Guest Post: Dairy Farmer, Raw Milk Expert and Friend

I’m excited to share this next post with you. I’ve invited my friend Terri Lawton, dairy farmer from southeast Massachusetts, to write a guest post about her farming operation and her background. Terri sells raw milk and is a technical

Terri, getting ready to give a talk about milking standards at a conference.

Terri, getting ready to give a talk about milking standards at a conference.

expert on the subject, raw milk food safety and regulation and has addressed national audiences about the topic. The last two posts I’ve shared have been about why raw milk is a somewhat complicated issue. I’ve said that even though we have decided to not sell it, we are not against other people selling or consuming it. Terri and I spoke about my recent experiences and my posts and I was thrilled when she agreed to write about what she does with a few suggestions regarding raw milk, if you are interested. She can be found on Facebook and has her own blog at terrilawton.wordpress.com and okarealmilk.wordpress.com.

From Terri:

I’m an 11th generation farmer. I grew up on my parents’ dairy farm in Foxboro, Mass. I always loved cows, and spent most of my time on the farm as a child, pretending to be a cow, feeding the cows, milking the cows with my parents or gettingmy 4-H calf ready to show.

When I finished high school, I went to college and studied agriculture. I got my associates degree in Production Agriculture, with an emphasis on feedlot management from Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado. Because I felt like I still had a lot to learn about farming, I transferred to Purdue University where I was a double major in Animal Agribusiness and Agricultural Communications. I was also in the crew club, dairy club, and Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. I also did livestock judging for three years of school and dairy judging with Purdue.

Because I had a strong background in dairy and several food science/food safety classes at Purdue, I thought that being a dairy inspector for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts would be a good way for me to get involved in the agricultural industry in Massachusetts. Several farms I inspected were selling raw milk directly to families. I had been drinking raw milk my whole life. I was amazed when I realized that some people drove more than an hour to get raw milk.

After I finished up as a dairy inspector, I wanted to get closer to farming. I enjoyed being around cows, and owned several which my parents milked for me. I had planned to start making cheese, but needed an income while we were building the cheese room, and developing our cheese recipes, which is why I looked at selling raw milk retail.

I knew that my experience as a dairy inspector could help me harvest and bottle a superior raw milk. After developing a milking and bottling protocol that minimized potential risk, having the farm and retail area inspected by the dairy inspector, and having my milk meet exceptionally high standards, I received my license to sell raw milk in March of 2006. I started selling raw milk from grass fed cows on a pre-order basis so that I could ensure people got the freshest possible milk. Usually it was only a couple hours old when customers picked it up and brought it to their homes.

I decided to put food safety and integrity first from the beginning.

I know that selling and drinking raw milk can be risky. Based my experience as a dairy inspector, education at Purdue, and personal research about food safety and microbiology, I believe it is a risk that can be managed successfully. I also have seen farmers that were not up to the rigorous integrity and obsession with food safety that I think is necessary to do a good job producing raw milk for retail sale. However, for some farmers it is not much of a stretch to produce an exceptionally high quality raw milk.

I am grateful to be able to sell raw milk directly to families. I like having the folks come to the farm to pick up the milk. I enjoy meeting folks that care so much about food and supporting their local farmer. If I could encourage raw milk drinkers in one thing-please get your milk from a licensed raw milk retailer. It is a lot of work to keep raw milk clean. Inspected farms are held accountable, and must adhere to standard good practices. Integrity is very important in selling raw milk. Our customers need assurance that we are working hard to keep the milk safe. Inspections, milk quality testing and licensing are good tools to provide that assurance.

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8 Comments

Filed under Agriculture, Dairy Care, Dairy Industry, Milk

8 responses to “Guest Post: Dairy Farmer, Raw Milk Expert and Friend

  1. rhett

    While I know Terri is probably doing a top notch job, as are most farmers selling raw milk, there are other factors to consider. While certain bacteria can be limited thru proper sanitation and excellent husbandry there will always be some endemic bacteria found in milk. While most people can handle this the immune compromised can be put at severe risk. But this is not even my biggest concern. There are many diseases that will pass thru into the milk to an unsuspecting consumer and without the cow necessarily showing any signs or symptoms. Some of these are dangerous diseases that are not always tested for on a regular basis–rabies, lymes, brucellosis, TB, listeria as well as a connection to chrone’s disease to name a few. Pasteurization will remove these threats if preformed properly, without altering taste and composition of milk. Some will argue that pasteurization will alter the taste of milk and I would argue it is not the act of pasteurization but the fact that the fat content is lesser and much of the solids not fat have been removed during standardization of milk for resale that takes away from the flavor. But that is just my opinion. If people are willing to accept the responsibility, pay their own medical bills, and not try to sue the farmer when things go wrong then I say go for it, but it will come back to bite someone someday.

  2. Rhett,

    These are some good points. Cows can carry bacteria that can be transmitted to humans through milk, without fecal contamination.

    However, most of the diseases you mentioned can be managed and eradicated. Brucellosis is fairly controllable, in Massachusetts, it is highly unlikely for a cow to get brucellosis. But my understanding is that it is fairly easy to test for, not to mention that there is an effective vaccine for it. Of course, other states have more exposure from wild carriers, for example Montana.

    TB is also detectable in a whole herd test.

    From everything I’ve heard Rabies is NOT transmitted through consumption of raw milk. I know some dairy farmers in VT who had a cow come down with Rabies a few years ago. The family members who had come in contact with her saliva, while giving her medicine, did need to get Rabies shots. However, the rest of the family, including young children did not need to get Rabies shots according to the veterinarian and the doctors that treated them. So I’m sorry to say that all the info, including actual experience, would disagree that Rabies is transmitted through raw milk consumption.

    I have never heard of Lymes being transmitted by milk. I heard that it is only transmitted by the bite of a specific species of tick, which also has to have bit an animal already infected with the Lyme bacteria.

    Lysteria bacteria are ubiquitous. They are everywhere. From sink drains to cold cuts. That is why pregnant women are warned not to eat cold cuts, or hotdogs without cooking them first. But not all Lysteria are the bad ones that we hear about as causing food-borne illness. But there are ways farmers can manage their farms and milking procedures to 1)reduce the risk of Lysteria infection 2) reduce the risk of raw milk contamination. Unfortunately, Lysteria is as much a risk in pasteurized food as hygienically harvested raw milk. Theoretically, if a cow becomes ill with Lysteria, she would show symptoms before a human that drank her milk would. Then the farmer with good integrity and an astute veterinarian would step in to ensure that everyone that was exposed to the milk would be notified, tested and treated if necessary.
    This is where the argument for a good, reliable, affordable test for pathogenic Lysteria would be especially applicable. The whole food industry would benefit from a better Lysteria test.

    So again, these illness can be found in milk, but good managers can keep them out, or in case of an incident, proactively contact their customers.

    These are perhaps things that raw milk consumers can ask their farmers’ about. If the farmer tries to blow these issues off, or even says you can’t get sick from drinking raw milk, that might be a red flag.

    I remember when I was a dairy inspector, I went to a “farm” that was selling raw milk illegally. The milk was from a herd of about 3 cows. The milking equipment looked like it hadn’t been washed in months. When the farmer was confronted about it, he said he didn’t believe the equipment needed to be washed, that he didn’t believe in the “germ theory.” Needless to say, the milk we tested, which we took from a bottle offered for sale, had too many coliform bacteria to count. Too many total bacteria to count, and too many white blood cells to count. The lab counts cfu’s up to the millions. This was exceptionally risky milk, from unhealthy cows. Licensed raw milk dairies are held accountable. They must meet minimum standard for cleanliness and cow health.

    You are right Rhett, people do need to know that raw milk is a risky food and be willing to accept responsibility for their actions. A licensing process can help consumers identify less risky raw milk sources, and that is a good thing. That is why I encourage people to use it.

    • rhett

      Terri,
      All I know is what they are teaching us about disease transfer in vet school. Rabies can be transmitted through raw milk but may not always be. Lymes can be transmitted thru raw milk also. You are correct listeria is present everywhere and can present a risk in pasteurized milk also, but since listeria can cause a mastitis that may not be detectable right away and would be removed thru proper pasteurization and not with raw milk it would be an increased risk. And while may of these diseases are rare, and testable, the only time they are ever really tested for is after a problem presents itself. Nothing comes without risk in this life and there are plenty of farmers that do a tremendous job that I am sure could go a lifetime without a problem. That being said until the proper licensing and inspection protocols are in place (and they need to be better than what is currently in place for most dairies) and safeguards are built in to protect good farmers from business destroying lawsuits, I am still not a fan of raw milk sales. It is an area where I feel we will always have to agree to disagree–but I wish you the best in your endeavor.

      • Rhett,

        Your right, there is a lot of trust and personal responsibility required on both sides of raw milk sales. First, that the farmer will work hard to keep the milk clean, and second, that the customers will educate themselves and take responsibility for their decisions. If someone were to get sick, lives could be drastically changed–the farmers’ and the consumers’.

        If we are having a discussion about regulatory theory, we agree. Current regulations don’t perfectly dictate best management practices for all aspects of potential human health concerns. However, current regulations, as I have seen them, do lower the risk of contamination from the most relevant pathogenic bacteria. Though even well run, regulation-compliant farms and food processors can and occasionally do, still have issues with, for one example, Lysteria monocytogenes.

        However, if you can show me a perfect set of regulations based on pure, good science, then I will buy you dinner.

        I think that in our current system, having raw milk sales regulated by each state individually is best, because each state has to pay for their own regulatory programs. Even states that have a ban on raw milk sales have not been able to eliminate raw milk being sold for human consumption. When I was doing some research for a talk I did in DC last spring on raw milk regulation, I found (with about 1 minute of internet research) more than 120 places I could buy raw milk in one state where it is banned.

        This leads me back to my main point, when we look at all the raw milk that is being consumed by humans in the United States, it can be categorized in two ways: raw milk from licensed farms, and unlicensed sources.

        When a farm is licensed, there is oversight. Food safety experts are coming to the farm on a regular basis and saying “this needs more attention” or “you corrected this food safety concern, good” or even: “you can’t sell any more raw milk until you fix this.” Regular milk testing, which is required for raw milk sales by all states’ regulations, also can alert farmers and regulators to concerns.

        When a farm is unregulated, there is no guarantee of any food safety monitoring. Before I was an inspector, I really thought people would just do a good job with milk handling, because it was the right thing to do. But that isn’t the case. Every unlicensed raw milk retailer I visited had major food safety concerns with their milk handling, and it always showed in the bacterial profile of the milk.

        There were huge differences in milk quality, milk handling, and level of risk from consumption between licensed and unlicensed farms. Licensed farms consistently did a significantly better job protecting their raw milk from contamination.

  3. Thanks Rhett & Terri for your comments. I decided to follow up and point out how your discussion here highlights what a complex issue raw milk sales can be. It’s not so much whether or not one should consume or sell raw milk but how. Ultimately I think it comes down to choices and where or how regulations should intervene. I suspect if people want it, they’ll find a way to get it and if there’s a framework in place where folks can have clear information and other qualities to look for, their more likely to be protected from a potential outbreak.

    Keep up the good work, Terri, and Rhett – I don’t think I would have survived bacteriology. eeek 🙂

  4. Mary Welles

    Terri,
    Can you speak to the claim that “all of the good stuff in milk” is destroyed in the pasteurization process? I have heard this argument from raw-milk advocates many times. I haven’t been able to get any direct answers so I am left wondering. Any thoughts?
    Full disclosure, I do not drink raw milk myself although I have tried it. I buy pasteurized milk in returnable glass bottles from a farm local to me. My understanding is that milk (including pasteurized milk) contains many beneficial nutrients and is a nutritious, wholesome food. It is a staple in my household.
    Thank you for your input and for writing this guest blog post!
    Mary Welles

  5. terrilawton

    Mary,

    There are lots of good things left in pasteurized milk, but some things are destroyed during pasteurization.
    The most significant losses in pasteurization are functional proteins and beneficial bacteria. More minor is some vitamin destruction.
    Proteins, specifically whey proteins, are very sensitive to heat treatments. Although the amino acids remain in their chains, they loose their shape and thus their function. This is especially significant when it comes to enzymes.
    One big difference between pasteurized and raw milk is the digestibility for people with lactose sensitivities. Lactase is an enzyme (protein) that breaks down lactose (milk sugar). In raw milk, lactase is active and working, which reduces the amount of lactose in the milk. Because lactase in destroyed (looses its shape) during pasteurization, it no longer breaks down lactose. This is an example which many people can relate.
    Another factor that is lost through pasteurization is beneficial bacteria. Probably the most significant that I know of is lactic acid producing bacteria. These are heat sensitive bacteria that also eat lactose. As they use lactose, they make the milk more acidic. They are added back to pasteurized milk to make yogurt and many other dairy products. There is alot of information out there about the value of probiotics, which many people point to as a benefit of consuming raw milk.
    These two factors make it possible for many people who have lactose allergies to consume milk without adverse effects.
    Thanks for the good questions. The above effects of pasteurization on milk are things I learned through food and dairy science classes at Purdue. We discussed these effects in contrast to the benefits of pasteurization, which there are as well.

    All the benefits of raw milk are mitigated if your source isn’t a well managed dairy. It is really important for raw milk retailers to work very hard to manage the cleanliness and sanitation in their milk harvesting and cow handling. This is why I always encourage folks to only drink raw milk from a licensed raw milk retailer. If your going to the street corner to meet a guy handing out black market milk from who-knows-where, the quality and safety of the milk is who-knows-what.

    All safely harvested and handled milk (including pasteurized milk) contains many beneficial nutrients and is a nutritious, wholesome food.
    I’m so glad milk is a staple in your household. I’m glad that we have access to food choices and the technology to produce the safest, most abundant food supply in the world.

    I hope that answers your questions!

    thanks!

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