Those watching from the sidelines wonder if opponents can find common (and safer) ground. Food journalists as well as people who comment in online discussions on the topic often suggest that drinking raw milk is a personal choice that cannot hurt anyone but the person who drinks it. Tauxe disagrees, adding, "If a child comes to a day care center with E. coli, it can be passed to your child, spread through feces in diapers."
No Germs, Less Taste
It seems like some new technology might have come along by now, an alternative to HTST pasteurization, that would make milk safe without delivering what some people think is an inferior product with less taste and nutrition. Yet, few alternatives have emerged since the days of Pasteur, according to University of Minnesota (U.M.) associate professor of veterinary public health, Jeff Bender. Each of the available alternatives has a downside: For example, some believe that low-temperature pasteurization (also known as batch processing) yields a tastier product. This process heats the milk up to a minimum temperature of 62 degrees C where it remains for 30 minutes, thereby taking longer than standard HTST pasteurization.
Another example, irradiation—sometimes called "cold pasteurization"—uses ionizing radiation from electrically charged particles (such as x-rays and gamma rays) to kill harmful bacteria and other organisms in meat, poultry, seafood and spices. But, Bender says, irradiation changes the taste of milk. He also says that high-pressure processing methods, whereby food is subjected to pressures of 3,500 to 7,000 kilograms per square centimeter to kill microorganisms, work well in solid foods such as ham but are far too expensive to use on liquids.
Bombarding the milk with sound waves in a process called sonication may hold potential as an alternative. Sonication heats milk to a temperature well below what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires for pasteurization, killing the microbes without causing milk proteins to denature and hence alter the flavor, according to investigators from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, who at the Institute of Food Technologists' annual meeting in July presented data showing that their team used the process to knock out coliform bacteria. In addition, they said, sonication takes roughly half as much energy as high-temperature pasteurization.
Sonication may be the way forward but, for the time being, high-temperature, short-time pasteurization remains the most proven method for zapping the most germs from milk while maintaining quality, speed, and lower cost. Says Bender, who is also director of U.M.'s Center for Animal Health and Food Safety and himself a farmer, "After 100-plus years, there is still no better alternative."
Ultimately, the demand for raw milk appears to be as much an issue of personal freedom and the desire to obtain food directly from small farms as it one of nutrition. Yet no matter where the milk comes from or how clean the dairy, raw milk still poses a danger, Tauxe says. "Animals and bacteria are natural companions," he adds. "Normal-looking and tasting milk from a healthy cow can still be contaminated—even in the udder, before the milk leaves the cow."
For people who want to more closely connect with small farms, Tauxe suggests seeking out local artisanal dairy producers who pasteurize. "It's not the size of the farm," he says, "it's the temperature of the milk."