Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Raw Milk Debate: Is There A Third Option?

Raw versus pasteurized versus . . . . .

We were reminded again last Friday of the risks that consumers face when they opt to drink raw milk.

The Michigan Department of Community Health issued a public health alert on March 19th, after eight confirmed cases of Campylobacter infections were reported among residents of three counties in the state. The victims of this outbreak had consumed raw milk obtained from the Family Farms Cooperative in Vandalia, Michigan. through a cow-share program.

Cow share programs are used in many US states and Canadian provinces as a means to sidestep prohibitions against the retail sale of raw milk for human consumption. Instead of purchasing raw milk directly, consumers "buy" part ownership in a cow's – or a dairy herd's – output.

Although some states – California, for example – have legalized and regulated the retail sale of raw milk, FDA does not permit interstate shipment for human consumption of unpasteurized milk for retail sale. As far as FDA is concerned, consuming raw milk is a risky business. These risks include Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7 and Campylobacter.

Why do some individuals insist on drinking raw milk – and serving it to their children – in spite of the microbiological risk? Mainly because of a concern that pasteurization, which requires heating the milk, destroys key nutrients present in raw milk and degrades the flavor of the fresh product.

What if there was a way to make raw milk microbiologically safe without heating it?

I'm not talking about irradiation. I'm not talking about adding chemicals. I'm not talking about adding "good" bacteria or bacteriophages to the milk.

I am referring to a process known as High Pressure Pasteurization (HPP). This technology is already in use in several sectors of the food industry. It has been applied to deli meats, fruit juices, deli salads, and produce. Recently, Nature's Variety – a manufacturer of "raw" pet foods – announced that it had decided to incorporate HPP treatment into its manufacturing process in order to ensure the microbiological safety of its pet foods.

As far as I am aware, no dairies have adopted HPP as an alternative to conventional heat pasteurization for fluid milk. But a literature search turned up a smattering of tantalizing research studies. I would be surprised if the manufacturers of HPP equipment were not funding research into this application of their technology.

Perhaps, some day the raw milk versus pasteurized milk debate will become history – made obsolete by a new technology that doesn't rely on either heat or irradiation.

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  1. HPP for the preservation of fresh cheese has certainly been examined by Cheesemakers. The cost and practicality currently limit its application but the technology certainly looks interesting. The down side is that we will produce milk with ever higher numbers of undesirable bacteria, how long will it take before the raw milk community steps up and produces high quality milk and shows it to be so.

  2. @Anonymous: It would be necessary to put a limit on the microbial load of the input raw milk in order to ensure the effectiveness of the HPP process. I'm continuing to investigate what's being done in this area and may have additional updates to post in future, as more info and data become available. It's the only technology that I've come across so far that has the potential to answer both the safety concerns of regulators (and microbiologists such as myself) and the nutritional and flavor concerns of raw milk proponents.


  3. HPP will not eliminate the raw milk market. People drink raw milk because it is a high-quality food--not just because it is unpasteurized. It is a better breed of cow, one knows the farmer, it is not homogenized, separated & recombined, no additives, no tanker trucks, not mingled with the milk of hundreds of cows at different farms.


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