Raw Milk: The Choices I Make, and Why

Raw milk has risks. It just does. That means it is exactly no different from anything else we ingest, from lettuce to alcohol. I choose to accept these risks,because I know what they are, and I’ve decided that any potential risks from raw milk from a local, well-vetted farm with excellent husbandry and milking practices is still lower than that of drinking conventional milk.

Here’s the deal:

-Not all of us who drink raw milk are uninformed, on jumping on some bandwagon. I’ve done the research. In fact, part of my job is literally to research food illness, benefits, husbandry practices,etc. I didn’t just hear someone says “raw milk is awesome” and decide “hey, I must drink that!” Raw milk isn’t a recent thing for me. I grew up drinking milk warm, directly from the teats of the cows and goats I milked on our farm. We didn’t pasteurize, but we were taught really excellent husbandry and milking practices. And yes, we milked by hand. We weren’t a dairy, we were too poor to have a milking machine, and as kids we were excellent free labor for our parents.

-I trust my local farmers far more than I trust corporate agriculture. I can stop by and visit my cow, help feed, watch the milking, and see what they do with the milk (including the fact that they’re drinking it, the same as we are) anytime I want, without notice. They provide any information I ask, including testing/herd testing information, with appropriate  verification if requested. I didn’t just wander onto some field with a guy milking a cow and say “hey, can I have some of that?”  Which is essentially what I’m doing if I buy food from corporate agriculture. Corporate Ag sickens thousands each year, from eggs to dairy to produces. Do people get sick from local goods? Of course. But, after looking at all the facts, I believe that–for my family–the risks of non-GMO, grass-fed, pastured, unpasteurized cow’s milk is simply far less than trusting a corporate food system we already know is horribly corrupt. I’ve been sick from mass-produced goods. I have never yet been sick from anything I’ve gotten from my local, vetted farmers. I realize that’s anecdotal, and I don’t expect others to make my choices. But *I* should have a right to make an informed decision about what I eat.

-The risks are, from all the data I can collect since the data is fairly sparse, pretty statistically insignificant. I know that when it’s you or a family member, statistics become irrelevant; but, when making reasonable food choices, they can be helpful. Depending who you listen to, between 3 and 10 Million people drink raw milk in the US. There is, from all the data I could find, an average of 100-150 cases of hospitalization a year reported, meaning they were serious enough to be diagnosed and hospitalized. Only 2 recorded deaths since 1998 that I could find (there may be more, I am willing to revise this, so please let me know). This means that reported cases of illness are between .00005% and .00016%. Even assuming there are, say, 100o unreported cases a year, you’re still only looking at well below a 1% chance of getting ill from raw milk.  I’ll live with that.

-Not all of us who drink raw milk espouse Weston A. Price Foundation values. I am not a member. I do believe in whole foods, I do believe in not eating processed sugars or many simple carobhydrates. I do think we get too few CLAs, Omegas, and the like in our diets as Americans overall. That is about where my paradigm similarities with them ends. I don’t have a problem with them. They’re free to make whatever food choices work for them, and I do applaud the fact that most members bother to educate themselves on what they’re eating, which is more than I can say for the vast majority of Americans who choose to eat crap “food.” I just don’t believe everything they do, and their paradigm borders too closely on fanaticism for me, personally. It’s also frequently tied to religion, and I prefer to keep religious issues out of my food choices.

-I don’t think raw milk is magic. Yes, there are many people who’ve got stories about it curing this or that, and maybe it does. Or, maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know, and that’s not why I choose it. I’m healthy, I am not looking for a panacea. I, personally, notice my (very mild) seasonal allergies are non-existent when I am drinking local, raw milk regularly. The same is true of local, raw honey. Is it psychosomatic? Possibly. But, since that’s not why I drink it, I don’t actually care. I drink it because I like the fact that the cow (from my farm) has been fed no corn or GMO feed, that it eats grass and therefore likely has higher levels of good fatty acids, that the milk tastes better to me, has a higher fat content (yes, we do actually look for that–Thadd needs something like 4 thousand calories a day, and we get almost none of them from simple carbs or sugars) , that it actually contains no hormones or antibiotics (as opposed to “allowable” amounts), that it’s only hours old when I get it, that it supports local agriculture, and that I can make cheese and other products from it much more readily than I can from high-heat pasteurized milk.

-I don’t feed it to the world. Thadd and I drink it. I do make my own cheese, and some of those cheeses can only be made with raw milk or, in some cases, low-heat pasteurized milk. Unfortunately, the latter is not available literally anywhere near me, so the former is my best choice, even if I didn’t want to drink it. These products, and the raw milk itself, are used for only ourselves. We have no children, and typically when we have guests over, we’re drinking local wine, cider, beer, or freshly-made lemonade, not big glasses of milk.

-You can know the risks, and still elect to take them. Simply because someone chooses to do something someone else views as “risky” does not mean the chooser isn’t aware of the risks. People who climb Mt. Everest are doing something I would personally never do, but I am pretty sure they’re aware of what they’re getting into. People have many different reasons for choosing what they choose to do, and can look at the same information, and come to a different decision. For some people, any germ associated with food is abhorrent. For me, food without germs is abhorrent. I think, overall, that germ theory has led us in the wrong direction, and is one reason we’re so sick as a nation. (I don’t use hand sanitizer, but I do wash my hands thoroughly. I don’t use bleach to clean my house, but I do clean well with soap and water.)  Of course, germs are not the same as pathogens, and while I realize that pathogens can be present in raw milk, appropriate practices keeps the risk of that very small. Small enough, in fact, that I choose to take it because for me, it’s a smaller risk than the long-term effects of what is in much commercial milk.

-Not all of us believe that raw milk should flow freely like a river down a mountain, unhindered and unregulated. I certainly don’t. I would love it if our government could take a step back from lobbyists who contribute heavily to their campaign funds, and draft real, reasonable regulation that would help ensure the safety of a raw milk supply and the products thereof. It’s not impossible. Other countries have done it well (some so well it can actually be gotten at vending machines, and the instances of illness are reported to be the same as pasteurized). Europe is famous for its fresh, raw milk cheeses. People are not hospitalized or dying in droves from fresh ricotta or aged Roquefort (the latter of which is required, by law, to be made from fresh, raw sheep’s milk). Unfortunately, our government, and many people who seem to speak on either side of this issue, seem to see no middle: it’s either a free-for-all, or a felony.  When really, it should be more along the lines of: here are solid regulations for husbandry, milking, testing, storage, and transport. Follow them, or you will be liable, just like other food companies (oh, wait…other food companies get people sick and hospitalize them all the time with no real consequences). So, until and unless those who do the regulation can get their collective heads out of their collective arses,  it leaves those of us in the middle with a lot of vetting to do on our farms.

Raw milk is not for everyone. There are plenty of instances when pasteurized milk is the better choice. But, there’s no good reason why the choice can’t be offered in a safe way.

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13 responses to “Raw Milk: The Choices I Make, and Why

  • iasmindecordoba

    Amen, sister. Amen.

  • shwankie

    Thanks, Gaylin! I get tired of being lumped in with uninformed people who make really bad choices about their food sourcing, or make “popular” food decisions without research. A twitter friend, who’s opinion I value, commented to me earlier about my use of raw milk, and I just couldn’t do my response justice in a tweet. So, this post was born to help explain my stance a bit, and hopefully help others who are considering raw milk think about their options.

  • lynnery

    Well said! Thank you. You could easily be speaking for me, except that we do have kids (the older one drinks raw milk too). When my baby is old enough for cows milk, it will be raw, for the same reasons you give for using it. We did the research, weighed the benefits against the risks, and went raw. I drank raw milk (lots of it!) during my second pregnancy and I believe it helped to keep me strong and healthy. My first pregnancy ended with a c-section due to pre-eclampsia and HELLP syndrome. My second was 100% normal and ended with a beautiful, drug-free natural birth.

    • shwankie

      Lynnery, I drank raw milk as a child, too. My mom could not breastfeed due to an illness (and, consequently medications) that could pass through breast milk; so, I was started on goat’s milk, then onto cow’s milk. Not because we were all hippie or anything, but because it’s what we could afford. Formula was expensive.

      I am so glad that was the choice. IMHO, we over-protect our nation’s children by keeping all “germs” away from them. Which, of course, leads to weaker immune systems. I wouldn’t give raw milk to other people’s children, because that is a choice for parents; but, if I were to ever have children, mine would never get store-purchased milk! Kudos to you for doing the research, and making an informed decision for your family!

  • Sheree

    Enjoyed your post. I haven’t had raw milk in years but I drank it a lot when I was a kid in the late 60s and early 70s (two sets of relatives had small dairy farms). We never had any problems.

    The problem isn’t the milk or the cows (as such). As you point out, it’s the industrial agricultural practices that can led to contamination of many of the food products available to us.

    I would have no problem drinking a glass of raw milk right now, from a local, small dairyman that I know and who knew me. And I’m pretty confident that I’d be less likely to get sick from that glass of raw milk than I would be if I ate an undercooked chicken or hamburger from an industrial meatpacking operation.

    • shwankie

      Sheree, exactly! There are risks in everything we put into our bodies. Even water has risks these days! Like you, I prefer to be able to weight my risks and make an informed choice. For me, the choice is clear: my farmer is amazing, and accountable to the community in a way that industrial ag simply isn’t.

  • PeaceandLove

    I respect you for your decision, and I thank you for setting the record straight on raw milk drinkers as a whole. I just learned that I was unfairly lumping all of you into one group, and assuming things I shouldn’t have. My parents are Weston A. Price followers, as well as Mercola followers, and when I told them that raw milk just wasn’t for us, they flipped out on me and told me I was “siding with the government.” I haven’t had a decent conversation with them for a long time now because of raw milk, soy, and other paranoid rants. Now, when someone mentions raw milk, I usually can’t help but sigh inwardly and mentally walk away. It really isn’t for us for multiple reasons, none of which I will ever be discussing with my parents because apparently, I have been brainwashed by the government. I wish they were more like you. But anyway, you’ve taught me that my intolerance of raw milk drinkers is no better than my parents’ intolerance of me.

    • shwankie

      PeaceandLove, thank you for your kind words. I am glad that I could present another side of the story, and it means a lot that it helped you see some of us in another light. There are, actually, lots of “moderate” raw milk drinkers out there, it’s just that the radical ones tend to be the most violently vocal. While we do need extremes on both ends to help us find a middle, some days, I do wish the extremists would stop “helping” our cause, if you know what I mean.

      I hope that someday your parents can respect you for your decision, which sounds like it was made with thought and consideration, and that a middle ground can be found that allows for real respect and discussion about life choices in all areas. I think there’s far, far too little of that in all areas these days.

  • Joe

    shwankie:

    Great post! I just bought my first 4 gallons of raw cow’s milk so I can take a shot at making fresh mozzarella this weekend.

    Why am I doing this? Because I can’t get any decent fresh mozzarella from conventional sources. I guess I was spoiled by making a trip to Rome, where the fresh mozzarella served with tomato, basil, oil and salt was firm, yet creamy, unlike the rubbery stuff we get here.

    I had never had raw milk before (other than in cheese). This particular batch has a pleasant nutty flavor to it and I am sure it will make great cheese!

    My friends think I am nuts for drinking a “dangerous” product like raw milk. Please. I saw the farm and their practices. The milk is fine.

    • shwankie

      I am right there with you on the mozzarella. I love making it fresh, it’s far better than anything you can get at most supermarkets here in the US.

      As far as your friends thinking you’re crazy, simple math just doesn’t support the “danger” hype that’s been surrounding raw milk. According to the government’s own statistics, you’re far more likely to get sick from lunch meats or greens you buy in the supermarket than you are from raw milk, and ground meats and commercial eggs are far more likely to be contaminated with listeria, salmonella, etc. S

      • Joe

        Just for the heck of it, if I wanted to “pasteurize” the milk myself before I tried to make the moz, how high would I heat it and for how long? Could I do it without making it impossible to make the cheese?

      • shwankie

        Joe,

        You’d need to heat it, stirring regularly or constantly, to 145 degrees F, and hold it for 30 minutes. At that point, you need to drop the temperature rapidly back to refrigerator temp (45-50ish). I use an ice bath to do this, and agitate the ice water with a spatula to encourage cooling.

        You can make mozzarella with low-heat pasteurized milk, though I find the flavor preferable with unpasteurized myself, but it’ll be a failure with high-heat.

      • Joe

        Thanks – I’ll let you know if I try it. For now, I’ll just leave it unpasteurized — there are enough variables already!

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