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Environmental Studies

US Food Safety Standards: The heated debate about pasteurization

    What is pasteurization?
    Pasteurization issues

Weighing the Benefits and Risks of Raw milk
    What are the benefits?
What are the risks?
    Reframing the problem

Local Economies, Small Farms, Consumer Choice

Who is doing the research and who gets to decide?


References & Links

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cow in fieldFarm


What is Pasteurization?

      Pasteurization, invented by Louis Pasteur in 1864, kills harmful bacteria that tend to grow in dairy products, especially in the absence of refrigeration.  At the time, the discovery was rather revolutionary; it allowed milk to be consumed less immediately and prevented many illnesses.  Pasteurization is defined by the FDA as “a process that kills harmful bacteria by heating milk to a specific temperature for a set period of time…[it] kills harmful organisms responsible for such diseases as listeriosis, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and brucellosis” (FDA, 2009). 

      Cheesemaking originated from the desire to preserve milk products in the absence of refrigeration, centuries before pasteurization was discovered.  Raw milk cheese is made from unpasteurized milk, dating back to these traditions of preservation, and involves no refinement or heating before the cheese making process begins. 

      Pasteurization legislation—first introduced after World War II—completely  changed the processes by which small farmers were allowed to operate and by which consumers could purchase their cheese products. In the United States today, the sale of raw milk cheeses is permitted only if they have been aged for more than 60 days at less than 35 degrees to kill bacteria. This out-dated restriction stems from a law passed by congress in 1949, when technologies to protect cheese were limited.  This aging process is thought to render raw milk cheeses safe for consumption in the US.  Pasteurized cheeses are not subject to an aging policy, as they are considered safe.  However, there are still warnings posted on certain kinds of pasteurized cheeses, as discussed in a further section.

     Many Europeans eat raw milk cheeses regularly, as they are generally legal throughout the EU. Countries such as France and Switzerland are well known for producing some of the finest raw milk cheeses in the world.  Yet, imports of most raw milk cheeses consumed widely in Europe are illegal in the US because they don’t conform to US standards (Kummer, 2000).

     Consumption of raw milk itself is actually legal in 28 states and available for pet food in five others (see in-depth description of each state here).  Still, its consumption, along with unpasteurized cheese is strongly discouraged by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). These institutions urge consumers, especially pregnant women, children, elderly, or consumers with compromised immune systems to avoid raw milk products as a health precaution.

State-by-state legislation of raw milk sales

This image, courtesy of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, shows the regulation of state sales of raw milk.  Click the image to visit the site.

Problems with pasteurization

     Critics believe that pasteurization is a temporary fix to a broken system of large-scale farming and dairy production.  Advocates of raw milk cheese do not believe that all farmers should cease to pasteurize their milk; pasteurization is vital for milk from farms with hundreds and even thousands of cows with unsanitary living conditions.  Most large-scale dairy farms are unable to monitor their animals and environments closely to ensure that the animals are healthy and clean.  Therefore, milk must be pasteurized in this kind of production system to kill the bad bacteria prevalent in these conditions.

     Supporters of raw milk believe that Pasteur’s discovery of germs has led to an obsessive scientific approach to bacteria that is often unwarranted. A full 90% of human body cells are microbial (Paxon, 2008), but our society has become obsessed with germ elimination, from antibacterial hand soap to ultra-pasteurization.  These methods of science-based germ control are effective in getting rid of germs, but they eliminate germs without discrimination, killing both healthy and unhealthy bacteria.  Many are concerned that this wide-scale elimination is creating unhealthy consumers with immune systems that are less resistant to things like diseases and allergens.

Louis Pasteur

Louis Pasteur

Last updated:  5/06/10


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