Friday, January 23, 2009

Raw milk and cheese, in brief

Two posts in the same day!

My best friend, Elliot, who writes the blog Eat Raleigh emailed me a question about raw milk and cheeses made from raw milk. Since I have been asked this question a few times before, I thought I would state my opinions on my blog.

I have observed different camps on this subject as well as numerous consumers who have been misinformed about the topic--but that is not a new theme in the world of food. Some would argue that one major deterrent to healthy eating is the confusion present in the general public about nutrition (and food safety).

So, in brief, when an animal is milked, the resulting substance is considered 'raw' milk unless it is processed with a heat treatment known as pasteurization (think scientist Louis Pasteur). Such a heat treatment does not kill all presence of microorganisms, but it greatly reduces the chance that pathogens are going to end up in your milk. There are regulations about milk in place to look out for the greater good of our population. Without regulations, milk and many other foods would be adulterated and there would be higher risk of illness from consuming harmful bacteria. To my knowledge, sale of raw milk is only legal in around half of our 50 states.

There is talk about health benefits of raw milk and better flavor. I won't argue against the flavor, because I do believe that raw milk can often produce a more complex, unique cheese flavor. However, it seems to me that the jury is still out on potential health benefits of raw milk. The dangers presumably out weigh the benefits.

In a perfect world, all food producers/processors would have impeccable health standards; their operating conditions would be extremely sanitary and they would operate on a small scale. In reality, most of the food industry operates on a large scale, which in my opinion increases the chance of contamination. Large scale animal facilities often have high incidence of disease, causing the need for antibiotics.

Concerning raw milk cheeses. Many classic European cheeses are regulated so that they are always made with raw milk. This ensures the unique terroir component of the cheese character. There are a growing number of artisanal American cheeses that are also raw milk. The U.S. FDA requires that all raw milk cheeses sold in the U.S. are aged at least 60 days at temperatures not less than 35 F. In theory the aging process ensures a safe product--and hopefully a delicious one!

Bottom line. I think dairy producers are the key part of the equation. If a dairy farmer has good practices, the milk may be safe to consume raw. For most producers, it seems like pasteurization benefits both the consumer and the milk company. There is less risk of illness and therefore less risk of lawsuits. If a cheese maker is talented and creative, chances are their cheese will be of high quality regardless of whether or not the milk is pasteurized. But, if production or distribution conditions are out of spec, even a pasteurized product can pose a threat to consumer health.

I personally would not feel comfortable feeding young children, with developing immune/digestive systems, any raw milk products. And that applies to any immune compromised individual or pregnant woman as well---why risk it?

As for me, I prefer to buy pasteurized organic milk (but I often by non-organic because of price). I will indulge in just about any cheese I am offered, whether it is pasteurized, raw, runny, or 3 years old!

I said good bye to brevity a while back, but I must add: Aren't there more pertinent issues than raw milk out there in the world? Like whether or not a child has any milk?

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