Raw milk started to appear more often in the news in the early twenty-first century, due to a number of books written about it and advocacy organizations which promoted the idea that it is healthier for people to drink than pasteurized milk. In many areas of the United States, however, the sale of unpasteurized milk for human consumption is outlawed, and many health organizations also speak out strongly against its consumption. With these two differing opinions, many consumers are left wondering how dangerous raw milk really is. The blunt truth is that it is more potentially dangerous than pasteurized milk, but when it is handled correctly, it is relatively safe, and nutritional analysis suggests that it is better for you.
When milk is not pasteurized or homogenized, it is designated as raw. Pasteurization was invented in the 1800s by Louis Pasteur, who learned that heating a food to 161 degrees Fahrenheit (71 degrees Celsius) for 15 seconds would kill most of the harmful bacteria in it. The applications for milk were realized immediately, and safe, healthy milk began to be readily accessible to many more people at reasonable prices. For people concerned about health, milk safety has always been a big issue, because it is an ideal culture medium for many bacteria, especially salmonella, brucellosis, tuberculosis, and camplyobacteriosis. By pasteurizing milk, the risk of contracting one of these illnesses is greatly reduced.
When farmers harvest raw milk for human consumption, it must be handled very carefully. Perhaps more carefully because it does not undergo the additional pasteurization or homogenization process that traditional milk goes through. In the ideal process, the cows are first milked in a very clean environment, and their udders are wiped down before milking to remove any sources of contamination. With a gloved hand, the farmer pulls a small amount of milk to remove bacteria that may be lurking at the tip of the teat, and to make sure that the milk is clean and healthy. Then, a milking machine is connected to the cow, and the milk is expressed directly into a chilled tank. Unpasteurized milk must be kept in a cold chain from milking to consumption, and the equipment must be spotless.
Raw milk proponents argue that it is healthier than conventional milk because the pasteurization process that conventional milk undergoes also kills friendly bacteria or good bacteria which can help with digestion and the immune system. The pasteurization process may also remove some vitamins that occur in raw milk such as B6. Other enzymes and minerals may be removed during pasteurization process as well. Unpasteurized milk proponents also argue that it tastes better than pasteurized milk.
Those that argue against raw milk, cite Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports of illnesses that resulted from its consumption. Because it does not go through the process of removing harmful bacteria that pasteurized milk undergoes, it can open its consumers up to greater health risks. Traditional milk proponents cite these potential health dangers along with no significant difference in taste as reasons to stick with pasteurized milk.
Perhaps the real question in assessing the danger associated with raw milk is the cleanliness of the dairy in which the milk was produced. Those raw dairies that test their product extensively for bacteria and contamination, and make these test results available to the public, may be less dangerous to drink. People who are immunocompromised, however, should consult a doctor before consuming raw milk.