So, raw milk! By now you’ve probably heard about it. Maybe you even drink it. It’s becoming more and more popular. Unfortunately, in many states, it is still illegal and can be difficult or impossible to find.
Why would you want to drink it? How would you find it? Is it different than store milk when using it? Why is the government cracking down so hard?
The Government Saga
Let’s just start with the politics, because this could answer several questions. In the last several months, the government has been seriously cracking down — illegally— on farmers who produce raw milk or raw milk products (like cheese, butter, yogurt).
They claim that this is for “food safety,” even though there is no data showing that raw milk is inherently dangerous, despite the government and media’s claims. Raw milk does contain natural bacteria and enzymes, but these are generally healthy. It’s possible that raw milk could contain pathogenic bacteria, but it would have to become contaminated somehow. It does not naturally contain bad bacteria!
In fact, pasteurized milk is really more at risk of contamination, because when it is heated, all of the good bacteria are killed. This leaves the milk “dead,” and inert. Whatever gets into it can simply grow, unchecked.
In raw milk, the good bacteria tend to keep any bad bacteria in check, which is why it typically won’t make people sick. It’s also true that pasteurization doesn’t raise the temperature high enough to kill the pathogenic bacteria, making it even more likely to be contaminated.
The conditions of the farms on which the milk is produced are very important, too. Most pasteurized milk is produced on farms where cows are kept in confinement, in tiny stalls in large, closed barns. The cows can’t move around. They’re fed GMO corn and soy and “vitamin supplements,” and they stand in their own waste. Typically, due to the crowded conditions and unnatural food, the cows become ill. They are given antibiotics to prevent the spread of illness and to keep them alive. Many herds are also treated with rBST or rBGH, growth hormones that increase the cow’s milk production. This often gives the cows mastitis (same infection humans get!), which causes pus to be present in the milk. It’s another reason why cows are treated with antibiotics.
Milk produced under these conditions would not be safe to drink raw. It has to be pasteurized. In fact, large-scale cow facilities and these types of conditions, which produced the sick animals and pus-filled milk, are the entire reason pasteurization became mandatory in the first place! Raw milk was making people sick 50 or 60 years ago, but it was because the cows were fed distillery mash, forced into confinement, and were ill. Pasteurization basically masked the problem.
Cows on raw dairy farms are typically out on pasture, not confined. They eat most or all of their diet as grass and have free access to clean water and a salt lick (important for cows). Under these conditions, they are not sick. Any cow that was sick would be removed from the herd and given antibiotics, if necessary, but milk from the cow would not be sold until it was 90 days past the last dose of antibiotics (if I’m remembering the law correctly). The milk is collected using stainless-steel machines and stored in stainless steel, copper (naturally anti-bacterial and anti-viral), or glass, and is chilled very quickly after milking. This milk is safe and unlikely to be contaminated.
There is a small chance that individual farms could have contamination issues, and when this occurs, the government likes to point fingers at these farms and hold them up as examples of how dangerous raw milk really is (although people have become ill from contamination, no one has died for over 20 years; we can’t say the same for pasteurized milk). However, these farms are the exception rather than the rule. And because the operations are small and the milk is sold either directly from the farm, or locally and still from only one farm at a time, the illness can be quickly traced back to the location and contained. When you know exactly where the food came from, controlling any contamination issues is easy.
Milk from massive farms can be combined, plus there are literally thousands of cows there. Trying to pick out the exact source of contamination is extremely difficult, if not impossible, meaning that the outbreak cannot be well-contained. This makes any pasteurized milk that is contaminated far more dangerous than raw.
Given all these facts, why would the government crackdown? It all has to do with money and lobbying. The raw milk movement is growing so quickly that it is beginning to threaten the profits of the dairy industry. So, they’re trying to shut down the raw milk by making it look dangerous and removing the choice. The dairy industry cannot compete with raw milk because their entire operation depends on having the cows in confinement. Cows on pasture need a lot more land, and a lot more “managing,” and the dairy industry can’t do it. Since they can’t provide safe raw milk, they’ve set out to run a smear campaign against it.
Not only is this smear campaign stupid and wrought with lies, it’s also anti-freedom. Even supposing that raw milk was more dangerous, we should have the right to choose our food. The government should not be mandating what we can and can’t eat. Raw milk is not a drug; it’s not a substance that could make us act crazy or kill people (like street drugs) and it doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s rights. If you don’t want raw milk, fine, don’t buy it. But don’t stop people who want it from having it because of some phony “science” and “food safety” nonsense.
The Benefits of Raw Milk
So, I’ve already gone over why raw milk is not dangerous. But what are the specific benefits?
- Naturally contains enzymes (including lactase, meaning those who are lactose-intolerant can often drink raw milk)
- Contains beneficial bacteria
- Has been shown to clear eczema and allergies, as well as asthma
- Can often be safely used in people with “dairy allergy” (which could really be to corn or soy the cows are fed)
- In the past, was used to heal wounds and called “white blood”
We, personally, switched to raw milk about a year ago, and our “dairy allergic” children do not react to it. Other family members have had the same experience.
If raw milk is left on the counter, it will “clabber” — the enzymes will eat the lactose and the milk will become sour. But it is not bad, it can still be drunk or used in baking! Many let their milk clabber on purpose! Don’t try this with pasteurized milk, though, because that milk will go bad.
How to Store Raw Milk
Although raw milk that has gone sour is still safe, it isn’t particularly palatable to many. So, you’ll want to make sure that doesn’t happen! Raw milk is a little different than pasteurized because of the natural bacteria in it. Anytime it starts to warm up, all those enzymes and bacteria become more active and start to eat the lactose faster, souring the milk. In order to keep the milk fresh longer, you want it to stay nice and cold to inhibit the bacterial action!
Raw milk, unrefrigerated, will sour in 1 – 2 days. Under “ordinary” conditions, it will last about a week. You can extend this to 2 weeks or a bit more if you keep the milk very cold, and continuously so.
When you pick up your milk, bring a cooler for it. Ice packs are a good idea too, unless you’re also buying frozen meat from the same source (we do this). Pack the ice or frozen meat around your milk so that it stays nice and cold. This is especially important in the summer! You don’t want any break in the “cold chain,” because any time the milk warms up, even temporarily, those enzymes will go to work on that lactose and sour the milk a little bit more.
When you get the milk home, place it in the fridge immediately. Push it towards the back and make sure your fridge is set no higher than 40 degrees (38 is even better). It should last 7 – 10 days in “drinkable” condition, though you can continue to use it for baking for a while longer, or deliberately clabber what’s left to keep for baking or soaking later, if you want.
We found that when we left our milk in our outside fridge this winter (the fridge itself was set to 40, but the garage temperature was often quite a bit lower), it lasted 2 – 3 weeks without souring at all. The milk was very cold and occasionally, but not always, got a bit icy or partially frozen. It never froze completely, and we never had any broken jars (milk should be stored in glass if at all possible; ours was). It was really nice to be able to leave a gallon out there if it would be awhile between farm trips and know that the milk would still be good!
Uses for Raw Milk
In many cases, raw milk is the same as “other” milk. You can drink it straight, or mixed with chocolate (I like that a lot!) or strawberries.
You can cook and bake with raw milk, too. It’s exactly the same as “other” milk. Don’t boil it, or it will curdle.
Raw milk can also be used to make kefir or yogurt, or clabbered and used in baking (like buttermilk). Clabbered milk can also be strained, and the whey used for soaking grains (or fermenting veggie/fruit ferments) and the thick part used like cream cheese. (Don’t try that with pasteurized milk!) You can also make buttermilk or sour cream with it! And, of course, butter!
Raw milk is also delicious as ice cream — that recipe is in Real Food Basics! We love it. We can eat a batch in one sitting, between the four of us!
Don’t forget to add raw milk to your smoothies (I thin Daniel’s smoothie with it every morning so it can go in a sippy cup).
One caution on raw milk: if you are not used to it, do not drink large quantities of it at once. All that beneficial bacteria means tons of probiotics, and that can cause a die-off reaction. This occurs when the good bacteria starts killing all the bad bacteria and toxins get released into your system as they’re dying. That usually amounts to minor stomach cramps and diarrhea. Raw milk isn’t as “strong” as other types of probiotics (which can cause the same type of reaction, but can also include nausea, headache, loss of appetite, etc.), but it can cause this.
This happened to us for a few days when we first started to drink raw milk, then disappeared. This is not the same as raw milk that is contaminated! When this happened to me most recently I never felt “sick,” I just had minor cramps. I felt quite well, actually. If the raw milk were actually contaminated, even a small amount would cause nausea, vomiting, and other unpleasant symptoms that this reaction does not cause.
Dream up more ways! How do you use raw milk?
Finding the Darn Stuff
Unfortunately, the trickiest part for many is actually finding raw milk. If you happen to be local (Columbus, OH), please send me an email. I run a group that orders from a farm that has herd shares available and would love to include others.
In some states, particularly out west, raw milk is legal to buy and available in health food stores. Sometimes, private buying clubs sell raw milk as well (even if it is not legal to sell otherwise). Ask at your local health food store if they sell it, or know of a buying club, or even a local farm. They may know!
In other states, raw milk sales are legal only direct from the farm. In this case (and it’s really a pretty safe deal, probably the best way to buy!), farmer’s markets are also a good place to ask. If you know a place sells beef, they may also sell raw milk. It’s a good idea to know your farmer anyway, so you’re sure that you’re getting milk from a clean, safe operation. We visit our farmer on a regular basis!
A herd share is a way to get around the law, in states where raw milk sales are illegal. Basically, you sign a legal contract and pay to “buy” into a herd. If you own a cow, or part of a cow, then you are entitled to milk from it. Most contracts will state that you pay a one-time fee to buy into the herd, then a monthly “maintenance fee” for upkeep, feed, etc. From here it varies.
With some farms, you’ll still have to pay extra for the milk. With many, you have to pay the monthly “upkeep” fee whether or not you actually pick up your milk. Typically, you will have the opportunity to pick up milk once a week, and each share you purchase entitles you to one gallon. Some farmers are more flexible about this than others. (Ours doesn’t make us pay if we don’t pick up milk, and we can pick up every two weeks, and get a little more or less than we’re “supposed” to if available.)
In some states, herd shares are also illegal (sigh). In this case, you may be able to buy the milk “for pet use,” or some farmers will set it out and “suggest” a donation — then you come and get it and leave money. It’s not *technically* a sale! Others, especially near state lines, will go across the state line to get raw milk if the laws are better (although carrying raw milk across state lines is, again, illegal…sigh).
Talk to others at health food stores, farmer’s markets, and other like-minded communities. You’ll often find “underground” options in these locations. If raw milk sales are legal, either at the store, direct from the farm, or through herd shares, you can check Eat Wild to look for farms near you.