Raw Milk Is Gaining Fans, but the Science Says It's Dangerous

Dairy farm owners report growing interest in buying shares in their cows.

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Raw-milk advocates like Fallon, who swears by raw milk for her own family, contend that pasteurization greatly reduces vitamin C and affects B6 and B-12 and beneficial bacteria such as lactobacillus. Sheehan does not argue with the fact that pasteurization destroys some vitamins and enzymes, but he calls the losses insignificant.

One possible alternative for aficionados of the local and natural: Drink very fresh milk from a well-run local dairy that doesn't practice homogenization (a process that breaks up and blends in the fat molecules to prevent cream from rising to the top) and uses a pasteurization process done at a relatively low temperature for a long time. "This method eliminates harmful bacteria with minimal impairment of flavor," says Anne Mendelson, a culinary historian and author of Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages.

Hockman-Nicholas, 67, has been drinking raw milk her entire life and says she has never been sick from it. Nor, she says, has she had a complaint from any of her customers, who pay about $80 up front and $28 per month for a cow share that produces 1 gallon of raw milk per week. Because she runs a grade A dairy, the top level for dairy farmers, the milk is tested frequently for quality by the state, and the facility is inspected regularly by the Virginia Department of Agriculture for the sanitation of the equipment and surroundings. The farm is also USDA-inspected. Hockman-Nicholas's cows are routinely tested for tuberculosis and brucellosis (they've never come up positive, she says). And bacteria levels in the milk are monitored.

But microbiologist Kathryn Boor, chair of the food science department at Cornell University, calls raw milk "a dangerous choice." Boor grew up on a dairy farm, drank raw milk as a child, and is willing to grant it some of the credit for her robust health. "Although my family is still in the dairy business, there is not a single person who still drinks" raw milk, she says. "There have been no conclusive studies to show the health benefits. And the risks of exposure to harmful bacteria very clearly can cause illness to death."