In a country so obsessed with natural ingredients, where “raw” usually has a positive connotation there’s still one type of raw food that remains controversial.
Raw, or unpasteurized and unhomogenized milk has been a subject of legal debate since the 19th century, when the process of pasteurization was just beginning. As people transitioned from rural to urban lifestyles, cows were being kept in unsanitary conditions, and milk was traveling more miles and being kept at higher temperatures than ever before.
City residents, specifically children, were getting sick and dying after drinking contaminated milk, making milk regulation a top priority for health reformers.
The debate over the safety of raw milk has been alive ever since. Laws regarding the distribution of raw milk are handled by the states. Its legal status ranges from “legal for retail sale” in some states to “raw milk sales illegal” in others. There are many shades of gray, like “legal as pet food” in between.
In New York, raw milk sales are legal through farms licensed by the state Department of Agriculture & Markets (AGRI & MKTS). The location must have a sign posted stating that the product is “without the protection of pasteurization,” and the milk has to be sold within a day of the farm bottling it.
Pasteurized milk sold supermarkets is heated to a specific temperature to kill harmful bacteria, including E. coli, Salmonella, Listerina, and Campylobactor. An E. coli infection is one common complication resulting from the consumption of raw milk. The infection can lead to renal complications such as end stage renal disease, dialysis, a transplant, or death. Consumption of Campylobactor can cause a gastronomical infection. This can lead to Guillian-Barre Syndrome a disease that causes one’s immune system to attack part of its peripheral nervous system.
According to the CDC unpasteurized milk is 150 times more likely to cause foodbourne illness than pasteurized milk. Its consumption results in 13 times more hospitalizations. The elderly, children, and pregnant women should not drink raw milk.
Supporters of raw milk claim that it is easier to digest than pasteurized milk. Some also believe that it contains elements to help children fight against immune-mediated diseases like asthma. They claim that elements of the modern New York state law, which requires that the milk be tested for bacterial contamination, and that a somatic cell count be done to ensure that the cow that provided it wasn’t sick, eliminates the worry that it was obtained through unsanitary circumstances.
It is possible that a person go a lifetime without experiencing any negative effects from drinking raw milk, but the risk is always there. The process of pasteurization ensures milk’s safety and does not eliminate any nutrients.
It comes down to personal preference. For some people the flavor and texture of raw milk is worth the effort it takes to find a farm, and they are willing to face the risks. Others prefer buying gallon of pasteurized milk from the supermarket, knowing they can dunk their cookies freely, without a thought to their kidneys.