May 24, 2019 | 60° F

Rutgers professors weigh in on raw milk movement

Photo by Wikimedia |

During the 19th century, milking machines were not used and cows were kept in confined, unclean spaces that did not receive much sunlight. Joseph Heckman, a professor in the Department of Plant Biology says these conditions lead to many people getting sick.

Alongside an increased demand for organic foods, raw milk has become more popular. 

Raw milk contains more fat than pasteurized milk and has not been processed in any way, according to Real Milk, a campaign for raw substitute. Pasteurized milk is regulated by the Food and Drug Association (FDA), which sets standards and requirements for regulating Grade "A" milk.

Joseph Heckman, a professor in the Department of Plant Biology, said that these standards were implemented to curtail the high number of foodborne illnesses coming from milk products. In the late-19th century, milk production was a dirty business. 

“They didn't have milking machines, the cows were kept in confinement and didn’t see much sunlight. It was not a clean environment. That was the kind of situation that made a lot of people sick and something had to be done about it. So that's the past,” Heckman said.

Heckman has written multiple academic pieces on the subject of raw milk and other organic produce, including a recent article that outlines the goal of the raw-milk movement titled, “Securing fresh food from fertile soil, challenges to the organic and raw milk movements." 

He said that the historical conditions of pasteurization are important to take into account when understanding how modern dairy sanitation is carried out. 

Now, dairy practices have become much safer and more sanitary, he said. Farmers with the right practices and regulations can bring whole, unprocessed and unaltered milk to the market with the same safety guarantee as pasteurized milk. 

He said that as much as 3 percent of the American population already drinks raw milk.

Mark McAfee, the CEO and founder of Organic Pastures Dairy Co., said he agrees. His business has been producing raw milk in California since 1999 and has been farming organically for more than 35 years. His cows and their milk are governed by strict rules set by federal organic requisites and statewide standards for raw, fluid dairy.

“All of our milk is raw, meaning it comes out of the cow and is flash chilled, so that it never gets warm ever,” McAfee said. “We never use growth hormone, we never use RBST, we never use any kind of steroid.”

McAfee said that managing cows correctly — letting them out to pasture, strictly regulating their health, cleaning and heavily monitoring their environment and providing them with only the most sanitary and humane conditions — removes the need for the destructive heating process of pasteurization. 

This ensures the proteins, enzymes and other beneficial, organic components that make milk a whole and naturally-intended food are not destroyed, he said.  

“There are two kinds of raw milk in America," McAfee said. "One for the people and one for the pasteurizer, and they are not the same and they can never be compared. The one for people must be pathogen free and have a very low bacteria count. The one for the pasteurizer, they don't count pathogens and it can be filthy dirty. It doesn't matter because it's all going to be cooked.”

He said that pasteurized milk can still have pathogens in it because it is assumed that any harmful agents will be destroyed in the mandatory heating process.

Donald Schaffner, a professor in the Department of Food Science, said he is more hesitant about this new trend in dairy production. 

He said that studies have shown raw, unpasteurized milk to be more dangerous than its processed counterpart, causing more infections, such as Listeria and Salmonella. 

“Americans consume virtually all of their milk in some form of pasteurized product. Much of the raw-dairy products they do consume comes in the form of aged cheeses, which reduce the risk and potential for foodborne illnesses,” Schaffner said. “The number of people that consume fluid-raw milk is small, and therefore our knowledge about the risks in this population is limited.”

Schaffner said that people should analyze the risks and benefits for themselves and weigh the options to see which they think will be best for them.

In New Jersey, the sale of unpasteurized-fluid dairy — raw milk — is still illegal. Heckman said that the state could benefit greatly if this commodity was made legal to sell. 

It would also have positive effects on the economy, he said. It could promote the growth of small farms that are more practical for producing raw milk for consumption than large, industrialized farms. 

“The proponents of legalizing access to raw milk are not opposed to the choice of pasteurized milk,” Heckman said. “Let the consumer decide.”

Andrew Petryna

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