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.