In most states, it’s possible to procure raw milk through legal channels. A few states provide for legal retail sale of raw milk. Other states allow the sale of raw milk only direct from the farm. Some states have taken policy steps to allow the use of cow-share programs in which a consumer buys “shares” of a dairy cow or herd and are thereby legally entitled to the milk from the animals. There are also states that have no official laws on cow-share programs but generally allow them. Finally, a few states allow raw milk to be sold as pet food and not for human consumption. However, it’s not uncommon to find milk bought as pet food ending up on the breakfast table.
It’s true that the heating that occurs during pasteurization degrades some compounds found in raw milk. Vitamin C and enzymes like lipase and amylase can be destroyed. Calcium is made somewhat harder to absorb. Immunoglobulins (also known as antibodies) present in raw milk are also sensitive to heat. However, it’s been shown that they are not degraded as severely as the raw milk party would have us believe. 59-76% of immunoglobulin activity was retained following pasteurization, while homogenization, skimming, and standardization of the milk to 1-2% fat had no effect at all. However, it’s worth noting that UHT (ultra high temperature) processing does effectively degrade immunoglobulin activity. UHT processing is far more common in Europe and South America than it is in the US, though a number of US organic milk producers utilize UHT instead of pasteurization. To be sure, always read the packaging! UHT processed milk can generally (but not always) be identified by its storage in a room temperature environment. Most dairy products that require refrigeration are pasteurized, not UHT processed.
In contrast to the relatively mild (and often quite overstated) negative effects of pasteurization on the nutrients in milk, the risks and consequences of raw dairy consumption can be quite severe. In 2010 alone, there have been at least ten outbreaks stemming from the consumption of raw dairy products. At least 105 people have been sickened so far from bacteria including E. coli O157:H7, Campylobacter jejuni, Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella, and Brucella, as well as a parasite called Cryptosporidium parvum. Clearly, there is a reason why almost universal pasteurization of dairy products was established decades ago through governmental regulation. In 1938, milk caused 25% of all food- and water-related sicknesses. In 1993, that number was 1%. The evidence for the positive impact of dairy pasteurization on public health is undeniable.
When choosing dairy products, always be sure to consume those that have been properly treated through pasteurization, HTST, or UHT processing. Whatever modest nutrient degradation is produced through the heat treatment of dairy products, it’s more than worth avoiding food-borne illness. Remember that vitamins and minerals can be had easily in the form of cheap, widely available supplements. Err on the side of caution and buy properly treated dairy products for the sake of your family’s health as well as your own.