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Assure raw milk's benefits

Jennifer Wilkins

First published: Sunday, December 7, 2008

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BRA, Italy — Next to the portico in Bra's Piazza XX Septembre, sits a stainless steel refrigerated vending machine that's quite popular with the locals. A one Euro coin and a push of the start button activates a pure white flow. Within seconds the customer's bottle is brimming with a liter of latte crude (raw milk).

If the machine runs dry, the dairy's phone number is clearly posted. Giacomo Mosso, who, with his three brothers, owns and operates a nearby 150-cow pasture-based dairy, soon arrives with a fresh supply to refill the machine to its 350 liter capacity.

Raw milk runs are such a routine of daily life in this small Piemonte town that it's easy to forget the intense emotions this seemingly benign (and to my taste, delicious) product can arouse. Supporters of ''raw milk'' consider it a panacea for all that ails and claim pasteurization destroys milk's natural goodness. Conversely, medical and government authorities claim raw milk is inherently dangerous.

Pasteurization, the process of heating food in order to significantly reduce resident microbiota, became standard practice about a century ago for good reason. Milk straight from the cow can play host to numerous bacteria, some of which make the milk spoil, while others can make the drinker sick, sometimes deathly so. The most common technique used for milk — heating it to at least 161 degrees — renders neutral such deadly bacteria as Campylobacter jejuni, Listeria monocytogenes, Escherichia coli, and salmonella.

Once the practice of pasteurization became common in the early 1900s, milk-borne disease incidence plummeted. The sale of raw milk is now illegal in nearly half of the states in the U.S. and in all of Canada.

While the case for pasteurization is well-established, the case against it and for drinking unpasteurized milk is gaining ground as evidence emerges that the very measures meant to protect us may be harming us.

The children of dairy families who ignore government advice and utilize essentially a free resource direct from their cows (''farm milk'') are far less likely than their pasteurized milk drinking counterparts to react to a wide range of known allergens in skin-prick tests. Since farmers' children who drink raw milk often show fewer asthma symptoms, runny noses and itchy eyes, could bacteria and proteins found in raw milk be providing a protective effect?

As one researcher speculated, either there's something about industrial milk that's harmful, or there's something in raw milk that's beneficial. Perhaps there's something to both possibilities. Grass-fed cows tend to have much lower counts of deadly bacterial strains and far fewer harmful bacteria in their manure. Advocates of raw milk claim this reduces the risk of milk-borne diseases.

While pasteurization neutralizes most harmful bacteria, it doesn't kill them all. And, of course, milk can be contaminated after being pasteurized. Viable M. paratuberculosis is occasionally present at low levels in commercially pasteurized cows' milk as are E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, and other nasties.

Clearly, raw milk, like any other milk, can be a safe and nutritious product. But in order to assure this safety, proper management and monitoring are essential. Raw milk from pasture-based operations where the health of the animals is optimized appears to be the best bet. Even so, measures such as those contained in California raw milk bill that was returned unsigned by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger need to be put into place. These included frequent testing for pathogens, bi-weekly independent lab testing, and strict segregation between milk from raw and non-raw milk dairies.

Consumers who want to drink raw milk will also need to buy it more frequently. Even when refrigerated, my raw milk spoils within a few days. So I buy less each time and visit the vending machine more often, but it's worth the walk.

Jennifer Wilkins studies the connection between health and the food and agriculture system in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University. Her e-mail address is [email protected].

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