Milk, in its unpasteurized form is consumed by at least a hundred thousand Californians. Many believe the drink has special health benefits.
In California, there are two main ways to get raw milk. You can buy it at a local health food store, or you can find an unlicensed cow owner willing to share the milk.
Someone like Pattie Chelseth.
Chelseth is a retired firefighter who lives on a farm in the rolling hills of El Dorado County. Her two cows supply at least 15 families with unpasteurized milk.
“I got a cow for my granddaughter, and people started finding out we had a cow and asked if they could have the milk, ” says Chelseth.
Chelseth set up a herdshare. She boards the animals, and the other families are co-owners. They pay $65/a month per share, which gets them a few gallons of raw milk. Chelseth takes care of the milking and distribution.
Her sanitation methods are scrupulous, and the barn facilities are pristine. There’s no manure smell and her animals look healthy. First she goes through a rigorous sanitization routine. Then she cleans the cows’ teets and hooks them up to a small milking machine.
“As lovely as she is, she likes to put her udder in warm soft things, apparently. So she’ll often have an udder that has manure in it,” she says about one of her cows as she cleans its udder.
THE RISKS AND BENEFITS OF RAW MILK
Milk that’s not pasteurized can contain harmful, even life-threatening bacteria.
But proponents say the enzymes and bacteria in raw milk are good for asthmatics and the lactose intolerant.
And they say heating the milk can kill off healthful nutrients.
“My children have pretty much been raised on raw milk,” says a fellow hersharer, Kristen Vilasenor.
She has five kids, and drives a half an hour to Chelseth’s farm every week to get her family’s share.
“I drink a lot of raw milk, and it’s helped out with my allergies. I just feel better when I’m on raw milk. When my family has not had raw milk, we notice.”
But health and dairy experts are concerned about the raw milk trend, and say the scientific evidence of its added health benefits is slim.
Just in the past year, the state made recalls from the only two legal raw milk producers in California after pathogens were found in their products.
Raw milk drinkers could be stricken with a mild stomach illness, or kidney failure or death.
PUTTING RAW MILK TO THE TEST
Dr. Jim Cullor runs the dairy food safety lab at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
He says the standard industrial practice of heating milk at a high temperature for a short time cuts the risk of disease by killing most harmful bacteria.
Cullor says putting the pasteurization hurdle into the food safety system has served the United States public well.
“I would not feed an unpasteurized milk to my grandchildren, children or parents,” says Cullor.
The CDC says in the past few decades, the percentage of illness caused by pasteurized products has been far smaller than the percentage of disease outbreaks caused by raw milk products.
In another study, they found outbreaks involving raw dairy products were far more likely to lead to hospitalizations.
“Things are not like the old days,” says Dr. Cullor. “We have more people with compromised immune systems for various reasons, again, HIV AIDS, chemotherapy, drug abuse, alcohol abuse. So we have to be more careful.”
Pattie Chelseth says she tests her milk regularly, and it’s never had pathogens, or caused illness.
She gave Capital Public Radio a sample of her milk to be tested, and we took it to Dr. Cullor’s lab [Capital Public Radio paid UC Davis’ Dairy Food Safety Lab to do an analysis of the sample].
The raw milk sample from Chelseth’s farm met state milk standards. But it did show a rare pathogen in the milk.
The California Department of Public Health says it’s not aware of any cases of food-borne illness caused by the bacterium, and it isn’t cause for concern.
Meantime, Pattie Chelseth says a little bacteria can be a good thing. She’s concerned about the finding, so her vet came in for further testing.
Her cows are still in production.