About this blog...

Food has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Food and the festivities surrounding its arrival to the table has always been a focal point in our family. For many years I have been amassing the cookbooks, recipe cards, cooking journals, diaries, manuscripts and clipping files of our once extensive family.

Personally, I’ve been professionally involved with food for over 40 years in numerous and varied culinary capacities across the country so I also have the collected stories, as well as current and on-going food-related experiences from my own life I’d like to share.

My idea has long been that someday I would bring all of this marvelous raw material together into a culinary journey through our family’s heritage. This journal is the beginnings of that journey.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Some Thoughts on Raw Dairy Products

I  do not personally have strong philosophical opinions about raw milk/cheese vs pasteurized.  Some people do.  That said, I am a fan of personal freedom (and its corresponding set of responsibilities), including the freedom to make my own, informed, food consumption decisions.

Pasteurization is the process of heating milk to kill bacteria, ostensibly to make the milk safer to drink.  Unpasteurized milk is called "raw milk" (or sometimes "Real milk" or "Natural Milk").  The argument for consuming raw dairy products is that in killing the bacteria by pasteurization that the good, beneficial bacteria are killed indiscriminately along with the bad and, further, that the milk is in other ways damaged by pasteurization to the point of being less healthy for us then the untreated raw product would be.

Here on the Ranch, we drink our own raw milk daily without qualm and I typically make a number of aged raw milk cheeses during our off-season for our personal consumption throughout the rest of the year.  We feel comfortable doing this for a number of reasons...

We intimately know the animals who produce our milk.  We know that they are healthy, that they never get hormones to boost their production, that they are not on any antibiotics or other drugs that could pass through into the milk and we know their diet.  We personally milk these animals and know the stringent hygiene regime that is observed then and all the way through the filtering and chilling processes.  We also have our raw milk tested regularly and know from the results that it is significantly lower in all bacterial counts than is legally permissibly even for pasteurized milk. Pasteurization would seem to be, at best, unnecessary and wasteful under these circumstances. 

Besides,  there is also something undeniably unsettling about drinking a product that intentionally has a bunch of dead bacteria floating around in it.

A Cheesemaker's Point of View

Our Black Mesa Ranch commercial goat cheese dairy here produces 3 types of cheese to sell: Fresh Goat Cheese (4 flavors), Feta Cheese (3 varieties), and Boule (a mozzarella-style cheese). The are all considered "fresh cheeses" (aged less than 60 days) and must therefore  be made from pasteurized milk to be legal.

From a cheese-making point of view, there are some significant production considerations that accompany the decision to use raw vs pasteurized milk (in addition to the aforementioned legal requirements).  The heating process of pasteurization indisputably alters the milk composition. The calcium is damaged by the heating which can result in problems with proper curd formation, often requiring augmentation of the milk with a food-grade supplement like Calcium Chloride. Some of the delicate milk sugars are "cooked" during the process which, depending on the type of pasteurization and cheese being made, can lead to unwanted flavor profiles in the end product. Further, there is evidence that cheeses made with pasteurized milk do not age as well as similar ones made from raw milk, in some cases (especially with long-aged cheeses like cheddars or Romano) with them beginning to actually deteriorate before they are fully mature.

Commercial Considerations

Another factor which must be weighed by any commercial operation looking into raw milk products is (like it or not) the very real and potentially onerous regulatory, liability and litigation complications that accompany the choice. 

First, our dairy is subject to mandatory inspections from the: USDA, FDA, AZ Dept of Agriculture, Navajo County Health Department, The state Department of Weights and Measures and the State Veterinarian's Office.  Our animals are checked, our equipment is checked, our milk is checked, our cheese is checked, our well water is checked, our paperwork is checked and we are checked. We also participate voluntarily in a number of animal health/development and product evaluation programs including annual AGDA herd Linear Appraisals, monthly Dairy Herd Improvement testing and periodically enter our products in assorted competitions across the country.  Most of these organizations and programs take into consideration our raw vs pasteurized status in their evaluations of our operation.  I can't even begin to explain how much more complex and difficult a routine Ag Dept inspection would become if we were to decide to add JUST ONE non-pasteurized item to our product line. Our inspector has made it very clear that he has great misgivings about raw milk products and I'm sure that his evaluations of our operation would reflect his feelings in one way or another.

Second, our business is insured by an organization that exclusively handles insuring agricultural enterprises.  They work with a number of underwriters and shop policies around for the best coverage/rates depending on the particulars of the individual farm, ranch, winery, dairy etc.  One of the very first questions the agent asked us was "Do you sell any raw milk or products made with raw milk?" We did not but, interested in the reasoning behind the question, and not wanting to unnecessarily box ourselves out of any future options, we asked, "Why?".  The agent answered that while he thought it would still be possible to get insurance for us, there would not be very many underwriters he could go to and our insurance would almost certainly cost a whole lot more.

Lastly, as to civil risks, let's just run a quick scenario...  Let' say that a woman gets sick and goes to the hospital.  It turns out she has food poisoning.  The investigators, concerned about a possible wide-spread outbreak go to the woman's home and open her refrigerator. In there they find a half eaten burrito from a near-by convenience store, the remains of a spinach salad, and two partially consumed jugs of milk - one pasteurized, and one raw.  They know it's raw milk because, by law, it is clearly labeled as such, probably accompanied by a number of warnings about the health risks associated with the consumption of raw milk. To what hypothesis (if not outright premature conclusion) do you think those investigators will quickly arrive?

Regardless of the fact that one is just as likely to get sick from any one of those foods as the next, you can be assured that the raw milk will come under the quickest scrutiny and with the greatest suspicion. There is a tremendous bias among authorities against raw milk.  To most of them (and with the constant pressure/encouragement of large agri-business interests) raw dairy products, have become the very symbol of irresponsible consumption. Called "inherently dangerous" by the  FDA, drinking raw milk is demonized as if it were comparable to smoking cigarettes.

All of this leads to the truth that the mere act of selling a raw milk product is an opening for official harassment and private litigation.  Who needs that hassle?

While I'm on it, the comparison of raw dairy to cigarettes is an interesting one. 

While cigarettes are legal and easy to buy at retail in all 50 states, raw milk can now onlyl be legally purchased at retail in 10 states.  According the the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), each year, an estimated 443,000 people die prematurely from smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke, and another 8.6 million have a serious illness caused by smoking in this country.  Also according the CDC, consumption of unpasteurized milk caused 1,614 reported illnesses, 187 hospitalizations and two deaths over the TEN YEARS from 1998 to 2008.
For current happenings and more information on the raw milk debate check out: http://www.realmilk.com/ (pro raw milk), and http://www.realrawmilkfacts.com/ (against raw milk).

1 comment:

  1. MIchael Ledner here - David - thanks so much for posting this; it was extremely helpful to Lylah and I...very well written and informative.