(I managed to do a whole post about a raw milk dairy without actually discussing raw milk at all. That seemed like an oversight, so here’s a bit of background information if you’re interested. I am by no means an expert on any of this, though, and it is a contentious issue, so I’d also encourage you to do your own research if you’re wanting to learn more.)
Hazel, the 1952 Worlds Champion Milk Cow, photographed by Loomis Dean and included in the Life photo archive.
There’s been a lot of debate and consternation lately about whether people should be able to buy and drink unpasteurized (“raw”) milk and under what conditions. Raw milk is, basically, the milk that comes out of the cow (formerly referred to as “milk”). Pasteurization is a process of heating and then quickly cooling a liquid (in this case the raw milk) to kill pathogens; the widespread pasteurization of milk is considered one of the major breakthroughs in public health in the U.S. (source, also my father-in-law, who is an epidemiologist and not one for over-stating things, has said this in casual conversation).
In the mid-1800s, city populations exploded, available pasture in urban areas decreased, and dairies started feeding their cows waste grain from local distilleries (source). The waste grain produced pretty unhealthy cows, which, combined with poor sanitation and refrigeration, resulted in milk that was making people very sick with things like tuberculosis, diphtheria, severe strep infections, typhoid fever, and more (source). In 1938, raw milk caused 25% of all outbreaks of food- and water-related sickness (source). Pasteurization changed that. In 1993, some 40 years after Michigan became the first state to outlaw raw milk, raw milk accounted for less than 1% of those outbreaks.
However, just as heat destroys pathogens, it also destroys plenty of healthy bacteria, enzymes, and proteins. We are just beginning to understand the incredible diversity of the human microbiome— the thousands of species of microbes (about 100 trillion microbes in total) that live inside us— and it seems like the role of “good” bacteria in our bodies may be more important than we once imagined (source, source). Because pasteurization kills bacteria, including good bacteria, some people argue that raw milk is healthier than pasteurized milk. And it tastes different, to me at least. The FDA and CDC, however, dispute claims that raw milk is any healthier than pasteurized milk or tastes different, and furthermore argue that the risks of illness and death outweigh any potential benefits.
While federal law does not smile upon unpasteurized dairy products, more and more states are allowing limited sales of raw milk. Maine is one of 28 that does not prohibit the sale of raw (unpasteurized) milk and one of only 10 that allow retail sales of raw milk from licensed producers. Portland recently approved the sale of raw milk at farmer’s markets here (along with cider and malt beverages), they’ve been available for sale at other farmer’s markets in the state for a while.
I’ve heard Maine described as something of an experiment in allowing the sale of raw milk, and in my experience, most farmers take that responsibility seriously. There are licensing, testing, and inspection guidelines for raw milk dairies here, and any raw milk you buy at retail operations (including farmer’s markets) has to be clearly labeled “unpasteurized.” As in many fields, regulation and licensing can provide a level of security to farms— allowing them to get insurance, helping potential customers feel confident in the products.
Ultimately, though, people have strong and differing opinions about raw milk. I would feel pretty comfortable saying that in the U.S. as a whole, pasteurization has been clearly good for public health. It is slightly harder to say how much of the risk (and thus benefit of pasteurization) is a function of the way a lot of milk was/is produced in the U.S. This is a much larger and contentious debate, and I would never tell someone else which risks they should take. The FDA tells you to make ice cream with “pasteurized egg products.” I am a person who eats foods that contain raw eggs as well as raw and undercooked meat and fish, so my personal tolerance for food-related risk may be different from yours.
We make decisions about food risks all the time: whether to order a rare hamburger, whether to the deli meat sandwiches that have been sitting out on the platter at a conference, whether the leftovers are still good, whether to buy industrially-produced dairy products. We each have to make these decisions ourselves, but hopefully you would be able to find enough information to be able to make informed decisions.
(Interesting addendum: Mark Bittman just had an Op-Ed in this week’s New York Times about whether we should even be drinking milk at all.)