In the late 1800s, primitive sanitation, refrigeration and rampant tuberculosis contributed to the deaths of thousands – if not millions – of milk drinkers. Louis Pasteur’s revolutionary technique of treating milk with heat to kill bacteria, known as pasteurization, almost eliminated those fatalities.

But raw milk producers say pasteurization is no longer necessary in an age where raw dairy can be produced safely -- and that heat treating milk can actually be more harmful than helpful.

David Gumpert, author of The Raw Milk Revolution, says that as the dairy industry grew and safety standards improved pasteurization became more about preservation and less about consumer protection.

“As much as it improves the safety is allows producers to ship the milk great distances,” he said.

As consumers moved farther away from their food supply it became necessary to preserve the milk for a longer time. This process is accelerated with ultra-pasteurization, the super heating of milk to kill bacteria.

“This milk can keep for months,” said Gumpert. “The producers like that. It’s less perishable.”

But raw milk experts say the end result is a product that isn’t as nutritious as most people believe, or would want to know.

“The irony is a lot of consumers are now buying organic milk because they think it’s healthier because the cows are being fed organic grain. But because there aren’t as many of those farms it has to be shipped farther and it has to be ultra pasteurized,” Gumpert said.

The milk might have a longer shelf life, but raw dairy producers say once the bacteria are killed through heat treatment so are many of the health benefits.

“These modern dead milk products now cause allergies and lactose intolerance to huge sectors of the population,” said Mark McAfee, the owner and CEO of California’s largest raw dairy, adding that the bacteria within raw milk can have a probiotic effect for drinkers, helping to rebuild immune systems and improve overall digestion.

Canadian health authorities, who made the sale of raw milk illegal in 1991, insist heating milk in not detrimental in any way and does not diminish milk’s health benefits.

B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, told that pasteurizing milk is the only way to destroy potential pathogens in milk that could cause potentially deadly outbreaks of E. coli.

“Pasteurization does not detract in any way from the nutrition of the milk,” he said.

“[Raw milk drinkers] also claim it removes helpful bacteria like probiotics but you can get those from a number of other sources without the risk of getting salmonella, E. coli, or Listeria.”

Distribution risks

Raw milk enthusiast say pasteurized milk comes with greater risks than locally produced milk because of the large size of the batches and because milk from multiple farms is eventually pooled. Some advocates say they want to know their farmer by name.

Conventional dairy producers in Canada supply their farm’s milk to a central processing facility where it is pasteurized and then sent out in large batches to store shelves across the country.

“What happens if something goes wrong in the pasteurizing? You have a distribution of millions of cartons going into stores. That’s millions of consumers. That’s a huge problem,” farmer Michael Schmidt told from his farm in Durham, Ontario.

The veteran raw dairy farmer said local food producers can protect consumers from potential harm much more easily because they have a closer connection to the people who drink their product.

“If something goes wrong with our milk we have 200 families that we can all call in one day and cut off the problem at the source.”

Scientists disagree with this argument and justify pasteurization by pointing to the fact that a higher percentage of raw milk drinkers get sick on a serving-per-serving basis compared to those who drink pasteurized products.

“Considering one-tenth of one per cent of milk is raw in the U.S., but 33 per cent of all milk sicknesses are due to raw milk, it’s pretty staggering,” Cornell University food scientist Rob Ralyea told

The caring factor

Raw milk enthusiasts often argue there are two kinds of milks in the modern North American food system: one that is destined for human consumption and one destined for pasteurization. Michael Schmidt says conventional farmers can afford to be less careful about fecal contamination and health standards because they know their product will go through a super heating process to kill all living bacteria -- good or bad -- within it.

“Let’s put it this way. When you know you have a cleaning leady coming in every day you wear your shoes. But when you know you have to clean it by yourself you take better care,” Schmidt said.

David Gumpert agrees, saying greater care is taken in milking if the product is available directly for consumers.

“Because dairies know the milk is going to be zapped they’re going to produce milk that isn’t as clean as it should be if it wasn’t going through pasteurization.”

But it may be less about how the cows are treated than what they’re fed.

In commercial feed lots cows are mostly grain fed, which increases the risk of pathogen growth in the milk -- and could lead to harmful illnesses like E. coli, salmonella and Listeriosis.

Raw dairies have an emphasis on feeding their cows a more natural diet, which experts say keeps the animals healthier.

“Raw dairy cows are given a diet of alfalfa, grass, hay – foods they are naturally drawn to,” David Gumpert said.

“Cows are fed pasture that helps the milk nutritionally and is less likely to grow pathogens.”

Doing your homework

But food scientists say even though raw milk producers have the capacity to make a safe product, not all of them do – and that has the potential of making many people sick.

“Some of those folks are paying more attention and some of them aren’t,” Rob Ralyea said.

In the 29 U.S. states where raw milk is allowed for sale, agriculture ministries and health authorities alike encourage consumers to physically go to the farm and meet the farmer before they consume the product, especially if it’s coming from a small cow-share operation. Where raw milk can be sold in grocery stores off the farm, bottles must be labelled with health warnings.

Related: Raw in the U.S. map

“A person has to do a little bit more homework but they get to see if the cows are being taken care of properly,” Ralyea said.

This is one subject where scientists and raw dairy advocates agree. The Weston A. Price Foundation, America’s largest raw dairy advocacy society, recommends its dairy farmers do their own testing privately in addition to any mandatory testing required by the state.

“They want to have a check and balance and verification that they’re doing the right thing for their drinkers,” Kimberly Hartke told

“We recommend consumers only buy from specific farms – grass fed only. We want things to be as safe as possible.”

Check back to CTV British Columbia on Jan. 27 for a look at how raw milk is handled south of the border.