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Raw milk: Healthy or dangerous?

  • Laurie Cuevas, owner of Mill Valley Milk Co., interacts with her Brown Swiss cow Popcorn at the Hadley farm. Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • Owner Laurie Cuevas displays fresh raw milk sold at the farm store in Hadley. Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY



For The Recorder
Monday, March 20, 2017

With the popularity of eating locally produced natural foods continuing to grow, more consumers are adding raw milk to their shopping lists. Since it is unavailable for purchase in grocery stores or markets in Massachusetts, getting raw milk means finding a local dairy that is licensed to sell the product on site.

The Mill Valley Milk Company and Cooks Farm both offer raw milk for sale directly from their farm stores in Hadley.

“We started selling raw milk in 2007 because there was a demand for it,” said Debby Cook of Cook Farm. “People kept stopping by the farm to see if we had it, so we looked into getting a license to sell it.”

Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized — that is, it has not been through the process that heats the milk to a specific temperature to kill illness-causing bacteria.

Though the claim is subject to debate, raw milk advocates say pasteurization reduces the health benefits of milk.

The Northeast Organic Farming Association maintains that raw milk contains an abundance of beneficial bacteria, minerals and enzymes like phosphatase, which is essential for the absorption of calcium; lipase, which aids in the digestion of fats and lactase, helping with the digestion of lactose.

On the other hand, agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Ga. warn against consuming raw milk and raw milk products due to the risk of serious illness caused by the possible presence of harmful bacteria, viruses and parasites.

Because raw milk is not pasteurized, state law requires that it be sold directly to consumers from the farm at which it was produced. These farms must be licensed to sell it and follow specific regulations regarding sanitation, storage and testing for contamination.

Consumer appeal

Many enjoy the taste of raw milk. “Everybody that comes in says it tastes just like milk, only much better,” said Laurie Cuevas of Mill Valley Milk Company.

The thick cream that settles on top can be skimmed off and used to make foods like butter, whipped cream, ice cream and the like. Or it can simply be shaken into the milk, to give it a richer flavor and texture.

And, consumers say, it doesn’t go bad in the same way pasteurized milk does. Even after it sours, it doesn’t take on the rank flavor of conventional milk and can still be used in multiple ways, such as in making breads, biscuits, waffles and pancakes.

“It is also much easier to make cheese and yogurt with raw milk because it works quicker and you get better results,” Cook said. “You can make cheese in an hour and yogurt takes about 12 hours.”

Health benefits debated

Heidi Bohn of Belchertown is a regular customer at the Mill Valley store.

“We buy our milk here every week or two,” Bohn said. “My nutritionist suggested that if I was going to eat dairy, to make sure it was from an organic grass-fed farm and raw because pasteurization takes out a lot of nutrients.”

Many people with digestive problems and dairy allergies report that they have no trouble consuming raw milk.

Cuevas says that she had a customer tell her that she hadn’t been able to drink milk in 17 years because it made her sick. “After trying raw milk, she came running back into the store two days later saying that she couldn’t believe that it didn’t make her sick, and she was thrilled to have milk again.”

Not everyone is convinced. Registered and licensed dietitian nutritionist Elizabeth Devine, owner of Eat and Run in Amherst, which specializes in wellness and sports nutrition, says that scientific research does not support the idea that the enzymes in raw milk prevent allergic reactions or intolerance to milk.

“So far, all of the testimony is anecdotal. The science hasn’t deemed any of it to be true,” she said.

Devine also said that there is no direct scientific evidence to show that raw milk provides any additional health benefits that cannot also be found in pasteurized milk.

Neither Cook nor Cuevas tout raw milk as a
“health food.”

“We are not flag wavers for raw milk and I never tell people that they should drink it,” Cuevas said. “I will educate people about raw milk, but my customers know what they want, and they are the ones who tell me why they drink it.”

“It is a big personal decision,” Cook said. “We don’t advocate that it is safe for everybody — we say that you need to do your homework and use good judgment.”

Devine says that those with compromised immune systems may be more susceptible to falling ill by drinking non-pasteurized milk.

Strict standards key

While the CDC emphasizes that pasteurization is the only way to totally eradicate all bacteria in milk, it also notes that adherence to good hygienic practices during milking can greatly reduce — though not completely eliminate — the risk of milk contamination.

The CDC says that pasteurization only destroys the pathogens in the milk at the time of processing. Thus, both raw and pasteurized milk can be contaminated during bottling, shipping and storage if unsanitary conditions allow pathogens to enter and contaminate the milk.

This is why both Cuevas and Cook say it is critically important to adhere to strict cleanliness standards in milk production.

“It can be dangerous, and we take that very seriously,” Cook said, noting that she has confidence in the raw milk produced at her farm. “My whole family drinks raw milk, it is the only kind of milk we have in the house.”

Cuevas was raised on a farm and has consumed raw milk all of her life. She says that neither she nor anyone she knows has ever fallen ill from drinking it.

While she acknowledges the potential danger from contamination, she believes that sensationalism around incidents of contamination inordinately fuel a fear of raw milk.

“Cleanliness is key,”
she said.

Benefits small dairies

According to the Northeast Organic Farming Association, purchasing raw milk at small local farms that adhere to sustainable farming practices helps protect the environment by supporting open space and reducing air and water pollution.

It also helps small local dairies control their own pricing and receive a fair sum for their product, one that represents the true costs of milk production, which is important for the economic survival of these farms, Cuevas says.

“My parents lost their farm just before I went to college due to low milk prices,” she said.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, between 2007 and 2012 the number of dairy farms in Massachusetts dropped from 258 to 147, a 43 percent decrease. In Hampshire County, the number of dairy farms fell from 29 to 18 in the same period.

At Mill Valley, raw milk goes for $4 a half-gallon and $8 a gallon, which is average for the product. A gallon of whole milk in the grocery store costs roughly $3.60.

Bohn said that for her, supporting the viability of local, environmentally sustainable farms, is worth paying the higher price for raw milk.

Cooks Farm sells its raw milk, meats and ice cream and out of Flayvors, its farm store/restaurant ice cream shop at 129 South Maple St., Hadley.

Mill Valley Milk Company sells its raw milk, meats, cheeses and its signature Maple Valley Ice Cream at its farm store at 102 Mill Valley Road, Hadley.

Neither dairy uses raw milk in its ice cream, which allows it also to be sold in grocery stores.

Check out the farm

Before purchasing raw milk, Cuevas says, potential customers should check out the dairy and ask questions about how the cows are fed and cared for, how they are milked, how that milk is processed, how the equipment is kept clean and how the milk is tested for contamination.

She says she enjoys giving spontaneous tours of her dairy, and introducing customers to her eight pampered Brown Swiss cows. They all have names and are treated like members of the family, she says.

Cuevas says in the end, everyone should decide for themselves.