Due to its convenience and nutritional properties, milk and milk products are staples for millions of people across the United States. Though pasteurization was created to improve the safety of milk products, the recent legalization of raw milk sale and distribution has become more prominent. This uprising of raw milk advocacy has sparked debate over the taste, nutritional qualities, and associated benefits of pasteurization.
What is Pasteurization?
In 1857, a French scientist by the name of Louis Pasteur developed the process of pasteurization while studying to disprove germ theory, a “widely held belief that life could be generated from non-life, commonly called spontaneous generation.” Successfully disproving germ theory, his experiments brought together the connection between harmful microbacteria, rot, and disease. Pasteur used his newly found understanding of decay to investigate the problem of food decomposition. “These studies led him to understand the connection between specific microbes and their role as agents of fermentation…Pasteur’s work with fermentation resulted in the process known as pasteurization.” This technique uses heat treatment to destroy the pathogens that lead to food spoilage and food-borne illnesses. (Anderson, 2017)
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“The process was first widely used to treat to milk in the USA in the 1920s”. (Weise, 2006) Since then, the effects of time and temperature on milk pasteurization have been explored in dairies across the United States. Three types of pasteurization processes are commonly practiced: Low Heat Long Time (LHLT), High Temperature Short Time (HTST), and Ultra-High Temperature (UHT). The time-temperature relationship of LHLT is 63˚C for 30 minutes; HTST is at least 71.5˚C for a period of 15 seconds, and lastly, UHT is 140˚C for 2-4 seconds. (Randolph, 2005)
Milk Composition and Quality
Milk is made of many different components, such as water, protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Despite water forming about 80% of milk in cattle, goats, and sheep, milk is a highly nutritious source of proteins and fat. As mentioned earlier, processed milk products undergo a heat treatment that varies in time and temperature. Extending the length of heat treatments has proven to create a safer product with a lesser chance of harboring foodborne illness while also increasing its shelf life. However, pasteurizing at such high temperatures brings the decline of quality into question. “While this cooked flavor is not objectionable to most consumers it does create a different flavor profile when compared to standard HTST milk.” (Randolph, 2005) This change of flavor is primarily caused by the denaturing of proteins and fats. Although many have argued that this breakdown of nutrients diminishes the nutritional value of pasteurized milk, it is not supported by any scientific evidence. Even in an article advocating the consumption and sale of raw milk, this has been admitted. “Raw milk enthusiasts tout the health benefits of milk that hasn’t been “cooked,” citing that many beneficial enzymes and bio-active proteins are destroyed by pasteurization. And while pasteurization and homogenization [blending of fat throughout the milk] together do indeed alter the unique taste of milk, the CDC [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] emphasizes that there is no scientific evidence supporting a decrease in milk’s nutritional value when pasteurized and homogenized.” (Hibma, 2015) The change in flavor is also attributed to the freshness of milk. “Unpasteurized and pasteurized milk taste the same, but fresher milk is generally sweeter because bacteria combine over time with the milk sugar to form tart lactic acid.” As a consequence of having a shorter shelf life, raw milk is often fresher and, therefore, perceived as sweeter than pasteurized milk.
Health Risk Assessment
Milk is a beneficial, convenient beverage that is packed with vital proteins, vitamins, and minerals. Unfortunately, “[t]he characteristics of milk that make it so nutritious are also what makes it so potentially dangerous.” (Weise, 2006) The nutrients make the perfect media for microbiological growth. Since raw milk is not subjected to the pasteurization process to eliminate the present bacteria, there is a high potential risk of contracting a wide variety of illnesses through its consumption. “Germs that are sometimes found in raw milk …include Brucella, Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, E. coli, Listeria, and Salmonella.” (CDC, 2017) These dangerous germs can cause outbreaks, hospitalizations, or in severe cases, even death. According to the CDC, there are more outbreaks linked to raw milk in states that allow its legal sale for human consumption than states that do not.
The popularly believed health benefits of raw milk are unproven. For example, raw milk advocates insist that organic producers who practice sanitary and humane conditions for raising animals produce “safe” raw milk products. Although “[f]ollowing good hygienic practices during milking can reduce the chance of milk contamination [,it can] not completely eliminate it” simply because cows are not sterile. (CDC, 2017) Possible contamination elements to consider include contact with animal fecal matter, mastitis, zoonotic diseases, or undetectable low levels of contamination, etc. All in all, milk contamination may occur in a number of ways and bacteria thrive in dairy farm environments.
Laws and Regulations
Dairy is one of the most extensively regulated foods in the United States. It is notably perishable and threats food safety if it is mishandled during preparation, collection, or transportation. All milk and milk products are federally regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In 1924, the United States Public Health Services, a branch of the FDA, set national standards for milk sanitation known as the Standard Milk Ordinance, and after many revisions, it is now called the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO). “This model milk regulation… incorporates the provisions governing the processing, packaging, and sale of Grade “A” milk and milk products.” (Hendrick & Farquhar) Dairy farming is divided into two classifications, “Grade A” fluid milk or “Grade B” manufacturing milk, based on the requirements met for animal housing and production practices used at the dairy. As said in the title, the PMO only set national standards for pasteurized milk and milk products. Raw milk is not regulated by the FDA, and therefore, the federal government prohibits its interstate or international sale and distribution.
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The PMO is for voluntary, but highly encouraged, adoption by state and local municipalities. Unlike the federal government, the majority of the states have amended their laws to allow the sale of raw milk. “Forty-six of the [fifty] states have adopted most or all of the PMO for their own milk safety laws with those states not adopting it passing laws that are similar.” States that allow the sale of raw milk have not adopted the PMO entirely, if at all, due to conflicts of Section 9. Section 9 regulated the types of milk and milk products that may be sold for human consumption. “Section 9 of the PMO states in part that, “only Grade “A” pasteurized, ultra-pasteurized or aseptically processed milk and milk products shall be sold to the final consumer.” Only 14 states agree with the federal recommendation and prohibit the sale of raw milk, the restrictions in the remaining states vary. As reported by the National Conference of Legislatures, states legalizing raw milk sales or distribution have done so through statute, administrative rule or regulation, and policy. Any state statute, regulation, or cowshare program complicit with state guidelines that may conflict with Section 9 overrides the PMO. (Hendrick & Farquhar; FDA, 2017)
In conclusion, many opposing arguments advocating the legalization, sale, and distribution of raw milk stem from common misconceptions and ignore federal recommendations. The pasteurization process was a scientific breakthrough that did what is was created to do; allow the elimination of harmful microbes present in raw milk without decreasing nutritional value. Processed milk is all of the reward with none of the risk.
- Anderson, T. (2017). Louis Pasteur. Louis Pasteur, 1. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f6h&AN=19632268&site=ehost-live
- Hendrick, S., & Farquhar, D. (n.d). Summary of Raw Milk Statutes and Administrative Codes (United States, National Conference of State Legislatures). Retrieved from http://www.ncsl.org/documents/agri/RawMilk13.pdf
- Hibma, J. (2015). Raw Milk. Countryside & Small Stock Journal, 99(3), 38. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f6h&AN=108765366&site=ehost-live
- Randolph. H. (2005). Milk Pasteurization: The Effects of Time and Temperature. Dairy Foods, 106(3), 58. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&dg=f6h&AN=17377690&site=ehost-live
- Raw Milk Questions and Answers│Raw Milk│Food Safety│CDC. (2017, June 15). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/rawmilk/raw-milk-questions-and-answers.html
- United States. Food and Drug Administration. (2017). Grade “A” pasteurized milk ordinance. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/media/114169/download
- Weise, Elizabeth. (2006). Pasteurization: An “all-time”success story. USA Today. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=J0E063486834206&site=ehost-live
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