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Is Raw Milk Safe to Drink?

Is Raw Milk Safe to Drink?

Raw milk is, quite simply, milk that comes straight from the cow without being pasteurized. But, they pasteurize milk for a reason, right? So, how could drinking unpasteurized milk be safe?

Pasteurization involves heating foods, then rapidly cooling them again to kill off any microorganisms living in the food. The process, invented by biologist Louis Pasteur in 1864, can prevent people from contracting many kinds of foodborne illnesses like salmonella or E. coli.

But what did people do before pasteurization? Did they just get sick? In many cases, yes, they did. That’s why pasteurization was invented in the first place. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all. But that’s not quite the whole story …

Actually, people had been drinking raw milk, straight from their own cows, sheep, and goats, for millennia without getting sick. Milk has long been one of the most nutritionally complete foods in the human diet, and has been an important part of nearly every culture’s cuisine. If it had always made people sick, we would have stopped drinking it long ago. So, what happened? Why did raw milk, something we’d been drinking for thousands of years, suddenly start making people sick?

The Industrial Revolution is what happened. People began moving from the country to large cities, and the world’s population began to explode. People were no longer getting milk from the cow in their own, or their neighbors’, backyards. They were buying it from stores or having it delivered by dairies. Farms, once the center of a community’s food supply, became businesses. And, like most businesses, they grew larger and larger, and more and more interested in making a profit, even, at times, to the detriment of the quality of their product. Soon, dairy cows, which had always lived in open fields and grazed on fresh grass, were herded into cramped, unsanitary pens and fed grains — sometimes even waste grains from alcohol distilleries — that weren’t a part of their natural diet. The result was increasingly unhealthy cows that produced sometimes infected milk. To make this milk safe for human consumption, it had to be pasteurized.

In recent years, though, there has been a growing number of people who believe that, by returning cows to open fields, feeding them grass, and milking them under sanitary conditions, you can get milk that is safe enough to be consumed without being pasteurized. But why bother? If pasteurization kills off bacteria, why not just treat all milk to be on the safe side?

Proponents of raw milk say the fact that pasteurization kills off bacteria is actually a problem. In addition to killing potentially harmful bacteria, pasteurization also kills the many beneficial microorganisms found in milk. Raw milk drinkers say these “good bacteria” can aid in digestion and overall health. These bacteria can help our bodies to more efficiently break down the foods we eat, and get the most nutrients from them. Plus, milk is high in lactic acid, a natural acid that is able to keep “bad bacteria” in check, as long as the milk comes from a healthy cow.

Because its beneficial bacteria are in tact, raw milk is often touted as a potential alternative for people who are lactose-intolerant. The bodies of lactose intolerant people don’t produce enough of the enzyme lactase to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk. But raw milk includes a helpful bacteria called Lactobacilli that breaks down the lactose for you.

In addition to killing off bacteria, pasteurization also changes the structure of the milk, breaking down the proteins that can be used by our bodies as antibodies to fight off illness and infection. Raw milk fans say these antibodies fight off viruses, increase our resistance to environmental toxins, and may even help to reduce the severity of some chronic conditions, like asthma.

Like any other food sold commercially, raw milk is periodically tested for harmful bacteria and other impurities, and must be certified safe. Not just any dairy can sell its milk raw. The production must meet certain conditions and follow a strict set of safety standards.

If you’re interested in trying raw milk, you may be able to find it your local a natural foods store. Or do a little research online to find out if there is a certified raw dairy near you.

34 Responses

  1. I drank raw milk straight from the cow over 20 years old, I’ve never been sick, and milk straight from the cow warm with fresh bread is my dream, I’m looking for someone from whom I could buy fresh milk

    by Aga on Jul 17, 2015 at 4:42 pm

  2. Nice article on drinking raw milk. Just like to add some light on the safety of milk. It’s true that it is not safe to drink packed milk because of the rising concerns on adulteration. But there are brands like Pride of Cows, which provides pure cow’s milk which can be consumed directly without boiling. I have been using it since a year now. Here is their website for you

    by Sen Payal on Jun 4, 2015 at 5:44 am

  3. When I lived in India, every morning we took our tin pail to the cow person down the road to get our days supply for our chai. We were told to bring the milk to a boil before using it. All was good. Seems simple.

    by Shoba on Mar 18, 2015 at 2:52 pm

  4. Where in central New Jersey can I buy fresh raw cows milk?

    by Leonard foderaro on Feb 5, 2015 at 2:28 pm

  5. Drinking a tall glass of ice cold raw milk as I read this and OMG it is sooooooo good. I am part of a herd share and plan to start making my own butter and cream cheese this week. If you have never had REAL cream cheese or REAL butter straight from REAL milk you have NO idea what you are missing. Its flat out disgusting what they put in our food to make it last longer. For instance, mayonnaise is made from eggs and oil. Yet the store bought last for what….a year? How much garbage is put in mayo to make it last that long? Scary. And these staples are sooooo easy to make at home and taste sooooo much better and are soooo much better for you. We have a few acres so we live by the creed…if you can’t pluck it, pick it, crack it or milk it at our farm then we don’t consume it. Your missing so much by listening to the government. At least do your family and self a favor and try it.

    by sandra on Mar 14, 2014 at 9:59 pm

  6. I also grew up on raw milk and dont remember any body in my family ever being sick. i would love to be able to get raw milk again. but in alabama you cant get raw milk unless you have your own cow.i know God made milk to keep our system clean and us healthy so we should be able to change this you think

    by jamie palmer on Feb 21, 2014 at 9:15 pm

  7. I wouldn’t consider it a “Conspiracy”, but I do agree it was for profits. You have to remember, back then, superstition spread like wildfires.

    by Joe Hiffler on Feb 20, 2014 at 6:17 pm

  8. Its was safe for the past thousand generations so who do the west thing they are coming in and telling us nooo!!!!! you must do this and that before it safe to drink. Its all a conspiracy to make more money. The big companies are trying too fool us to make more company. I am use to bottle milk but as far as I see it nothing wrong with drinking raw milk.

    by Islam Hussen pakhtoon on Aug 28, 2013 at 6:15 am

  9. GailMarie, all you have to do is put a silver dollar (or a pure silver coin) in the container with the milk; it’s what they (farming families) did to keep the milk potable.

    by Kyle on Jun 26, 2013 at 4:45 pm

  10. My uncle Mark was a dairy farmer in kansas. His operation was rather large and had a milking barn with several levels. The smell was indescribible. Horrible doesn’t even touch it. He fed his cows silage and it wasn’t the most sanitary place you ever saw. I wouldn’t drink his milk raw (that would be suicidal!). For raw milk I recommend checking out your local smaller farms if possible. Visit them to see how they care for their bovine buddies! It helps to support the local economy and small farmers. They need it!

    by cindy b on Jun 8, 2013 at 8:26 am

  11. I want to start milking my cow after her baby is done :) how long is the milk good some say only 24 hours? and how do I make butter, how long will that last. can you freeze it?? any help would be appreciated.

    by Gailmarie on Jun 3, 2013 at 11:52 am

  12. Luca – If you had read the entire article, you would have seen that it said the same thing as your comment.

    by Jaime McLeod on May 20, 2013 at 2:53 pm

  13. I only red the beginning and saw how ignorant the author is, people didn’t get sick back then from drinking raw milk people get sick today from drinking pasteurized milk. Pasteurizing makes milk bad for you you either you consume raw dairy products or non at all, preferably organic grass fed.

    by Luca on May 17, 2013 at 4:38 pm

  14. My family owns a dairy, milking an average of 150 cows. We sell to a co-op. Our cows are fed a Silage/Haylage ration. They also graze (when we have rain to produce grass). Our milk is tested daily & dumped if anything “bad” is found in it. Cows can’t just “eat hay aka graze all the time. As with your lawn, grass is seasonal & we can’t/won’t starve our cows in seasons & conditions where grass isn’t available. We have raised our babies (now toddlers) on raw milk with no issues at all. It is about an hour old when it enters our fridge, it seperates in about 30minutes. We are currently unable to sell milk though we’re working on it. I just wanted to state some facts from a person that owns a dairy & fully know what goes on. BTW, I think these herd share programs are a great healthy opportunity as well as a good lesson of where your food comes from. I hope all of you visit your dairy so you can fully appreciate that glass of AHH-mazing milk.

    by Rachael on Mar 16, 2013 at 12:33 am

  15. There has been a long debate whether or not one should consume the raw milk. People world wide have been drinking raw milk, with no side effects. People say about bacteria. But the fact is that animals do not give bacteria with milk, it may come from the infected containers or additives or touching with dirty hands. Now Health Canada advocates Pasteurization which means the raw milk is not hazardous, it is the way it is consumed. For centuries the milk is a part of regular diet in central Asia. The way they consume milk is after boiling. Had this tradition way before Louis Pasteur even thought about that. It is same as eating raw vegetables and meat and getting infection.
    Then the question is why the milk is only victimized. It is business. The dairy industry could control the price, could make many fold profits, and keep consumers on their mercy.
    Recently there was ecoli infection at XL Foods. Within a week the company got their license back because of Industry status. But nobody will ever think of poor farmer.
    In my opinion instead of banning sale of raw milk, the consumer should be educated to boil before consuming. If not then there should be regulation to sell only cooked vegetables and meat.

    by Atul Ranade on Dec 27, 2012 at 12:33 pm

  16. Deanna – You could ask. Different states have different laws about raw milk.

    by Jaime McLeod on Oct 1, 2012 at 12:31 pm

  17. We live near an Amish community that sells raw goat and cows milk. As far as I know none is ever tested for bacteria, etc. How can I be sure it is tested! This is in Crittenden County, KY.

    by Deanna phelps on Sep 29, 2012 at 4:44 am

  18. Thank you for your very helpful information. Next, I have to see how expensive the raw milk actually is (as was discussed in the communication above).

    by Jack on Feb 15, 2012 at 8:41 am

  19. I have had a milk cow on and off(more on) for yrs.MC(My Cow) is # 6.The milk we drink is usually never over 24 hrs old.
    I can understand why the milk at the turn of the century made people sick.How many farms that sold milk back in the day had running water?How did they clean those big milk cans everybody uses for decoration now?
    Who was doing the milking?What type of refrigeration did they have especially hauling the milk from each farm to the main distributor?
    I think it’s a shame that if somebody wants raw milk it’s a crime to sell it.If you come to my house and see my kitchen and my cow and feel I am clean enough and my cow is healthy and you want my milk,it should be up the the individual not the government telling you want you can and can not eat or drink.

    by kattlepie on Feb 23, 2011 at 2:25 pm

  20. I grew up in Wisconsin, the dairy state, drinking raw milk. Later, in Colorado, I raised my daughter on raw milk and her health was awesome! Of course, everyone grows up, and when it wasn’t available we all went back to pasteurized – not so great… Moving back to Colorado in 1990, I found that it wasn’t legal. Fortunately I found out about herd-share programs (see and have been drinking raw milk again since 2006. It has had no detrimental effects and I feel healther now than before.
    I’d like to address the costs – I’m actually saving money compared to buying kefir and yogurt at the store. I pay $8/gal for 1 gal of milk. When I convert my gallon into Kefir at $3/qt ($6) and yogurt at $3.50/qt ($7), a total of $13/gal vs the $8/gal saving me $5/gal! And the quality is so much superior that I can’t afford not to buy it!

    by Sherry on Feb 13, 2011 at 6:10 pm

  21. My mother grew up on a dairy farm where they always had fresh, raw milk. Unfortunately, my mom was allergic to the raw milk. The only way she could drink it without suffering an allergic reaction was to boil it.

    by Julie on Feb 12, 2011 at 5:36 pm

  22. Great post. I love raw milk, it is such a life saver. It is really important to realize the huge difference between living foods and dead ones. It is really a shame that raw milk is so expensive, but the cost is a result of our factory farm system which is destroying our planet and the poor animals that are trapped within it!

    by hellaD on Feb 10, 2011 at 1:05 am

  23. Jaime, your article is a good summary of what has happened with our milk; thank you! However, I do want to make a clarification.
    It is not the lactobacilli that have the immediate and main effect of breaking down lactose. Actually, they eat it for dinner! It is the enzyme, “lactase” which does the breaking down of milk sugar, making it digestible. Likewise, protease for protein and lipase for fat. These are all destroyed by pasteurization, as are also the all important fat-soluble vitamins, especially A, D, & K. Commercial dairies recognize the importance of true A & D (only available from animals fats, btw, not vegetables!) and so add synthetic vitamins, which cause other problems. Vitamin A toxicity, for instance, only occurs with the synthetic form of A; while synthetic D causes hyper-calcification (bone spurs, premature closing of an infant’s fontanelle, etc.). Nature’s form is always best!
    Note to Mildred: first, was this farm keeping its cattle totally on clean, fresh grass, or was it one of those dirty farms that started grain & silage feeding back in the 70’s? If the latter, that would explain it. If not, I wonder if it was truly the milk that was the problem: was salmonella actually found in the milk, or was it just an easy conclusion for the doctor or public health officials to say it was the milk (as very often happens now)?
    No food, including raw milk from the best grass-based dairy, is 100% safe; but product from this type of environment is *far* safer than its pasteurized counterpart, or most other foods commonly consumed.

    by Maureen on Feb 9, 2011 at 7:13 pm

  24. My three sisters and I grew up on raw milk from our cow, Wendy. No one ever got sick, just a little repulsed when she ate wild onions. My mother made butter which I didn’t like at the time, but would love to taste again now. She also made wonderful whipped cream and ice cream from Wendy’s milk. Daddy tried to teach each of us how to milk the cow, but we could barely hit the bucket. He, however, could squirt the milk directly into the mouths of our cats who always gathered around hoping for a sip.

    by MSpring on Feb 9, 2011 at 10:23 am

  25. I raised alpine dairy goats when my kids were still at home and they all helped with the milking chores. We filtered it and drank it unpasturized. It was wonderful. Now I have been drinking raw jersey cow milk from a certified dairy for 9 years now and we love it so much. My daughters went through strong healthy pregnancies three times drinking the milk and now my three grandkids are growing to strong healthy kids on raw milk. We love to make yogurt, butter from the cream and ice cream. I would never drink a dead pasturized and homogenized product that just kills what the good Lord put into the milk in the first place. Recently, my sheep had twin lambs. One of them got chilled a few days later and was near death. I got 10 syringes of raw cow milk down her and then a few hours later a bottle and she revived. Store bought milk would have killed her but raw milk gave her real nutrients and she is now back with her Momma thriving :)

    by Sonii N on Feb 9, 2011 at 10:12 am

  26. We have been drinking raw goat milk for awhile now. We have had no problems. We make yogurt, cheese, kefir. My family is allergic to regular milk. We lovegoat milk . Nice and fresh from the farm. The goat milk we get is sweet. The flavor is similar to cow milk. No funny aftertaste.

    by cat on Feb 9, 2011 at 8:50 am

  27. I drove for a milk hauling company some years ago, I received a gallon of free raw milk from several dairies before realizing there was a direct connection between milk from a dairy that was exceptionally clean and did a good job of cleaning the cows utter, VS one that does not, and is not as clean.
    One should also take note of a study done a few years ago by the USDA cows fed exclusively organic grasses either baled or standing without added grains had virtually no E-coli in their feces or in their systems as a whole. Now some very high percentage of cows fed grains, and grasses had E-Coli in their feces. Also note that cows removed from a grain mixture diet and placed on a grass only diet thirty days prior to slaughter no longer had E-Coli in their feces…
    Now I raise my own free range cows, chickens, sheep,and turkeys. as a result I have no need to be concerned
    about my families food supply.

    by carl stevens on Feb 9, 2011 at 1:21 am

  28. I grew up on a farm in wisconsin, raised on raw milk, never had a problem and was reasonably healthy, in the sixties i married, moved to town, drank pasteurized and got sick everytime i drank it, to this day i cannot drink pastureized milk.

    by jo fletch on Feb 7, 2011 at 10:02 pm

  29. About 25 years ago, my family and my daughter’s began delivery of raw milk from a local dairy. Unfortunately, we all came down with salmonella (confirmed by lab tests) and we were terribly ill for about two weeks. Never again… (this was the only time this dairy had a problem, but I still say, never again).

    by Mildred Davis on Feb 7, 2011 at 5:37 pm

  30. My husband is a dairy farmer’s kid and grew up drinking raw Holstein milk. I’m a townie with farming aspirations and keep around 20 head of mixed LaMancha and Nubian goats. We drink raw milk when the goats are producing and eat our own homemade cheese. Nobody in this house has ever gotten sick from our milk (or our home grown eggs for that matter)

    by StoneMaven on Feb 7, 2011 at 4:56 pm

  31. The price of raw milk depends entirely on the distributor. I have two outlets for raw milk, one from Jersey cows (which I prefer because of the higher milk fat content) for which I pay $4 per gallon. The other is from a herd of Holsteins, which is less fat and, IME, less superior and they charge $6 per gallon. I can buy pastured eggs from both of those farmers in the summer, but this time of year the chickens are eating a flax/fish based meal (I can’t remember what else is in it but it’s organic and contains no soy or corn). $2.50 per dozen for candled eggs.

    Pasteurized milk is just white water and it’s served up in a plastic jug, no less. Ewww.

    by D. on Feb 7, 2011 at 3:48 pm

  32. And many raw food proponents also tout the virtues of goat milk over cow milk, because of the closer-to-human-milk qualities of the proteins and fats in goat milk (raw, of course!).

    It’s funny how returning the cows to a more natural environment and more natural feeding habits returns their health. The same thing happens with humans as well–returning to a more natural diet reverses disease for us.

    by FoodMagick on Feb 7, 2011 at 3:43 pm

  33. we have goats and have been drinking raw milk for over a year with no problems, we love it!

    by amanda on Feb 7, 2011 at 3:19 pm

  34. I grew up drinking raw milk and never had a problem. Pasteurized milk however made me lactose intolerant. Finding raw milk is only half the problem though. The other problem is cost effectiveness. I couldn’t afford raw milk if I found it. What a shame.

    by Elfi Metz on Feb 7, 2011 at 2:33 pm

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