Interest in raw milk by U.S. consumers is steadily growing as more people demand organic food, less processed food and natural ways to care for their own health. More farmers are offering it, and states are creating policies that allow sales of raw milk and raw milk products.
Raw milk — milk that hasn't been pasteurized or homogenized, but is straight from the animal with very little processing between the dairy farmer and the consumer — is one of the most controversial farm products. Fans and advocates say it's better for you, tastes better and is safer now than ever before. But in the U.S., government health, disease and nutrition experts repeat strong warnings about drinking raw milk. So is raw milk good or bad for you?
Most of the milk (and milk products like ice cream, yogurt and cheese) sold in the United States is pasteurized. Pasteurization kills bacteria present in raw milk by heating it to a specific temperature for a prescribed period. This process, developed in 1864 by Louis Pasteur, helps reduce the threat of many foodborne illnesses, such as tuberculosis, diphtheria and typhoid fever.
Some of the harmful bacteria that can be present in milk include E. coli, listeria, salmonella and campylobacter, all of which can lead to illness, hospitalization and even death. Public health officials consider pasteurization one of the most significant developments when it comes to preventing these types of diseases and deaths.
Pasteurization isn't selective, though: It kills good bacteria along with the bad. That's one of the main arguments in support of raw milk. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and public health officials maintain that most of the nutrition in milk remains intact after pasteurization, and that the benefits of pasteurizing milk outweigh any losses. Raw milk advocates, though, disagree and say that modern pasteurization destroys the valuable health benefits and alters the texture and flavor of milk.
Sally Fallon, the founding president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, the largest U.S. organization in support of raw milk, notes that pasteurization was introduced to make milk safe in the late 19th century, when dairy production became more urban, safe practices were inconsistent and most people didn't have refrigerators. Today's sanitation practices, such as refrigerated tanks and trucks, make milk safer than it was then.
"You could justify pasteurization when milk was produced in the 1880s in inner cities when people didn't have refrigeration and things were very unclean. It doesn't make sense today when we have everything we need to produce milk safely," she says.
The Argument for Raw Milk
"Raw milk is an amazing, complex substance," Fallon says. "It contains immune factors, and has all the vitamins and minerals we need." She also says the calcium in raw milk is more easily absorbed by our bodies than the calcium in pasteurized milk, making it better for children and older adults.
Some research seems to backs her up, and shows that pasteurization alters proteins so that human bodies can't digest them as easily. And a 2016 study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology showed that the children (1,134 participated) who drank raw milk were less likely to develop asthma, and that the benefits were due to more omega-3 fatty acids in raw milk. The same study determined that the children who had raw cow's milk early in life also had fewer respiratory infections and fevers.
Many proponents of raw milk also say that homogenization — a process that's separate from pasteurization that makes milk fat molecules smaller and emulsifies milk so the cream no longer rises to the top — crushes valuable fat globules.
Buying Raw Milk in the U.S.
In the United States, each individual state regulates raw milk policies. However, on a federal level, the FDA bans the sale of raw milk across state lines. As of April 2016, selling raw milk in stores was legal in 13 states; 17 states permitted raw milk sales only on farms; and in 20 states all sales of raw milk were illegal.
Raw milk advocates like Fallon say that selling unpasteurized milk products is a great way for small, independent farmers to thrive in a time when dairy farms go out of business daily. Fallon, a dairy farmer herself, says it's the dairy industry that has lobbied to maintain policies restricting interstate raw milk sales.
"If the farmers have a choice, they don't have to sell to dairy processing companies for $1.30 a gallon," she says. "If the price of milk reflected pay raises since the 1900s, it would cost $20 a gallon." Allowing dairy farms to sell raw milk at anywhere from $5 to $20 a gallon helps offset their costs, and even at those high prices, Fallon says demand would still be so great that raw milk and raw milk products would remain among the fastest-growing agricultural products in the U.S.
The Risks of Raw Milk
But back to the risks of consuming raw milk. Food-safety laws in the U.S. exist for a reason. Food poisoning is serious and can lead to hospitalization, disability and even death. Children, people with weakened immune systems, the elderly and pregnant women are at increased risk from ingesting unpasteurized milk or milk products.
Despite finding a total of 81 outbreaks reported in 26 states between 2007 and 2012 (68 of those involving campylobacter) the CDC declared in 2015 no raw milk was safe to drink. These outbreaks resulted in 979 illnesses and 73 hospitalizations (no deaths). The CDC's report also stated that outbreaks increased as more states allowed sales of raw milk.
But advocates disagree, pointing to a newer, 2018 study published by the journal PLoS. It analyzed foodborne outbreaks from unpasteurized milk from 2005 to 2016 and determined outbreaks caused by raw milk had decreased during that time by 74 percent.
If you want to avoid food poisoning or foodborne illnesses from dairy products, check for the word "pasteurized" on packages and containers before you buy. Read product information and use-by or sell-by dates carefully, and consult your retailer if you have any doubts about an item that isn't clearly labeled.
Ask questions if you are buying milk or dairy from a farmers' market or co-op. Fallon recommends visiting a dairy yourself to get to know the producers and check out the cleanliness and the animal health.Because it's left to the states to regulate milk safety, use caution when purchasing milk products when you travel or if raw milk is available where you live.