Why We Pasteurize

People in the suburbs and cities in states like ours are upset that the sale of raw milk is illegal.  On the farm, we have raw milk available to us everyday–gallons and gallons of it.  However, unlike the non-farming people, we don’t want raw milk.  We pasteurize our drinking milk, and we do so for several important reasons.


Pasteurizing on a farm requires nothing more than a double boiler on a kitchen stovetop and a sink full of cold water.

First of all, it’s important to get this word “pasteurization” out of the way.  Politicians and social activists love to latch on to words to make their causes seem interesting.  Before Louis Pasteur (think 1860s), liquid products, like beer, wine and milk were heated to improve safety, but heating usually meant boiling.  Pasteur proved that boiling was overkill, and “pasteurization” was the process that established the golden mean between leaving liquid foods in their raw state (which is unquestionably dangerous) and boiling (which is unnecessary).  This process takes the raw food and kills the microbial life that, if left to multiply, would make consumption of the liquid dangerous.  This allows milk to be stored longer and consumed with less risk of bacterial problems.  Thus “pasteurization” of milk just means heating and cooling milk to prevent dangerous levels of bacterial growth.  It’s not a big deal, and it’s not some new idea.  Pasteurization isn’t some high-tech scientific idea. Milk is heated on a stove, then bottled and cooled in a sink full of icewater.  No big deal.

Second,  pasteurization isn’t some kind of anti-Christian effort to deny nutrients to human beings.  The idea of “pasteurization” was developed in the early 1700s by a Catholic priest named Lazzaro Spallanzani, a classically educated natural philosopher, who proved that if liquids were heated and then sealed, bacteria would not develop.  This showed that the bacteria that eventually caused foods to go bad were not spontaneously generated in foods, but either (a) were in the food from the beginning or (b) entered the food from the air later on.  If these two sources were limited by heating and sealing, food spoilage could be hindered or eliminated.  No one in the world would consider this some sort of attack on human health!

Third, we must consider the nutritional value of foods in their larger context.  No human being depends on cow’s milk for his health.  There is nothing essential to human life in non-human milk.  Milk is one of many sources of human nutrition.  Therefore, if it is proven that pasteurization negatively affects the nutritional value of milk, this only matters if milk is our only source of nutrition.  When we allow for our free access to vegetables, eggs, meat, fruits, grains, etc., it is not possible that the negative effects of pasteurizing milk deny anyone access to essential nutrients.  Ridiculous statements are made like this:

“Pasteurization’s worst offence is that it makes insoluable the major part of the calcium contained in raw milk. This frequently leads to rickets, bad teeth, and nervous troubles, for sufficient calcium content is vital to children.”  (Source:  http://www.realmilk.com/health/raw-milk-vs-pasteurized-milk)

How can decreasing the deigestible calcium in milk lead to calcium deficiencies when calcium may be obtained by a thousand different sources?  Calcium is readily available in green vegetables, beans, nuts, fruits, and more.  The same is true of other nutrients.  Therefore, while it may be true that SOME nutritional content in milk is lost by pasteurization, this does not mean that milk becomes an unhealthy drink, or that those who drink it, as a part of a balanced diet, are at risk of nutritional deficiencies.  That talk just makes no sense and if that’s pasteurization’s “worst offense”, then it’s not a problem at all.

Fourth, it is very difficult to keep milk clean.  Milk is taken from the underside of cows and goats.   These animals routinely lie in manure and urine and come to the milk parlor dirty.  The dairyman must clean cows before milking–especially on small farms where animals are not kept on concrete–and keep them clean as they often drop manure and urinate during milking.  When hand-milking, flies and dust are also added to the mix and it takes great skill for a man to bring in buckets of clean milk.  Add to this the reality that milking is often assigned to children on farms, where boys ages 10-18 are the ones bringing in the milk.  Machine milking is much, much cleaner, as the milk is drawn directly from the teats through suction cups and into a sealed milk bucket.  The milking equipment, however, still requires cleaning and sterizilization which is never perfectly maintained on a busy farm.  This is the main reason why we pasteurize drinking milk on our farm.  In the bigger picture of whole-farm management, pasterurization allows my sons to handle the dairy room and allows us to rest assured that even if the milk does get dirty, pasteurizing will take care of that.  The rest of the milk is used for cooking anyway, so there’s no worry about that milk.

Fifth, even if the sale of raw milk was legal, I wouldn’t be interested in it because if farms did sell their milk and consumers took it home and consumed it “raw”, those same consumers would sue the farmers if any harm did come from the raw milk.   Evidence of such cases can easily be found online, as here, or here.  For this reason alone, farmers are imprudent for making raw milk available when the risks of raw milk and the litigious nature of modern people is so clearly known.  I would never do it.

Therefore, as the arguments for “raw milk” usually come from dairy farmers hoping to profit from milk production without investing in the equipment and procedures required by modern food regulations, and off-the-farm consumers who have insupportable ideas about nutrition, it’s not surprising that they often don’t make much sense to farmers who aren’t trying to sell their milk and understand that nutrients come from a balanced diet rather than any individual food.  Frankly, I don’t believe these arguments make any sense and can’t but defend the government for taking precautions against milk sales that would allow unscrupulous farmers to put consumers in danger for easy money.   (History shows that this is exactly what has happened as demand increased.)

If someone wants “raw” milk, they need to keep a dairy cow and drink their milk at their own risk.  It is unwise for farmers to distribute raw milk when they risk being sued over any negative consequences, and to consume raw milk when pasteurizing it offers so many more real-world benefits than dangers.  Besides, farmers regularly enjoy abundant access to fresh vegetables, eggs and meat in which anything gained from milk is also available.

That’s why we pasteurize.

William Michael
Beatitudes Farm

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2 Responses to Why We Pasteurize

  1. holly says:

    Amen. I don’t think that most people really think things through before they jump into some “scientifically proven nutritional” movement. I have heard people equate raw cow’s milk to pumping their own milk for their babies. I have to laugh because I tend to be a bit cleaner than the average cow:).

    • wmclaa says:

      The first problem is that “scientifically proven” doesn’t even make any sense. Induction (i.e., universal conclusions drawn on particular premises) cannot “prove” anything in a “scientific” (absolutely certain) way. Proof means that we demonstrate that something is true of a genus and is therefore true of every species in that genus. To say that something is true of a genus because it is found in a species is not proof, but, as best, possibility, unless ALL of the members of the genus are tested and it is found to be universally true…which modern science does not do. We need to spend more time learning logic and less time in science.

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