Raw milk

Is raw milk natural goodness or food safety Russian roulette?

29jun rawmilk hero

Queen Elizabeth reportedly drinks raw milk and advocates swear it helps prevent allergies and is more nutritious and easier to digest than the pasteurised stuff. However, foodborne illness outbreaks linked to raw milk have led to new regulations restricting its sale.

We've looked at whether some of the reasons people drink raw milk stack up and have some tips to reduce your risk of getting sick.

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Raw milk isn’t pasteurised (heat treated), which means it misses a process that kills harmful bacteria, such as campylobacter, listeria, and toxin-producing strains of e.coli.

From November, consumers will only be able to buy milk from farmers registered by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI). These farmers must be verified, test their milk for pathogens, keep sales records and have appropriate labelling on products. Labels must give use-by dates, storage advice and warnings about the risks of raw milk for high-risk groups.

The regulations don’t limit the amount of raw milk that can be sold to a person – previously a buyer was limited to 5L. But farmers can only sell raw milk directly from the farm gate or by delivering to your home – you won’t be able to pick it up from a collection point, such as your local health food shop. Customers also need to supply contact details so they can be reached if a batch of milk fails bacteria testing.

The risks

It doesn’t matter how carefully the animals are milked, there is a risk of harmful bacteria getting into the milk and there’s no way of telling by taste, sight or smell. Getting sick from these bacteria can result in diarrhoea, stomach cramps and vomiting. Severe cases can also lead to kidney failure, and even death.

Not everyone who drinks contaminated milk will necessarily get sick. The young, elderly, pregnant women and people with a weakened immune system are more susceptible to the bugs. MPI recommends these high-risk groups don’t consume raw milk.

In 2014, raw milk was associated with 10 foodborne illness outbreaks in New Zealand that affected 41 people. Nine of the outbreaks involved children under 15 years old and two children developed a severe complication that may lead to kidney failure. In 2015, 13 people got sick in outbreaks associated with raw milk.

For most outbreaks raw milk is not the only risk factor – contact with farm animals and contact with untreated water are often mentioned. This means there’s usually no definite proof raw milk caused the illness but it’s difficult to confirm because in many cases the suspected batch of milk has already been consumed.

Because of the disease risk, medical and scientific organisations, such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend only drinking pasteurised milk.

Worth the gamble?

Drinkers of raw milk told us it tasted better, was less processed, and had health and nutrition benefits. So do the benefits stack up?

More nutritious

Registered dietitian Amy Liu says there’s no evidence pasteurisation reduces milk’s nutritional value. Minerals and protein levels in milk are stable under pasteurisation, especially calcium, which is an important nutrient in milk. Vitamin B2 and vitamin C are reduced by pasteurisation but milk is not a major source of vitamin C in the diet and vitamin B2 is in other foods such as meat, eggs, nuts and seeds.

In 2015, the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman undertook a review of MPI’s scientific assessment of the risks and benefits of raw milk. The review agreed with MPI’s assessment that for most nutrients the claimed benefit was unsupported, or where there was a difference, it was negligible.

Prevents allergies and asthma

Some studies suggest children growing up on farms are less likely to develop allergies and asthma. But farm-life exposures such as contact with animals, straw and feed meant the studies couldn’t prove raw milk was a determining factor.

A research project, to be published in 2017, is being carried out by the Centre for Public Health at Massey University. The study is assessing the effects of raw milk on allergies and asthma in non-farming families.

Allergy NZ chief executive Mark Dixon said the organisation did not currently recommend drinking raw milk because it could carry harmful bacteria. “It is hoped that the Massey study will help identify whether raw milk can protect against the development of allergies and if so, how raw milk can be consumed safely,” he said.

Easier to digest

Auckland University of Technology Adjunct Professor John Brooks says there’s no evidence of any benefit for lactose-intolerant people in consuming raw milk. “Although raw milk may contain more active enzymes than pasteurised milk, they are not thought to be important for human health,” he said.

Professor Brooks said the benefits of pasteurisation outweigh any perceived benefits of consuming other milk-borne bacteria.

But not everyone agrees. Doctor Ron Hull, an Australian microbiologist and an advocate of raw milk, believes raw milk is easier to digest. “Raw milk contains lactic acid bacteria that are killed during pasteurisation. Lactic acid digests the lactose in milk, which is why some people who can’t tolerate pasteurised milk can drink raw milk.”

However, a literature review of the risks and benefits of raw and pasteurised cows' milk published by John Hopkins University in the United States in 2014 found pasteurisation of milk created no noticeable difference in lactose intolerance.

It’s not meddled with

The composition of milk can vary throughout the year. Most manufacturers standardise the fat and protein levels of milk. One way of doing this is by adding permeate.

Permeate is a by-product of dairy foods and is made up of lactose, vitamins and minerals. The Food Standards Code allows manufacturers to add or withdraw “milk components” to or from milk as long as the total fat level remains at least 3.2 percent (for full-cream milk) and the protein at least 3 percent (for any milk). Permeates don’t need to be disclosed in the ingredients list. Not all pasteurised milk contains permeates. Brands that don’t contain permeates usually state it on the label.

Healthy animals produce safe milk

Healthy animals don’t guarantee bacteria-free milk. Some bacteria that are part of the natural microflora of a healthy cow’s gut are not harmful for the cow but can make humans sick. Also, the bacteria can come from cow faeces coming into contact with the milk, infection of the cow’s udder, bacteria that live on the cows' skin, insects and other animals, and cross-contamination by people and the processing equipment.

What’s happening overseas?

Globally, no consensus has been reached about the best approach to protect people’s health and still provide consumer choice when it comes to raw milk.

Canada and Scotland prohibit its sale. In Australia, raw cows’ milk can’t be sold but in some states consumers can buy raw goats’ milk. In the United States, some states ban sales while others allow farmers to sell raw milk directly to consumers from the farm and in certain shops.

In Europe it’s a mixed bag. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland sales are permitted, with restrictions about where the milk can be sold and how it’s labelled. In Italy, raw milk can be sold from farms or in registered vending machines. The milk must be labelled with an expiry date and a warning to boil the milk before drinking. In France, consumers can buy raw milk from the farm, via vending machines, distributors or cooperatives. The milk must be labelled with a warning to boil before drinking for high-risk groups. Germany has two classifications for raw milk. Standard raw milk must only be sold from the farm and have a warning that it must be boiled before consuming. Certified raw milk has stricter standards and can be sold through retail outlets.

Industry views

Ray Ridings, chairman of the Raw Milk Producers Association of New Zealand which represents about 50 producers, says the association generally supports the new regulations. “It’s important our industry has some regulations because the danger of having cowboys selling raw milk puts everyone at risk – both consumers and responsible producers,” he said. However, Mr Ridings thinks the regulations have gone too far in banning collection points. “We agree with MPI that there were some unsafe collection points, but it’s disappointing we weren’t given the opportunity to work through some safe options.” Mr Ridings says the banning of collection points will mean reduced access for consumers, especially in areas, like the city, where it isn’t viable for farmers to deliver.

Village Milk has five operators across New Zealand that sell raw milk through automatic milk dispensers. Managing director Richard Houston says the company also supports the regulations. “Producers who don’t have a clue about the quality of their milk will now have to test it, which is better for consumer safety,” he said. Mr Houston said some customers will be affected by availability but as the quantity a consumer can buy isn’t restricted this may help with access.

Mr Ridings says farm practices reduce the risk of bacteria getting into the milk: the farmer washes off the soil and faeces on the udder, pre-dips the teat in a spray to redcue bacteria and dry the teat before putting on the milking cup.

Some smaller producers have criticised the new rules saying the costs of implementing the regulations and paying for inspections will force them to stop selling raw milk.

MPI animal products manager Judy Barker said its priority is protecting consumer health and it sets rules according to food safety risks. That’s why the same rules and fees apply to all raw milk farmers, irrespective of size. MPI says suppliers can minimise compliance costs because inspections will be based on performance – farmers who manage the food safety risks well will be audited less frequently and face fewer costs.

Reduce the risk

  • Heat it until just boiling or at 70°C for one minute before drinking it. This will kill any harmful bacteria in the milk.
  • Keep it in the fridge and make sure your fridge is 4°C or colder.
  • If raw milk gets to room temperature, throw it out.
  • If you are serving raw milk to friends or visitors, make sure you let them know and advise them of the risks.
  • Make sure you drink the milk before its use-by date.
  • If you’re using reusable containers to collect your raw milk, make sure they are clean and dry.
  • Don’t give raw milk to young people, the elderly, pregnant women or people with compromised immunity.

Treated, not heated

Treated, not heated

29jun raw milk promo

Treated, not heated

In Australia, it’s illegal for farmers to sell raw cow’s milk but in New South Wales consumers can now buy cold-pressed milk.

The cold-pressed milk undergoes high-pressure processing (HPP). Like pasteurisation, this eliminates bacteria and extends the shelf life. The process has been approved by the NSW Food Authority, which says the process has pasteurised the milk without using heat and it doesn’t regard the milk as raw.

Member comments

Get access to comment

Llyvonne B.
25 Nov 2018
Raw Milk - Dangers are overstated

I was one of the people who submitted in the Public Consultation for raw milk. I also have sources that indicated that the MPI had an agenda. The overwhelming response in favour of raw milk sent the MPI back to the drawing board and farmers ended up with costs that for many shut them down.
I went through all of the data regarding food borne illness that was notified and there was little actual proof that raw milk was responsible. At best it was a risk factor. However, every processed food has a risk factor including pre packaged vegetables. No one is talking about banning them - even though overseas there have been many deaths associated with contaminated vegetables from first-world countries.
Many who drink raw milk are aware there are risks, but feel that the risk level has been overstated and that the MPI are deliberately trying to be panic mongers.
I acknowledge that the evidence states that raw milk is not perfect for those who are lactose intolerant, however there are many who can drink raw milk, but not store purchased milk. They may believe that they are lactose intolerant for this reason, but may have misdiagnosed themselves. I do not think that the clinical studies have covered this aspect.
From a personal point - my dog vomits if he is fed store bought milk, yet has no ill reaction from raw milk. This tells me that there is a definitive difference between the two substances.

Paul W.
10 Jul 2018
Freedom of making informed choices

As with everything, consuming raw milk should be a matter of everybody's free and informed choice. The government has no right to restrict this. Especially since our politicians have no hesitation in freely promoting the consumption of other well-known toxins to human health, like the class A cancer promoter alcohol via advertising, both via all sorts of media and sports events like rugby matches, to name just a few.

Dawn N.
07 Jul 2018
A Nanny State?

My brothers, cousins and I all grew up on dairy farms and thrived. We would collect a bucket of milk from the cowshed every morning for Mum to use in the kitchen, and cream was skimmed off the top. We also roamed the farm and cowshed, had pet cows, dogs, cats and whatever else was around. We went barefooted as often as possible, ate everything we found growing wild, and grew up strongboned and healthy. When I was post menopause a bone scan was repeated because my bone density was so far above the expected level for my age. I see our grandchildren living what is to us a weird lifestyle. No bare feet, no exploration of strange places, heaven forbid they went near a cowshed, and as for eating anything not pasteurised, sterilised and closely inspected - never happens! My conclusion is that we have over regulated everything and a few germs never did anyone any harm. However we have reached a stage where a germ has the same effects that the introduction of european disease like measles had on isolated tribes. We are wrapped in plastic clingfilm from birth and not allowed to build natural resistance to so many common things. Can we go back to a natural state? I shouldn't think so because that woud result in unemployment for the gazillions of health and safety officials would be out of work. I would love to see 'raw' produce become the norm and children become more adventurous in food and life. Not going to happen though in my lifetime.

Paul W.
10 Jul 2018
Well said, Dawn

I wholeheartedly second your opinion.

Previous member
12 Nov 2016
Raw milk is very low risk

So how many confirmed cases of people getting ill from raw milk??? The data presented suggests the risks of contamination are very low, and if the milk is handled correctly the risk is extremely low. Our family have been consuming raw milk from three different farms for the last 6 or more years, and no problems. We know many other families who do the same without problems. It is only a small sample size but it's real data. The Consumer article over plays the risks.

Previous member
15 Nov 2016
Re: Raw milk is very low risk

Hi Peter,

The data we published is for the number of foodborne illness cases associated with raw milk and is collected by ESR, the agency responsible for collecting foodborne illness statistics for the Ministry of Health. The confirmed number of people getting sick from drinking raw milk is not available because, for most outbreaks, raw milk is not the only risk factor, and sometimes the suspected batch of milk has already been consumed so it can’t be tested. There are real risks associated with drinking raw milk. Some medical and science organisations recommend people only drink pasteurised milk, and in some countries, such as Australia, Canada and Scotland, the sale of raw cow’s milk is banned.

Belinda - Consumer NZ staff

Peter S.
30 Jul 2016
Excuse me.

What is the case for pasteurised milk?

All milk is unhealthy? I doubt it.
Check unindurtrialised milk, milk product, consuming communities. Wholesale ill health. Where?

Disease free milk producing animals, robbed of healthy milk provide healthy food, otherwise their offspring die.

Then there are no more milk producing animals.

Milk is SO dangerous.

Farmers who have to have their milk pasteurised are admitting that their production methods are unhygenic and unsafe.

The only reason that Fonterra (they are the only player in this country) insists on pasteurisation is market share and scare tactics.

OBTW I have been drinking and fermenting raw milk for the last 14 years.

The milk bought from shops is made from reconstitued milk powder. Pasteurisation is unnecessary.

Even if milk was unreconstitued pasteurisation is unnecessary if external organisms are denied access. The lactic acid production from "soured" milk generally sterilises the milk from antaganostic and /or possiblle unfriendly bacteria.

Nicola M.
30 Jul 2016
Raw Milk Rocks!

I have been consuming raw milk from a local organic dairy farmer for a couple of years now. I am deeply concerned by the MPI's decision to increase compliance costs for farmers which will ultimately result in farmers either deciding to no longer supply raw milk to customers or to have to pass on the increased costs to customers making it too expensive to purchase.
Raw milk, when purchased from clean responsible suppliers, and when stored and used in a hygienic manner by customers, is an extremely healthy product. During the pasteurization process a number of heat sensitive vitamins are either destroyed or their levels are significantly decreased, despite what one person in this article may suggest. This process also destroys natural immune boosters, good bacteria, and beneficial enzymes . This dairy property has also been breeding with A2 bulls for a number of years now as it is suggested that milk from A2 cows may be more easily digested and nutrients may be delivered more efficiently. It may be that the cows mentioned in the article's trial were A1 cows, and that this is the reason for little to no difference observed.
I choose to consume a live, raw product, loaded with beneficial nutrients every day over a dead, pasteurised and homogenised product that contains very little benefit because I have chosen to do my own research on the matter. Even whilst undergoing chemotherapy, which severely suppresses the immune system, I still chose to consume raw milk because I knew that I was purchasing from a good supplier, I am sensible with regards to storage and use, and I understood the importance of good nutrition in order to support my body during a stressful time. As a result I have survived chemotherapy, remaining relatively healthy throughout, and I have also received a clear result when last scanned.
It is disappointing that such a healthful product should be demonised while other more harmful foodstuffs are loaded onto supermarket shelves. How many more people are falling ill or dying each day because of those foods?? I understand that it is important to ensure food is safe, and that in the case of raw milk if it contains bacteria can result in illness or worse, but there are many foods and additives on supermarket shelves that also put people's health at risk, some just take longer for the results to become obvious. Why should we not have the right to choose what we consume when it comes to raw milk, yet these other more harmful products are not only allowed to line shelves, but are able to be freely advertised? While MPI are not banning raw milk at this stage they are doing their best to price it out of the market and this is wrong. And who is really pushing this we have to wonder? Follow the money.. Are the large dairy companies and supermarkets really that scared of a little competition from the farm-gate and drop-off point sales?
You decide...

Mercola.com (nd.) http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2016/03/08/switching-to-raw-milk.aspx [accessed 28/05/16].
Mercola.com (nd.) http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2016/02/09/raw-milk-asthma-allergies.aspx [accessed 28/05/16]

09 Jul 2016
Raw milk helped me regain my health

After the Christchurch earthquakes I got very sick and the digestive troubles I'd had all my life got a lot worse. I lost a lot of weight. At one stage a blood test indicated I probably had leukaemia but luckily further tests showed I didn't. However, the doctors couldn't work out why my blood was showing signs of serious immune issues. I had lost so much weight that they tried me on things like Fortisip, which contain UHT milk plus vitamins and minerals. I was unable to tolerate it and in the end I turned to complementary medicine to work out how to build my health back up. I researched the risks of raw milk and talked to farmers who sold it about their hygiene practises and tuberculosis testing etc. Then I went for it. I drank 400ml every morning and it was so much easier to digest. It was the turnaround I needed to start getting better and I was able to return to work and continue on with my life. Oh, and all the weight came back on, which was a big relief.

Eva P.
06 Jul 2019
Good to hear

Glad you are better, and thanks for letting us know about your experience.

I hope it will help people do their own research (as I have done) and make their own decisions.