by Marion Nestle
Aug 8 2007

Raw Milk or Raw Deal?

This must be the week for talking about raw milk. The Washington Post and the New York Times both ran stories about the push to be able to drink raw milk, legal or not. Why do people want raw milk? Some like the taste, some swear by its health benefits, some believe in a natural, raw food ideology, and some just don’t like the government telling them what not to eat. The health benefits are supposed to be that raw milk contains enzymes and good bacteria that get destroyed by pasteurization (which heats milk to a temperature that kills most bacteria, bad and good). Food safety officials, on the other hand, cringe at the idea of feeding unpasteurized dairy foods to anyone, let alone children. Cow’s milk is not sterile and there are all too many instances in which harmful bacteria in whole milk made people sick, and sometimes very sick. Drinking raw milk is risky. How risky? It’s hard to say. If you know your dairy is following rigorous food safety procedures, there’s a good chance that its products are OK. But what if you don’t? When it comes to milk, I prefer mine pasteurized. The enzymes in milk get destroyed during digestion anyway, so why take a chance? Cheeses, however, are another matter. As long as they are properly aged and salted, raw milk cheeses ought to be just fine. Even so, I’m happier about eating them when I know that their producer is following a carefully designed safety plan with monitoring and testing for harmful bacteria. If I don’t know this, I just have to trust the seller and hope for the best. Raw milk generates intense passion on both sides. But why so much? Do tell.

  • Marion…this has been bothering me for some time and I still don’t know exactly what side I fall on. Personally, I guess like you, the risk is far greater than the reward in most cases.

    I guess in the end, it is about balancing the choices we all have to make and I think there are some much more impactful ones that I personally need to address before this even was one to really worry about risking. In the end, would I give it to nieces and nephews, or my friends kids…probably not.

    But, the discussion is good if only he gets people thinking about weighing their choices and balancing their overall food needs.

  • As a member of a cowshare, I’m obviously interested and invested in this discussion. I do understand the risks involved in consuming raw milk, and giving it to my children, at least as well as anyone can given the data. I’ve visited our farm on several occasions, and am satisfied with it’s methods. I’m not much persuaded by the health claims made by raw milk proponents; I do, however, appreciate it’s higher quality taste and use in cheese-making. But my main reasons for buying raw milk are the following: (1) I prefer the very rare, but real, risk of sickness from raw milk versus the 100% chance of feeding my children antibiotics, growth hormones and good lord knows what else in conventional milk. (2) I suspect that the likelihood of contamination from dairy products is actually *higher* for conventional, pasturized milk than it is from local raw milk, due largely to the great increase in processing steps (and thus, contact with the product), as well as the higher-than-normal number of nasties found on large dairies. And (3) it is important to me to support a local dairy within my own foodshed. I do not think it will be long before petroleum prices make conventional farming and distribution methods cost prohibitive. When this happens, I want there to be a system of local food available, rather than scrambling as an afterthought to set one up.

    I realize that most of my reasons revolve around the “conventional vs. raw” distinction, and ignore the availability of organic, pasturized milk. But most widely available organic milk has the same high-energy, high-distribution costs that conventional does (not to mention abhorrent farming practices), tripping my #3 reason. Frankly, if I could get organic, pasturized milk from my local foodshed, I probably would prefer that (except for cheese-making). But I can’t, so I’ll stick with the raw until the market meets my demands. At the end of the day, when I decide that the risks of drinking raw milk outweigh the risks of supporting conventional (or industrial organic) farming practices, I’ll switch–but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

  • elfling

    I don’t have strong feelings about raw milk either way, other than that I think it should be available for cheesemaking – and currently the rules apply no matter what your intent is. Why is it legal to sell tobacco but not raw cow’s milk? Why do certain enforcement bodies feel the need to go after cowshares – a complicated arrangement people have made to invest in a “cow” and then “board” said cow with a dairy – when clearly the people involved really, really, really want to buy fresh, unpasteurized milk? I just think in the grand rankings of toxic and harmful substances readily available to consumers, raw milk doesn’t make the top ten. I can support the idea of it being clearly labelled and separated from other milk so that people don’t buy it by accident, but the rules in place today seem over the top.

  • Brian M.

    hmm, as Robyn M.’s hubby I’ll second what she says, but I want to try a slightly different analysis on the “risk” angle.

    The real issue is trust. I can look in my farmer’s eye and trust that he is trying to protect his milk’s quality and safety, and I do NOT trust the big dairys to do so or the government to force them to. Back when big dairy was selling raw milk, they probably cut lots of corners and created lots of health risks, and maybe large scale (or careless) raw milk was risky then. Now that big dairy runs the pasteurized milk industry, they cut all kinds of health corners for profit, and they have to to make their quarterlies look good.

    I can see how someone might trust the pasteurization process itself as a safegaurd on industrial dairy more than they trusted their local raw dairy seller. But again the issue would be trust. Me I’ve trusted the dairy in some places I’ve lived more than in others, but I’ve never trusted an industrial dairy as much as I trust our current dairy farmer, Melvin.

    I think passion runs so high, because one of the root issues here is trust, and our society is shifting how trust works at the moment.

  • I’m pretty much in agreement with commenters #2 & 4. Our family consumes raw cow milk from a certified, tested organic grass-fed dairy in California as well as raw goat milk from a local hobby farmer. I have visited both places and have a lot of trust in each product. I was unable to learn much about the organic pasteurized milk I used to buy, which didn’t exactly inspire trust.

    Most of the problems with raw dairy began when dairying became industrial, such as the distillary dairies of the 19th and 20th centuries, and when urban dairies became hemmed in by expanding urban areas. Pasteurization “solved” some of the problems and allowed increased industrial production of dairy products. But the benefits are largely for the processors, not the farmers or the consumers.

  • As a colon hydrotherapist and a holistic health counselor…my opinion on dairy is this:
    It is made for baby cows. Baby cows grow at an enormous rate during their first year. They are born weighing over 100 pounds.
    Humans are not meant to drink cow’s milk. I agree that raw milk has benefits…however it should be used in moderation and pasteurized milk should not be used at all. Mile produces mucus that clogs the colon and leads to other problems such as constipation and allergies.
    If baby cows drank pasteurized milk they would be dead in one month due to the lack of vitamins in it.
    Raw cheese I believe is good in moderation.
    Don’t forget when you drink milk…you are drinking milk with hormones due to the lactating mammal it is coming from.

  • Amanda

    Hi Marion
    I am enjoying your book. I was interested at the apparent lack of logic though in your argument against raw milk and your dislike of pasteurised or irradiated meat on the grounds that pasteurization of meat as a living food that we eat benefits “Big Meat” and their poor food handling practices rather than we, the consumer. I was wondering what you see is the difference between pasteurizing milk and irradiating meat?
    We drink raw milk from a small dairy here in Australia although it is illegal to do so, but we have been to the dairy and are satisfied that the dairy has good animal husbandry practices. We have never been ill. The cows are pasture fed and free range. I would not buy regular milk but would and have bought organic pasteurized milk. I believe that often pasteurization is used as a “cure-all” for poor animal husbandry and processing practices – do what they like and then pasteurize it later. I have been told that raw milk will cure our daughter’s autism! But we do not believe that to be true!!! We just prefer the taste and the knowledge that we know where the milk is coming from and how the cows are being treated. Pasteurized milk tastes watery by comparison, even full cream (whole).
    Thanks for your insights into the politics of food – very fascinating and often scary stuff.

  • I think you misunderstand my position. My only concern about raw milk is that it be produced under careful conditions that prevent contamination. It is certainly possible to do that and I think all producers should. My position on irradiated meat is that it should be unnecessary; meat also should be produced under conditions that prevent microbial contamination. As I put it in my book, What to Eat, irradiation is a “late-stage techno-fix.” I hope this clarifies. Thanks for writing.

  • Lien Pham

    Hello Marion,

    Thank you for sharing your view on raw milk since I am beginning to look into this subject and start leaning toward the goodness of raw milk. Your statement “The enzymes in milk get destroyed during digestion anyway, so why take a chance?” made me do a little research and I fouthis article, also i found Susan Fallon’s article ‘Real Milk for Real People’ very informative on raw milk

    I agree with Brian on comment #4 on establishing a trust between the consumer and the producer which I find hard to do when the producer is a corporation whose top priority is making money instead of caring for the health of the consumer, which is rampant in the food industry now.

    I also love to recommend Joel Salatin’s book ‘Holy Cows and Hog Heaven’ regarding how to buy food directly from farmers.

    Best regards,

  • For a pretty thorough treatment of the milk issue and why many believe what they do, you might read the article “Is Soda Pop or Milk Healthier?” at

    Other natural health issues are addressed there also, all in a noncommercial environment :o)

    My best to you and yours,
    Lee C