are ever detected, the milk can be destroyed before going out to the public.
California law mandates that only some processed dairy products can be made with unpasteurized milk. Kefir, butter, heavy cream, and 60-day minimum aged cheeses are fine to make, sour cream, yogurt, ice cream, and half and half are not. The day I visited Organic Pastures, they were making butter and bagging some of their aged cheddar cheese, so I got to don the shoe covers, white coat, hair net, and gloves to enter the facility to take photos of the process. For as much work as the employees were doing making products, just as many were busy cleaning the facility.
From the pasture to the milking barn to the processing rooms, Organic Pastures is transparent, and so proud of their facilities that they invite anyone to visit their farm at any time. A quick Google search will tell you that they are not free from recalls and controversy, but neither are the farmers that grow spinach, coconut, crab, eggs, melon, chicken, pork, romaine lettuce, raw sprouts, and of course - pasteurized dairy products. Food production is risky business, and whether you are buying directly from a small producer who you feel you can trust, or an anonymous corporation, there is a chance that food can make you sick. As evidenced by the yearly growth of organics, farmers markets, and CSAs, it’s clear that more and more people are seeking access to local, organic, nutrient-dense food. What we eat in the United States is a personal choice, and for the government to attempt to restrict that choice is not in the best interest of the public health when a prohibition on raw milk just causes producers to go underground and continue producing it illegally. In order to protect public health, state regulatory agencies and farmers should be discussing how to make the raw milk supply safer, not restricting access.