Raw Milk Reality: Buying Raw Milk Safely

In my first article on raw milk, I clarified the statistical risks associated with drinking unpasteurized milk. In my second article, I discussed the various potential benefits of purchasing and drinking raw milk. In my third article, I provided a framework for making the decision for you and your family on whether buying raw milk is a good choice. In this final article in my series on raw milk, I will explain how to choose a source of raw dairy in order to minimize the risk of getting sick.

Once you decide you want to consume raw dairy, the next step is to identify a source. The key to minimizing the risk associated with raw dairy is to ensure the source you obtain it from is using best practices. This does not eliminate the risk entirely (nor does pasteurization), but it reduces it significantly. In order to do this, I recommend visiting the farm you will be purchasing your milk from, and asking your farmer about his or her production methods.

Questions to ask your farmer

Dr. Amanda Rose (PhD) from Traditional Foods has written an excellent free consumer guide with tips on questions to ask farmer, as well as red flags to look for when considering a potential raw milk producer. Her guide focuses mainly on larger operations, but many of the principles can be applied to small producers as well.

The first question you should ask is about the basic organic standards that the dairy should be following. One hundred percent grass fed is ideal, but many farmers must supplement their cows’ diets with grains at various points in the year. Find out if the feed is organic, if the farmer feeds the cows soy, and if the animals are given antibiotics.

If the cows’ diets are truly 100% grass based, ask the farmer to explain to you how he or she accomplishes this challenge. If the animals do eat grains, find out what portion of diet comes from grains or legumes, as well as dry grasses like hay or alfalfa. This number should vary based on the season.

Another important factor in a raw dairy operation is the number of cows per acre, and whether or not the lactating cows have adequate access to pasture. Find out how many acres the farm has, and how many of the acres are dedicated to lactating cows. Ideally, this number should be between one and two cows per acre; more than that means the animal does not have adequate pasture to feed on.

Product safety testing is obviously a vital component to minimizing the risk of contamination at a raw dairy. Find out how often your farmer tests the milk, as well as the types of tests used and the specific pathogens being tested. A farmer should also have a plan of action if contamination is discovered. Thorough testing is a sign that a farmer is concerned with the safety of his or her product.

On-farm safety checks should also be a standard practice at a raw dairy facility. Farmer Tim Wightman has developed a handbook designed for producers that includes an excellent description of safety measures a farmer should take in producing raw milk. Some of these guidelines include: using an impermeable material (i.e. concrete) for the floor of the milking room, taking steps to control flies, using a hand-wash sink separate from wash vats of the milking system, and more. This guide gives both farmers and consumers a standard of cleanliness that they should expect for optimum safety of the unpasteurized  product.

Find out how your farmer stores and transports his dairy products. Maintaining a cold temperature is critical for the quality and safety of raw milk, and the milk should be cooled as quickly as possible and kept cold during transport and storage. Herd testing and closed-herd breeding practices are also an important part of a safe raw dairy infrastructure. Find out what your farmer’s breeding practices are, and whether or not he tests new additions to his herd for certain diseases that can be passed into the milk.

Finding a local raw dairy provider

Now that you know how to assess a raw dairy’s safety, you probably want to know how to go about finding a raw dairy farmer in your local area. The best way to do this is to contact your local Weston A. Price Foundation Chapter leader. They will likely be able to direct you to raw dairy producers in the area. You can alternatively visit the “Where” list at Realmilk.com. Finding raw milk may be quite challenging in states where the sale and distribution of raw dairy is illegal, but you may be able to participate in a herdshare or buying club.

After learning about the risks, benefits, and procedures of buying unpasteurized milk, it’s up to you to decide if raw milk is a food that you want to obtain for you and your family. While not essential by any means, I believe raw milk can be a wonderful, nourishing (not to mention delicious!) component of a healthy diet.

What have you taken away from this series? Has your opinion on raw milk changed, for better or worse? Let me know what you think about raw milk!

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  1. Stacey says

    We have a local food co-op that carries raw milk from farmers in the area. The raw is rather exspensive and will only stay fresh for 1 week. Many times they have pulled the products off the shelves due to contamination problems. All in all… not sure it’s worth the extra nutrients. Can pasteurized organic be the next best thing? None of the hormones, antibiotics, pesticides or nutrients. I call it dead milk. Good or bad?

    • Elisabeth Hartline says

      I certainly hope that you are able to find a good source for fresh milk. I believe that the problems that you’ve listed here are the exception, rather the rule. My family has been consuming raw milk for five-plus years without incident. Our providers have never had contamination problems and the milk never pulled from the shelves. Also, I’ve noticed a marked extension in the freshness of the product. As long as the milk is kept cold and unopened, it will stay fresh for three weeks, or more. Maybe we’ve just been lucky, but I don’t hear complaining from friends or family who also purchase raw milk in completely different areas; even states.

    • RobG says

      Pasteurization pretty much negates any nutritional content of the milk (well I guess there is still milk fat). I’ve read that Kefir cultures do not grow in ultra-pasteurized milk. That would say something about it being ruined as a food.

  2. says

    Thanks so much for this series on raw milk. It has come at a pivotal time for my filly as we are purchasing raw milk and wondering what questions to ask our supplier. Check out my video tour of a local raw milk supplier and her farm on my YouTube channel: Health Coach Penny

  3. says

    Thanks for this series, Chris. I particularly appreciated the first post, which really put the risks into perspective. Many times, the mainstream media published information regarding the health risks of a particular food or activity without any context, leaving people scared and confused. I think you’ve provided a really logical and helpful methodology for people interested in raw milk to use to make the decision to drink or not to drink. Bravo!

  4. Blakely Page RD,LD says

    Chris,
    I’ve been following your series which is very well done. Our family has started drinking raw milk this week and so far so good. I actually felt like I woke up craving it and have been dairy free for over 6 months previously. My husband who has recently realized lactose intolerance is having no problems. It seems to be a welcomed addition in our transition to traditional/paleo diet.

  5. Robert Pelton says

    Yes, excellent series. I wish I could find a raw milk provider in my proximity. If they aren’t close, it’s not much help. In recent times I’ve consumed about a gallon of pasturized, orgainic whole milk a week, but I’ve quit for the last three weeks and I hate to say it, but my stomach problems seem diminished. I still eat raw milk cheese (legal in Ark), but I would love to try raw milk and see if problems return. I’m even thinking about raising my own goats to produce my own milk. Definately a hot issue with the Paleo crowd and other nutritionists as well.

  6. jean finch says

    We have been drinking Organic Pastures raw milk for years, with the exception of the recalls.We feel the advantages to far outweigh the disadvantages. I have had negative bone density reports before raw milk and with the ability to absorb calcium, I now have gone back to positive reports. For me drinking pasteurized milk blocks vitamins and minerals and is not a choice.

  7. says

    Nope. I still will drink raw milk but not give it to my children or the elderly. And I definitely will not consume Organic Pastures again. Just my two cents too much for this crowd :)

  8. Meghan Kennihan says

    Just wondering what kind of yogurt you eat? And or where you can buy “safe” yogurt… currently eating organic Oikos Greek Yogurt (not the Dannon one)….. are their raw milk versions or coconut milk versions you recommend?
    Thanks,
    Meghan

  9. john says

    Hi Chris-Is there a problem with igf1 and also possible estrogen in whole milk in general?
    Thank you
    john

  10. says

    I live in Massachusetts, but found a close (Jersey) dairy farm on the New Hampshire border that I go to once a week. I make Kefir daily, and mostly drink that each morning in a smoothie. I am happy with my farm, I was talking with the owner, they have 15 cows, but she mentioned only 10 were milking at this time. They actually give them a break between pregnancies, something you hear about on the negative side with factory farms. I would suggest if you find a clean dairy farm, go the next step and buy colostrum if they sell it. I’m the only customer that buys it, so I have an occasional supply when the timing is right. In addition to Kefir, I make a half gallon of yogurt weekly, the wife loves the pumpkin I made last batch, I drain out the whey, and then whip the yogurt and pumpkin (or fruit), it is so much better than anything you can buy.

  11. Betsyanne says

    Amanda Rose HATES Weston A. Price and the RealMilk.com web site, and is always trying to malign raw milk producers, especially those of the caliber of Mark McAfee from Organic Pastures.

    Now, some of her arguements sound valid on their face, but she’s mostly about actually being against raw milk, from what I’ve seen of her comments around the internet world. Not sure how much I’d rely on her Ph.D. status here as she seems good a twisting evidence and massaging numbers.

    • says

      Betsyanne,

      It turns out that the world is not black and white. Check out the WAPF’s winter issue article on soup-making and you will discover that I may not be a big bogeyman after all.

      On raw milk, I can’t think of anyone I actually hate, but I do hate misinformation. Read my Ethicurean article “Memo to Raw Milk Advocates” to get a sense. You can see some of my concerns about Organic Pastures there, but my biggest issue with them was the lack of transparency about the dairy’s outsourcing from confinement herds. If you want to drink out a random bulk milk tank, I actually think you should be able to do just that. If a processor wants to put a 100% grass fed label on it, that’s when I have a problem.

      As an aside, I started drinking raw milk four decades ago.

      Amanda

      • Betsyanne says

        What “winter article” about soup? That’s a rather vague statement. If you’re talking about the Wise Traditions Journal I was unable to find anything in the past 4 years concerning you. And really, what does that have to do with anything anyhow? So you talked soup – so what does that have to do with maligning raw milk producers. I’ve been drinking raw milk for five decades (almost six) and I can tell you from grand experience that even when drinking milk from our own cows, as careful as we were, there were a couple of times when we got sick. Whether it was from the milk or not, no one will ever know, but my Dad was absolutely anal about cleanliness all around the farm, not just in the milking area. We also drank raw goat milk from a neighbor – could have been from their animals, but they, too, were uber clean. In short, no matter how much care is taken with animals and production methods, some people might get sick, but I’ll take my chances with raw milk rather than getting sick from pasteurized white water from the supermarket, which is much more likely than from raw milk. Holding people to the fire shouldn’t be about small farmers, who are generally the most careful. Go on the attack and use your energy to fight the bigagri producers and their methodology foods. There’s a method to their madness and you know what it is, if you’re as smart as I think. But this is where I quit because it’s a he-said, she-said type situation. No one ever wins those things. I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing and you will too, so I guess it’s best to leave it there. I’ll continue to support WAPF even if they aren’t always 100% right (and I don’t think they ever claimed to be) because their information is much more closely aligned to what I believe than a lot of the other garbage around these days.

        • says

          Betsyanne,

          Join the WAPF so that you can get access to the print publications before they are put online.

          I actually met Mark McAfee when I was watchdogging a confinement organic dairy that was later decertified, so I actually do have something I can add about “bigagri” producers. It turns out that McAfee was buying from the same dairy at the time and selling it to me as his own product. That is a verified statement. You may call if “maligning” if you wish and, if you do, we obviously do have a different set of values.

          We do agree on the point that discussing these issues from two different value positions is not worth it and I think it’s great you are “quitting” this discussion. In the future I would ask that you actually do background on the issues involved before maligning me.

          Amanda

          • Betsyanne says

            I already belong to WAPF although we have no local chapter here where I live now. I don’t spend a lot of time on the computer during the week, so I rarely visit the WAPF web site anymore, but I spent oodles of time there in the past. I still have no idea what you mean when you say “print publications”.

            I would have to hear Mark’s version of that story before I would make judgments, now wouldn’t I?

            • says

              Re: McAfee’s outsourcing — it’s public information but, yes, by all means educate yourself about your raw dairy source. Ask him and read the many public discussions involving him where more evidence was hashed about. It’s not a secret. If you do buy from OPDC, educate yourself about their history and on-farm practices. That is the whole purpose of my guide which, by the way, includes no “massaged” data. It’s not data-based at all. I’ve looked at many dairies and I’m sharing my knowledge with people who want to educate themselves about their own raw milk sources. I got feedback from quite a few farmers in writing it. Most people do not have the background to know how to look at a dairy. This guide helps them know what to look for.

              Re: Wise Traditions — it’s in print before it’s published online. See Winter 2012.

              • Betsyanne says

                I don’t buy from OPDC because I don’t live anywhere near where they distribute their product. Nevertheless, I know what to look for when it comes to dairy. The difference is you look at numbers and I look at people and operations, etc.

                Yes, I get Wise Traditions and I know it’s online now a lot sooner than it used to be. Winter 2011, I assume is what you mean? I read the story in there about Walkerton Farms, is that what you are referring to? I guess I don’t understand what that has to do with soup?

  12. says

    I’m very lucky to live in a state (California) where I can legally purchase raw milk (though our state has also been the target of many FBI raids). I live walking distance from a Sprouts Farmers Market grocery store (they’re kind of like a cross between a Whole Foods and a Trader Joes), where I can buy raw milk products (including cream and butter) supplied from Organic Pastures. My family and I have been using their raw milk products for over two years and love the taste and quality. I love eating their raw butter by the spoonful, and my 3 and 6 year old girls have both enjoyed the milk as well.

    Chris, thanks for the excellent series!

  13. kem says

    What is the problem with cattle eating legumes? Clover is the basis of sustainable pasture management. Without it, soluble nitrogenous fertilisers need to be applied to maintain the growth of other pasture species.

  14. Meghan Kennihan says

    Can anyone tell me if Oikos Organic Greek Plain or Vanilla yogurt is ok? If not… what is better yogurt to buy?
    Thanks!
    Meghan

    • Dave says

      Meghan, Make your own! You’ll love the taste, and can control the flavor and sugar. Greek style yogurt is just like regular yogurt, you just drain more of the whey out to thicken it. You can buy the best milk and then use your favorite store bought yogurt to start it. Consider raw milk for your yogurt, and then the next step is getting some Kefir grains. The store bought, flavored Kefir has 25+ grams of sugar per serving, reason enough to think about making it yourself. Check out YouTube for video’s demonstrating yogurt making. You don’t need any supplies other than a thermometer.
      Its Fun!

  15. kathleen says

    I really liked the series on raw milk. Although I already have been drinking raw milk for about a year, it was good to get some info to explain to those who think I am crazy for drinking it. I found a local farmer thru a friend at church. My friend told me he can only drink raw milk because pasteurized milk bothers him. The farmer only has 1 cow and now that the cow is grazing in the fields her production has increased dramatically. She is fed hay that is harvested from the fields during the winter and milk production is less then. We pay $1.50/quart for the raw milk here in southern NH. My son got my husband & I to start drinking raw milk after hearing about it on UW with Sean Croxton.

  16. says

    If you live in England or Wale (UK) Then we can deliver our Organic Raw Milk to your door! It’s easy to digest, delicious, high in Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids, Calcium, natural butterfat and protein. Higher in vitamins A, D & E, Beta Carotene, antioxidants & minerals.
    In our milk there are no traces of nasty pesticides, antibiotics, veterinary medication, genetically modified soya, grains or milk producing female hormones fed to the cows.Our happy cows have the freedom to roam, grazing our lush, organic pastures and allowed to live out the rest of their days, here on the farm, once they stop producing milk.
    Our milk production is not intensified in any way, our rare bread cows produce a natural amount of milk which is yummy, healthy and much easier to digest than other cow milk. We do not homogenise our milk, leaving an untampered natural product with a cream line you can enjoy, full of natures best, we hope you’ll love as much as we love it.
    If you’d like to find out more please visit our site: http://www.organicrawmilk.co.uk

    Many thanks

    Max Kohanzad, M.Phil, M.A, BA(Hons) BRS

  17. Angel Tremble says

    Is it possible to get some more information on how to get involved with cowshare for the A2 milk (Leras)? I am local to Oakland, CA.

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