Evaluating Raw Milk

Started by lanlanonearth, January 04, 2022, 10:44:18 PM

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Hello, I have two sources where I buy (uncertified) raw milk. One quickly sours like yogurt and the other develops a putrefied taste. Can I use this as a safety indicator to drinking the first milk in raw state (or make raw cheese with)? Thanks for any input!


I've changed my sources from raw milk a few times as we moved around the US, but all of them would clabber if left at room temp overnight (e.g., when one of my girls forgot about their milk bottle). Very mild odor too. Putrefaction certainly does not smell right, and I've only seen it when said forgotten bottle was store-bought pasteurized milk.


Thank you. Yes, my first source of raw milk clabber at room temperature, tastes great, and I feel good after drinking it. I just don't know if these are enough to determine the safety of it (we don't have tests here) so I can comfortably give it to my child. I feel 95% certain that it's good but can not find any source that confirms for certain.


Keep in mind that I know only enough on this topic to be dangerous.  You should definitely do your own research and don't take my word for it.

Having said that, illness from raw milk is relatively rare.  It's only high in comparison to pasteurised milk.  The CDC in the US says there is about 1000x greater chance of illness from raw milk products than pasteurised milk products and I'm inclined to believe they are correct.  However, the chance is not particularly high.  I don't have real numbers on hand, so this is only my recollection (again, do your own research!).  IIRC there are about 2 million people who regularly (I assume daily) consume raw milk products.   Among those there is, on average, less than one death per year.  It goes in batches, though.  So you'll have several years without deaths and then you'll have a year with 10 deaths.  That's because serious problems are rare, but when you have them you have them.

Death is not the only thing you have to worry about.  You can also get serious illness (for example, losing the use of your kidneys) that will make the rest of your life potentially miserable.  This happens to several people per year.  In terms of hospitalisations, there are 10s of people per year and in terms of illness that doesn't lead to hospitalisation, there are perhaps 100 people or so per year.  The last one may be very much under-reported, though, so estimates vary wildly.  Again, I have to stress that these are not real numbers.  They are just what I remember from looking into it a few times.  Do your own research!

With these kinds of numbers, you can see that the odds of you getting fairly seriously ill are something like 1:100,000 or so.  So that means that if you drink raw milk every day for 100,000 years, you can expect to get seriously ill once.  This is why people who drink raw milk report that they never get ill and that they don't know anyone who has ever gotten ill.  It's unusual to get ill.  However, you can understand the CDC's position that raw milk is dangerous because if you had 300 million people drinking it every day, then you would have 3000 people a year getting very seriously ill and you would have years where hundreds of people would die.  It's still a very low risk for an individual, but as a society it's a certainty that people will die.

One thing that I think is a dangerous myth is that only people with compromised immune systems will fall ill.  There seems to be no data to support that idea.  I think that most people think that since they never get ill and nobody they know gets ill that only people who are already ill will be at risk.  That appears to be completely false.  You have pretty much the same risk no matter how healthy your are.

Another fairly dangerous apparent myth is that only farms with really bad hygiene practices will produce raw milk that is at risk.  Let me qualify this...  It is possible to produce milk in cows in such a way as there is *no* bacteria in the milk (I saw a paper on that fairly recently -- I wish I kept links... :-P ).  It is completely unreasonable to do this at commercial scale :-)  On the other hand, you can obviously just throw feces into the milk and make sure that it's teaming with bacteria.  More care obviously results in a safer product.  In the US (and other similar countries), the level of hygiene with standard practices is high enough that raw milk is relatively safe from a personal standpoint.  There is an upper bound to the amount of hygiene to can have and still be commercially viable.  You aren't going to milk cows in hazmat suits, disinfect every surface or do other crazy things when you are raising cows.  Within the range of hygiene that is reasonable in the US (and other similar countries), the risk appears to be similar from farm to farm.  Looking at the case of outbreaks, it does *not* appear to be the case that farms with bad hygiene track records are at higher risk than farms with good hygiene records.  In fact, many farms with outbreaks have literally won awards for the hygiene of their farms.

If I am correct (again, I'm just a guy on the internet with enough spare time to make myself dangerous), looking for a "good" producer on this basis is meaningless.  All you really want to do is to pick a milk that has the properties that you want.  If it tastes good to you (including the taste of the clabber) and it performs well for making cheese, then it's a "good" milk.


You're in Seattle? I'm on Vashon :)
There are loads of Grade A raw dairies around the state that have regular inspections and monthly milk testing. However, even then you need to be cautious, as one inspection every 3-4 months and only testing milk 1/30 days is not going to catch everything.  There are Grade A dairies that I have visited around here that I would never drink milk from, unfortunately. 

You can ask your dairy for milk test results (they should be happy to share - if they don't know what you're talking about, steer clear!). There are labs that you can send milk samples to (DHIA for somatic cell count and Udder Health for pathogen and standard plate counts) but unless you have decent knowledge of milk production and testing I don't know how much value that would have. 

There's so much that goes into quality milk production - everything from the cows' feed to milking technique, barn/feeding configuration, etc can affect milk quality and safety. 
I've been producing milk on our farm for close to 20 years and I would say that I only feel safe drinking milk from my own herd.- too many people out there without the proper knowledge of food safety, animal health, etc to produce raw milk safely (Grade A or not). 

Making cheese from raw milk is generally a good way to distinguish quality raw milk from poor quality - the clean milk will make good cheese while the contaminated milk will typically not behave as it should, or develop coliform contamination which is easily observed. 
You can also vet the quality of your milk by doing an easy home lacto-fermentation qualitative test.  Peter Dixon and Gianaclis Caldwell both have resources on how to do that. Essentially it tells you if the milk has favorable lactobacilli, minimal coliforms, and isn't too old/soured/protein broken down. 

Do realize that you can't ensure complete safety just by the fact that the lacto test and the cheese itself turn out. Something like Listeria is not going to outwardly affect the milk and isn't observable. Then again, Listeria is mostly a problem on dairies that feed silage, which is why it's important to know what the cows are fed.  It can also come in as soil contamination on the milking equipment. Listeria is quite rare, but something to be aware of. 

If you would really like to educate yourself, get a copy of Gianaclis Caldwell's The Small Scale Dairy.


I'm reading with interest in the UK, having made about 50 cheeses in the last half year from raw milk. My main text has been Caldwell's Artisan book, but I don't have her 'Dairy' book (yet). I'm still learning, but the cheeses have been much enjoyed. The milk is mostly from a neighbour, small herd (20-30) British Friesens, recently approved for raw milk sales. One other source is a 200-herd of quarter Jersey crosses, and I literally walk across one field with my milk churns. I know both well and they're happy sharing test results.

Through the summer both are pasture fed. Through the winter, however, they're fed sileage and I've made only a few cheeses. The latter farmer dries-off the cows for 3mo and out-winters them. I'm about to do a couple of months work on that farm helping with calving so hope to gain much more insight.

Whilst the cheese has turned out well, clabber has been more variable, sometimes with mild off-tastes. If I skim off the cream after 12h or so it's been better. It can take 2-3d or more, at 65-75F.  What I'm thinking is that I could make a small clabber alongside each batch of cheese I make - say 0.5L when I make a 20-30L cheese. That way I'd have an early taste test to go with each cheese, and to compare against any test results I have. How variable might I expect the clabber to be, and how readily should I be alarmed I wonder?

Thanks everyone.


FishFarmAndy, I have to say I wrote that knowing the OP was shopping for raw milk in my state (WA, in the US). Most of the raw dairies here are small "hobby farms" started by folks new to farming who have very little background in dairy production, food safety, etc. I've seen a lot of cringe-worthy things going on (I've visited a lot of dairies here over the years). The state Ag dept puts out a guide with basic standard operating procedures but not much in terms of education for producing milk safely.

That said, if I were buying milk from an area with more oversight and a long history of raw milk production, I'd probably feel differently.  Also, there's a difference between getting your milk the morning it has been milked, and buying week old raw milk from a grocery store.

Also, this being a public forum, I'd rather encourage caution (or at least education) when it comes to buying raw milk than just giving a blanket statement that raw milk is superior to pasteurized for cheesemaking. 


Bantams, thank you for the link, I'll read carefully. Your context explanation is appreciated too. Around here, my partner and I are the newcomers to Ag, although we both have research biologist backgrounds and came into this through deep interest in food production and nutrition. One of our neighbours has been farming dairy and sheep all her life, in this small valley, and is a great source of information to us. The other is younger, has farmed multiple places, and is heading towards organic status and possibly one milking per day. Both sell to dairy coop/companies, and I can time my collections to obtain the freshest possible milk.

There are two future possibilities, one being to get our own milking goats and the other to participate in a microdairy with another near neighbour ... but those are two separate stories!


You can also have a look at the lactofermentation test at page 143 of Gianaclis Caldwell's book «The Small-Scale Dairy»


Thanks stephmtl222 and Bantams, I'll try to improvise an incubator and carry out the lactofermentation test.


Approximate lactofermentation test: I had a convenient 26C (79F) place so I used that for a test of the latest milk. I used a pint in a wide shallow container, thinking I'd use it as clabber if successful. After 24h I had a 20% cream-line, so scooped that off, as previously it adversely affected my clabber later on. Refeigerated, it made really tasty creme frais. It took 48h before I had something between Caldwell's B and A categories: some whey but mostly a yoghurt-like gel. I left it to 60h then refrigerated, and it's like a sharp natural yoghurt, again very tasty.  I made gorgonzola from the other 14L...


I've never worked with clabber, but when culturing from existing cheeses, I've found it useful to go for 24 hours and then take about 1.5% of it and add it to new milk.  2-3 rounds of this makes a very nice and consistent culture.