"You milk cows? How interesting. What do you do with the milk? You drink it? Do you have to do anything to the milk? Is that safe?"
This conversation has been replayed countless times when I talk to people about our farm. Most people are fascinated by the idea of consuming milk and milk products that are as fresh as possible. So far, I've never had a negative reaction when I've talked to people about it.
However, recent news has called into question the safety of raw milk. Raw milk is defined as milk that is not processed using traditional methods like homogenization and pasteurization. Raw milk is milked from the cow, refrigerated for a time and then consumed.
The Minnesota Department of Health has recently released a report regarding the safety of raw milk. This is an interesting study because the sale of raw milk is illegal in some states, but Minnesota is one of thirty states that permit its sale. The Department of Health said that one in six people who consume raw milk get sick from it.
The study looked at the numbers of people who fell ill with particular intestinal illnesses within a week of consuming raw milk. The researchers estimated that 17 percent of people who drank raw milk between 2001 and 2010 became ill. The flaw in the study, however, is that the people who were sick and the doctors treating them could not be sure that the illness came from the raw milk or some other food. Researchers also conceded that the illness could have come from other contact with animals, like if a farm child became sick from his or her own animals.
I pay close attention to studies like these. After all, if I am going to go to the trouble of buying a milk cow, having her bred and milking her every day for months on end, I don't want to end up making my family sick doing it. I want to make wise, informed decisions for my family and our farm, and sometimes that means facing facts that may influence my decisions.
This study is not going to change the fact that I give my family raw milk. I've known all along that we are taking a certain amount of risk by drinking fresh milk. However, studies like this just emphasized to me the fact that milk is highly perishable and the perfect medium in which bacteria can grow. This study means that I must be ever more vigilant about cleanliness, milk handling, refrigeration, and keeping the freshest possible milk in the fridge.
Personally, we love our raw milk. But, I do have certain practices that I put in place to keep us safe. First, I wouldn't consume raw milk if I was pregnant, nor would I give it to a child under the age of two. I don't know for a fact that the milk could cause a problem, but sometimes it's just better to be careful. I don't give my milk to anyone that has a compromised immune system. My family members who are battling cancer don't need any extra health problems, so I'd rather be safe than sorry. When adults visiting ask to taste our milk, I do caution them. My family has never had a bout with diarrhea due to raw milk, but we live on a farm and our bodies are "used" to the bacteria that are on the farm. I don't know that everyone has that same protection, so I just mention that fact to visitors so that they will be aware of the risks.
When I am milking, I am very careful with cleanliness. I thoroughly clean my cow's teats and udders before milking, and I scrub and disinfect every part of the milker every time that I milk. Additionally, I use safe cow handling practices so that my cows are in ideal health. I filter and refrigerate the milk as soon as I am in the house, and we never drink milk that is more than 24-48 hours old.
Honestly, I can't say that I would buy milk or use milk that was from another farm. I know for a fact that my procedures keep the milk in the best possible condition, but I don't think I would trust another person to do the same. It only takes one small bacteria in a batch of milk to contaminate a whole bottle, and I don't want to take chances with my health or that of my family.
Should you drink raw milk or not? Do the research, but also delve into the particulars of the studies. Some studies have some glaring problems that are obvious when you look deeper, and some reporters twist the facts to make them say what they want them to. The Minnesota study does indicate that raw milk can cause problems, but the holes in the study mean that the data is far from definitive. Look into the facts and make up your mind for yourself.