Raw milk is a live, healthy food, rich in different microorganisms that give each cheese unique characteristics. Living means evolving, maturing and aging, developing specific fragrances and flavors from the microflora, but it also brings with it a certain level of risk (which is true for food in general). However, appropriate measures and controls can reduce this risk to a minimum.
Comparing raw and pasteurized milk means considering two completely different conditions. Neither of the two is completely risk-free, and it is important to emphasize that the danger intrinsic to each food is always relative. As with many other foods, because of its bacterial count (number of bacteria per milliliter), raw milk is not recommended for newborns, infants, pregnant women and anyone with a weak immune system.
That said, the benefits that raw milk brings to a healthy adult appear to be greater than the risks.
Aware and informed consumers are the first factor in reducing risk. Just as with pasteurized milk, the consumer must follow certain hygiene rules, like making sure the milk is stored in a clean container and kept at a low temperature to avoid the development of pathogenic bacteria.
Many scientific studies have shown that when innovation, good practices and appropriate hygiene are applied to traditional production techniques in historic environmental conditions, foods contain probiotic bacteria that fight pathogenic, harmful bacteria like Escherichia coli, salmonella and listeria. Instead of killing milk through pasteurization, depriving it of all its life, consumers and producers just have to apply a series of hygiene measures and controls to allow the safe consumption of a food full of numerous living, active microflora. These measures and controls make raw milk a healthy and safe food.
Controlling the risk of contamination in milk and cheese comes first from a constant attention to hygiene along all the steps of the chain, from the animal's diet to the final consumer. Today's knowledge and techniques are profoundly different from those of the past, and have made the whole process much safer. The process is now highly regulated, with frequent, documented checks and self-checks at every risk point.
In the European Union, the HACCP protocol for self-checks and systematic checks by official authorities of microbiological conditions, both defined in the so-called "hygiene package" (EC Regulations 852, 853, 854, 882/2004 and Directive 2002/99) have radically changed how raw milk and raw-milk cheeses are produced. Thanks to the support of a network of veterinarians, producers are now aware that their production method brings with it certain risks, and so they work more carefully to reduce risks to a minimum along the whole chain.
In the meantime the quality of milk is being constantly improved. Working for the welfare and pleasure of those who eat their cheeses and drink their milk, while respecting the nature around them, is not only a legal and moral duty, but also the best way for producers to promote and add value to a product that depends greatly on the reputation and responsibility of the producer. This is the case at both a local level for milk and an international level for many raw-milk cheeses.
The following critical points contain certain risks and it is important to consider them and control them closely:
Animal diet (link pop up)
The diet of milk-producing livestock has a profound influence on the composition and the quality of milk, because the type of food directly influences the synthesis of milk in the mammary glands, and indirectly any cheese made from the milk.
Though silage made from mountain grasses is certainly better than silage made from corn and other industrial crops, it has been shown that a diet based on fresh grass instead of fermented fodder and silage drastically reduces the incidence of listeria and other pathogens in the animals and their milk. The type of silage used to feed animals must be carefully controlled: If it is badly made, with industrial waste, it can cause problems not only for the milk quality but also its healthiness.
Animal health (link pop up)
Milk from animals that are sick, abused,
suffering from mastitis or treated with antibiotics will not have a balanced composition. This creates problems for the development of lactic bacteria, and as a result allows pathogens to reproduce easily. Good milk must come from a healthy animal. It is essential to have the collaboration of a network of veterinarians who regularly check the livestock's health (link to animal welfare), the type of water and food they have access to, their stress levels and their living conditions. Additionally the milk must be regularly checked and its bacterial and somatic cell count analyzed.
Often someone who has been farming livestock for years, doing it with love, observing and listening to their animals, can notice problems like mastitis immediately just by tasting the milk. Too acidic, too bitter, or tastes bad? Then they know immediately that that animal must be quarantined. The knowledge of farmers and cheesemakers comes into play as a factor in controlling risks.
Milking (link pop up)
Making sure the milking takes place in clean conditions is one of the first steps to deciding a product's fate: If the milk is contaminated, the cheese will also be contaminated. A careful control before milking is therefore able to drastically lower the risk of contamination by pathogens. It is vital to respect hygiene measures like washing hands, washing the animal's udders, carefully washing equipment (milkers, containers, etc.) and, above all, not milking sick animals or animals suffering from mastitis, to avoid the bacteria that cause infection ending up in the milk.
To reduce the presence of pathogenic coliforms like E. coli and L. mono in milk to a minimum, it is important to avoid contamination during milking and transport and while handling the milk. On average, certain coliforms reproduce at double the speed of lactic bacteria, with which they are in competition. If many coliforms develop, there will be few lactic bacteria, and vice versa. It is therefore essential that their presence is minimal so that the lactic bacteria can dominate.
Milk temperature (link pop up)
Controlling the temperature of the milk immediately after milking (through refrigeration or using the cold temperature of mountain water) is important to slow the development of any pathogens. They can reproduce at temperatures between 3° and 45°C (37° to 113°F), with optimal reproduction between 30° and 37°C (86° to 99°F). This is only relevant if the milk is going to be distributed for direct consumption, rather than processed immediately. Refrigeration is not necessary in the case of cheeses like Macagn or Bitto, for example, where the milk is processed immediately, practically at the temperature it comes out of the udder (around 37°C/99°F).
Checks along the chain (link pop up)
According to European legislation, raw milk must be processed within 24 hours after milking, with a maximum limit of 48 hours, to reduce the development of pathogens. In raw-milk cheese production, checking the acidity (pH and SH of the milk and the curd) along the production chain can help minimize risk. If acidity develops rapidly (in the first 6, 8 or 12 hours since the start of processing), this means that a good part of the microorganisms dangerous to health and product quality have been limited. If the acidity is not optimal, problems will manifest themselves during cheesemaking and aging. It is also important to check the surrounding environment during cheese production to check for pathogens like listeria, which develop in unclean environments and which are tolerant of heat and cold.
For more details on checks, see the page on raw-milk legislation
Aging (link pop up)
Aging is a fundamental phase in the production of a raw-milk cheese, giving it a chance to develop flavor and fragrance components. When it comes to risk, what makes the difference, once again, is the producer's approach to management. The wood on which cheeses have aged for centuries is not only natural and healthy but also rich in flora that are passed on to the cheese, contributing to its correct development and aging. When cheeses are aged for more than 60 days, in a healthy and clean environment, the risk of contamination is almost completely eliminated.
In light of this, it is clear that the concept of "food safety" must be rediscussed. Many studies show that food safety (regardless of pasteurization) is almost a certainty today, and that food has never been as safe as it is now. However, we must recognize that zero risk does not exist, so it is necessary to understand what is the right proportion between the costs and benefits of consuming raw-milk foods. It would be an enormous loss for everyone if we destroyed the natural level of safety present in microbiologically rich foods before even demonstrating their danger, all in the name of zero risk. We would lose the wealth of cheeses, of flavors, of landscapes and of people and their heritage of knowledge.
For more details on checks, see the page on raw-milk legislation
On HACCP and food safety regulations:
On risk control:
On bacterial and somatic cell count: