Raw Milk Remains Controversial in New Jersey
While it’s well known that raw fruits and vegetables are part of a healthy diet, raw milk is a far more complicated issue. Advocates for raw milk claim it is more flavorful, more nutritious and easier to digest than pasteurized milk, while opponents say it can pose a public-health risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the rate of food-poisoning outbreaks caused by unpasteurized milk and dairy products is 150 times greater than outbreaks linked to pasteurized milk. Between 1998 and 2011, according to the CDC, consumption of raw milk and raw-milk products resulted in 2,384 illnesses, 284 hospitalizations and two deaths.
The sale of raw milk is regulated on a state-by-state basis. In New Jersey, sales of raw milk and dairy products made from raw milk are illegal; however, these are legal in nearby Pennsylvania and New York. Are the purported benefits of raw milk worth the risks? Advocates and opponents disagree.
“Food-safety experts today who have strong opinions against raw milk do so because they feel it would be a giant step backwards,” says Donald Schaffner, a professor of food science at Rutgers University whose research includes microbial risk assessment. “Part of the dilemma with raw milk is that we don’t have good scientific data on what the real important factors are to ensure its safety, and the degree to which there’s control.”
Milk that’s going to be pasteurized can be handled a bit more casually, since it’s going to be heated to kill any harmful bacteria. Raw milk needs more meticulous handling because it goes straight from cow to consumer. If it gets contaminated, people are more likely to get sick.
“Many of these illnesses stem from improper handling and the presence of harmful bacteria like E. coli and Campylobacter, both of which cause severe abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea,” says Beverly Manganelli, a registered dietician at Hunterdon Healthcare in Flemington. Those most at risk of getting sick from raw milk are infants and young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems, according to the CDC.
While it’s true that raw milk also contains good bacteria like probiotics, the nutritional value of raw and pasteurized milk is pretty similar.
“Vitamin C may be reduced in pasteurization, but we don’t generally drink milk for this nutrient,” says Manganelli. “Better sources are found in cantaloupes, kiwi, pineapple, strawberries and citrus fruits.” Another purported benefit of raw milk is that it alleviates allergies and boosts the immune system. “A study called the Gabriella study, conducted in Europe in 2011, cited that children living on farms who drank raw milk had less allergies and cases of asthma,” says Dr. Catherine Monteleone, clinical allergist at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick. “The data linked these factors to the whey proteins found in raw milk, though the data was inconsistent and inconclusive,” she says. “Studies like these need to be repeated in order to gather concluding evidence before any claims can be made.”
Edwin Shank, owner of Your Family Farmer, a certified organic dairy in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, began offering raw milk after many customers began requesting it. “Food-conscious people are avoiding products that are processed,” he says. “Raw milk is really unique. It’s creamier, has a more complex flavor and tastes completely different than pasteurized milk. It’s like comparing fresh peaches to canned.” Shank says that part of his job selling raw milk is educating people about it, including explaining pasteurization’s role in lactose intolerance.
“Not many people know that the enzyme lactase, which is needed to breakdown the milk sugar lactose, gets destroyed in pasteurization,” says Shank. “So when people claim they are lactose intolerant, it’s more like they are pasteurized-milk intolerant.”
Another misunderstanding many people have about raw milk, says Shank, is that it’s produced in an unsanitary way.
“It’s a common mistake to believe raw milk is not produced cleanly,” he says. “Not many people know that raw milk has to meet many of the same requirements as pasteurized milk before it can be sold.” Shank, many of whose customers visit from New Jersey, goes as far as having his own lab on the farm. His workers test the bacteria levels in the farm’s milk every time it’s bottled. He says the bacteria level is usually five to ten times below what would be required to meet the standards for pasteurized milk.
“What we are doing is artisan,” Shank says. “It’s not something every single dairy farmer can do. The bar is set a lot higher to produce something special in a very careful way.”
He points out that as more people drink raw milk without getting sick, the fear factor is lessening.
“There’s a tremendous shift happening. This generation is asking more questions about their food and how it’s produced,” Shank says. “It’s a good reminder to find out the facts rather than listen to rumors. People once thought the world was flat—turns out it wasn’t at all.”
The current law in New Jersey states, “No person shall sell, offer for sale, or distribute to the ultimate consumer any milk or cream that is not pasteurized.” Two bills have been introduced in the New Jersey legislature this year, A-696 and S-1414, that would permit the sale of raw milk under certain conditions and establish a raw-milk permitting program. A-696 was referred to the Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee; S-1414 was referred to the Senate Economic Growth Committee. It remains to be seen whether either bill will move to a vote or whether raw milk might become legal in New Jersey anytime soon.