Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Great Raw Milk Debate

I've been asked a few times now several variations of the following questions: Do you get to drink raw milk on the farm? And can you get me some?

The answers are no and no. But the topic has come up often enough that I think it's worth discussing.

Raw milk is a topic that can be pretty polarizing. People feel strongly about it from both sides - from the public officials who cite it as one of the leading causes of dairy-related illness to the moms who drive for two hours to purchase it where it's legal. Since the FDA banned inter-state raw milk sales nearly thirty years ago, illegal raw milk sales have skyrocketed. Now, many raw milk lovers have to get their dairy fix using methods that more resemble a drug deal than anything, from joining secret milk clubs to buying their milk labeled as pet food.

The sale of raw milk is illegal in Washington, D.C. and in the state of Maryland, where the dairy is located. Hence, no raw milk for us. We milk straight into the pasteurizer, where the milk is pasteurized at the lowest possible setting, which some people believe makes a better-tasting milk than ultra-pasteurization, where milk is heated for just a couple seconds at extremely high heat.*

According to Clare, one of the biggest differences between our milk and store-bought variety is actually the fact that we don't homogenize our milk. Homogenizing milk is the process of breaking up the fat molecules so they stay suspended in the milk. If you let unhomogenized milk sit long enough, the fat drifts up to the top, creating a layer of cream with the milk underneath. (Check out the picture.) Clare believes that homogenizing not only makes milk harder to digest - she's had lactose-sensitive customers who can drink the farm's milk with no ill effects - but also ruins the taste.

Here's my two cents about the raw milk debate: cows are dirty, dirty, dirty creatures, and they have an unfortunate tendency to get manure all over themselves. When we milk, we dip the udders in disinfectant and clean them off before putting on the machines; we also use a filter to catch any pieces of dirt or hair or what have you that sneak in.

But mistakes happen. Just this week, one particular cow with a sick sense of humor took a huge dump on me right as I was getting ready to put the machine on her. It's entirely plausible that in a situation like that, manure could make its way into the milk supply... and it only takes a little bit to make people sick, if that little bit has some E. Coli hanging out inside. Hence, I am inclined to view some judicious pasteurization as a good thing.

Additionally, while many pro-raw milk folks tout the various health benefits that raw milk supposedly provides - benefits they say are destroyed by pasteurization - Marion Nestle goes to great lengths in her book What To Eat to explain that the jury is still out on those claims. According to Nestle, the body of scientific knowledge for raw milk benefits is somewhat shaky, with studies going both ways on the issue.

Which brings us to the question of taste. Having never tasted raw milk, I can't comment on how Clear Spring Creamery's milk compares. But I can say definitively that this farm's milk gives your average grocery store milk a good spanking every day of the week, and is the best milk I have ever - EVER - tasted. Frankly, I really don't see how raw milk could taste any better.

That being said, I feel that anyone seriously dedicated to drinking raw milk should go to great pains to research their suppliers. That means going to the farm, asking questions, getting a tour, meeting the cows, and so on. Raw milk buyers need to hold their suppliers to the highest possible standards if they want their dairy to be E. Coli-free.

*A quick pasteurizing tutorial: Pasteurization, named for Louis Pasteur who came up with the modern process in 1862, is the process of heating a food at a certain temperature for a definite length of time and then cooling it.

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