Chert Hollow Farm is a sustainable homestead farm growing certified organic produce near Columbia, Missouri. In addition to vegetables, the farm manages dairy & meat goats, poultry, small grains, fruits, timber, and more as part of a diversified model that emphasizes economic and environmental sustainability. We feed ourselves year-round by raising, processing, and preserving our own meat, milk, cheese, eggs, vegetables, some fruits & grains, and more from our land.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Thoughts on raw milk, Part II

This two-part post on raw milk (Part I here) was prompted by a recent article on The Ethicurean, discussing an upcoming raw milk symposium and requesting users to take part in a Raw Milk User Survey. I posted a long comment which brought together many of my thoughts on the raw milk issue, about which I've been planning to write for some time. An adapted version of the comment appears below, and addresses one of my core complaints about the entire raw food debate.

We keep dairy goats for ourselves, and I also work part-time at a nearby goat dairy. We do not drink the milk raw, though I believe it is clean. We use it mostly to make yogurt and various cheeses, which we like better than straight milk in any form. Many other consumers who might not drink raw milk can use it to make completely safe yogurt or dairy products, and I suspect many people who do drink raw milk also make dairy products.

It drives me absolutely crazy that nowhere in the discussions/arguments about raw milk does anyone seem to realize or care that drinking it is only one way to use raw milk. Even if you think it’s dangerous, making most cheeses and yogurts raises the milk past the safe pasteuerization temperature, rendering it safe. Heck, ban drinking raw milk if you want, but allow the sale of the product for use in the kitchen.

To me, selling raw milk is no different than selling raw meat. It’s potentially dangerous if produced or handled improperly, but perfectly safe if (a) from a clean source and/or (b) is prepared in normal ways. Just look at the meat lobby’s insistence on safe cooking methods as a solution to contamination. I think eating rare steak is crazy, but we’re not forbidden from doing that (even in restaurants), and sales of raw meat are happily labelled with all sorts of government warnings about cooking the meat fully to temperature. Apparently the government is comfortable selling dangerous raw meat to consumers with a warning label and letting them take their own chances, why not milk? What’s so inherently terrible about letting me buy raw milk to make into yogurt or cheese, which is as safe as cooking the meat thoroughly?

Moreover, given that USDA regs allow the butchering and sale of poultry on-farm with no inspections, it is apparently safe for consumers to buy raw chicken from an unlicensed farm to take home and cook/eat as they see fit, but it’s terribly dangerous to milk an animal and take THAT product home and drink/prepare it as they see fit. The production, handling, storage, and transport needs of raw chicken are no more or less than for raw milk, so what’s the problem?

Raw milk is an ingredient just like meat, and our policies should account for customers’ abilities to make rational choices about the preparation of that ingredient as they are allowed to do for meat and almost any other ingredient. Allowing small farms to sell raw milk direct to willing customers does not in any way create a food safety hazard beyond the customer's home. I'd love to see some stats on the per capita illness rate among raw milk users as compared to, say, potato salad or deviled egg eaters at summer picnics. How much of the total food-related illnesses in the US come from the product itself versus the method of preperation?

Food safety regulations rightly exist when the customer is too far removed from the production of the food to accurately judge its quality; they exist to fill a gap. Food safety regulations are wrongly implemented when they seek to stand between a willing customer and producer, filling a gap which didn't exist. Thus sales of raw milk, or any other agricultural product, ought to be beyond the purview of food safety regulations if the sale is conducted between knowledgable and consenting adults; we currently have more freedom to sign a contract with a skydiving agency than with a local dairy. And people wonder why farms are vanishing and the food system is broken...

7 comments:

Steve Atkinson said...

Eric,
I was impressed by your comments first on the Ethicurean blog, then on another blog (Food Renegade, maybe?). I thought to myself here is a guy who can both think and write, and decided to track you down. Lo and behold, not only are you a fellow Missourian, but you mention us, Greenwood Farms, in Raw Milk Part I.

It may be interesting why we decided to go the state inspected and licensed retail raw milk route when we could have continued making legal deliveries to customers unlicensed.
First, it would increase business. The state would allow us to sell raw milk at farmer's markets (not just make deliveries)and to make prearranged deliveries to customers at other retail establishments (like health food and grocery stores).

Second, it keeps us honest as far as the safety of the milk is concerned. Because we know milk can harbor pathogens we have an inhouse lab to test for coliform bacteria at each bottling. The state tests our bottled milk monthly. We compare their results with ours as a quality assurance of our lab work. If there is a problem the State Milk Board helps us correct it.

How has this worked out for us?
The state and federal legal limit for bacteria in pasturized milk is:

coliforms: 10
standard plate count: 20,000

Our last test by the state:

colifoms: 1
standard plate count: 420

Thus it is possible to have cleaner and safer raw milk than pasturized.

Scott said...

I made ricotta from raw milk and experienced no problems. I'll check out your site, Steve. Any chance we could get your milk in Columbia?

Steve Atkinson said...

Scott,
If the demand is enough to justify the ninety mile trip, we would consider a raw milk delivery to Columbia, or selling at the Columbia Farmer's Market (if they would like a raw milk vendor).

Eric Reuter said...

I'm authorized to say that CFM would consider an application from Greenwood for membership, and have contacted Steve to pass that along.

I also recently found out about a raw milk dairy making delivery trips to Columbia from NW Missouri, with good reviews from the folks who told me about it.

dixie said...

Eric, I couldn't agree with you more. I'm not particularly interested in drinking raw milk, but I would like to be able to purchase it to make cheese and yogurt. In Kentucky it is not legal for me to purchase raw milk at all. I'm not really prepared to handle my own dairy goats just yet, and although I'd like to have a cow, we don't have enough land for that and if I'm not prepared for goats, I'm surely not prepared for a cow! So, my choices are reduced to finding a local source that I can get milk from maybe in trade for eggs or produce, finding a local source that will let me buy shares in a dairy animal or behave like a common criminal and illegally buy raw milk if I can find a supplier. The key to all of these options is finding a source. Faced with none of these options at this time, I'll have to do without...seems a pity when there are farmers needing to make a buck and me being a consumer willing to pay for the product.

Eric Reuter said...

Dixie,

Yep, absolutely. It's a great example of the utter arbitrary nature of our food laws when we have less freedom to choose our food than almost anything else.

By the way, you don't have to have raw milk to make yogurt and cheese. You just need milk that hasn't been ultrapasteurized and so on. Any reasonably small/local dairy's milk will probably work; what you don't want is the el-cheapo super-processed store brand milk. What kills milk for dairy products is the over-processing they use in giant plants producing cheap milk; gentle pasteurization alone won't hurt it much. We think raw milk makes better products, but it's not the be-all end-all.

If you can find a reasonable milk brand in the grocery store, give it a try for basic yogurt or cheese, it may work just fine. We figure that making your own yogurt even from store milk saves you half the price, as a half-gallon of milk costs half of two quarts of yogurt.

dixie said...

That's good to know Eric. So far around here I've only found mega producer milk in the stores, but the only places to shop are Kroger, IGA or Walmart, also not very good options when you want good locally sourced food. The Farmer's Market in the adjacent county opened last weekend, but not much there yet. I'm going this weekend to see if I can find a local source for some pasteurized milk that hasn't been over processed. I've wanted to make cheese since I read your post about making it and your recipe last year! Thanks for the info.