Brooding On

Follow-up Friday: Pasteurization Debate

The debate surrounding pasteurized vs. raw milk is far reaching.  It has even made its way into our home.  Last season, we pasteurized all our milk.  It was our first time dealing with milk, and we wanted to play it safe.  This year, though, we discussed "going raw."

As this is a follow-up on a previous post, you may already know that we decided to go ahead and pasteurize again this year.  Ultimately, John was not entirely on board with giving the kids raw milk.  The risks, he pointed out, are great, and while it's one thing for us as adults to choose raw milk for ourselves, it seems a different thing to choose it for our kids.

I recently finished (and greatly enjoyed) Goat Song by Brad Kessler and wanted to share with you some of his notes on the history of pasteurization:

Milk comes out of a mammal alive with microorganisms.  The microbes exist to nourish and help the survival of the  mammal's offspring.  Some organisms, like the macrophages and T lymphocytes, aid the infant's immune system; others, like lactoferrin and lysozyme, kill harmful bacteria.  The enzymes-- peroxidase, catalase, phosphotase, amylase, lipase, galactase -- help digestion, while the oligosaccharides are indigestible and seem to exist solely to feed beneficial bacteria living inside the infant's stomach.  All these compounds are found in raw milk -- whether the milk of a cow, goat, horse, human, or whale.  Pasteurization kills them all and turns the milk into a dead thing.

For thousands of years people believed fresh raw milk was a panacea. . . . .What all these lactic enthusiasts shared was the belief in the powers of unpasteurized milk from a healthy animal fed what she was meant to eat -- namely grass.

Yet things didn't always work out so well for the cow.  As a way of cleaning up the wastes from beer and whiskey making (and turning an extra dime), American distillery owners in the nineteenth century crammed dairy cows into cellars and bricked enclosures and fed them hot fermented distillery waste.  The resulting milk, called swill or slop milk, was notably blue and often deadly and sold on the cheap to the poor.  Some dairies added chalk or plaster of Paris to their milk.  Once milk became transportable by train and then truck, milk traveled from farther afield, and city dwellers could no longer verify the cleanliness of the place their milk came from.  Unsafe milk caused outbreaks of diphtheria, scarlet fever, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, brucellosis.  It's no wonder that at the turn of the twentieth century the cry for clean milk was considered a moral cause.

Pasteurization was one method of assuring safe milk;  another was strict inspection and certification of dairies.  Each method had its advocates.  But certification -- a process of making sure the animals were healthy and the dairies spotless -- lost out to the quicker fix:  pasteurization.  Pasteurization worked.  People no longer died from drinking milk.  Yet pasteurization often became an excuse for dairies to sell, not clean milk from healthy animals, but filthy milk from sick animals whose milk had been cooked clean of its impurities.  Rather than rigorously certify raw-milk dairies -- as is done in Europe today -- it was less costly for the American dairy industry to simply zap their milk.  Throughout the twentieth century, compulsory pasteurization laws in the United States expanded state by state, until it became nearly impossible for Americans to find anything but pasteurized -- and effectively dead -- milk.

In a tiny operation like our own, there's no need to pasteurize the milk.  We know beforehand if a doe is sick, and the quality of the milk is obvious because it sits right beneath our noses.

 . . . The debate over raw versus pasteurized gets a lot of people up in arms.  Unpasteurized milk is the birthright of most Europeans, and when you tell someone from France that in the States you can't buy a fresh raw-milk cheese, they look at you as if you've just profaned the Madonna.  It confirms everything they suspected about American culture: that there is none -- especially when it comes to the cultures inherent in milk.

Interesting stuff, huh?  Anyway, I guess for now we'll continue to top the kids' cereal with the dead stuff.    Our soft cheeses, though, will be a different story this year.  The kids generally won't touch my herbed cheeses, so I feel safe using unpasteurized milk for adult consumption.  After all, "the simple truth is that you can't make a top-quality cheese from pasteurized milk. "  The process destroys the "aromatic esters . . . from the plants the animal's been eating, which give raw-milk cheese its unique herbal flavors."

"Every raw-milk cheese is an artifact of the land; it carries the imprint of the earth from which it came.  A cheese -- even a fresh chevre -- is never just a thing to put in your mouth.  It's a living piece of geography.  A sense of place."