California is one of 13 states where it is legal for retailers to sell raw milk, meaning you can find it in several L.A. grocery stores. As sales of raw milk grow, so does debate over its health claims and hazards. If you're planning to celebrate National Dairy Month this June (and who isn't), you may be wondering whether raw milk should be your celebratory drink of choice. Here’s what you need to know.

Raw milk is unpasteurized milk. Pasteurization requires heating milk to a temperature high enough to kill most pathogens: 145 degrees for 30 minutes is the lowest temperature for pasteurization, though most milk today is pasteurized at higher temperatures for shorter times. In other words, it's cooked. Pasteurizing kills many bacteria that can make us sick but also destroys some enzymes in the milk that raw milk advocates say can help us process milk's beneficial nutrients.

In the United States, most milk for sale today is pasteurized or even ultra-pasteurized (heated to 280 degrees for two seconds). But raw milk is not a new trend — it once was the norm, and in some countries it still is. Raw milk is believed to aid digestion and alleviate asthma and allergies.

But the fight over whether raw milk sales should be legal has been as heated as, well, pasteurized milk. In a 2012 debate hosted by the Harvard Food Law Society, the dueling sides came face to face, and you can watch the entire awkward 90-minute video on YouTube.

In short, the FDA and the CDC strongly urge people not to drink raw milk. They caution that raw milk is much riskier than pasteurized milk and that even tested and approved raw milk can still be contaminated with bacteria such as campylobacter, E. coli, listeria and salmonella, which are especially risky for people with compromised immune systems, the elderly, pregnant women and children. They argue that scientific evidence does not currently support the claim that raw milk has any health advantages over pasteurized milk. Even if further study does vindicate claims that raw milk is better for building bone density or curing allergies, opponents argue that the benefits don't outweigh potential problems such as kidney failure from a listeriosis infection.

Raw milk advocates counter that the risks are overstated and are not unique to milk. Everyone knows eating raw fish for sushi is riskier than eating cooked fish, but it's less vilified than raw milk. Similarly, raw vegetables such as spinach have been the source of illness outbreaks in the United States, including infections from E. coli and listeria. Proponents of raw milk say the importance of the good bacteria shouldn't be underestimated and insist that proper handling of raw milk to prevent contamination is possible.

Organic Pastures raw milk at Lassens; Credit: Sara Rashkin

Organic Pastures raw milk at Lassens; Credit: Sara Rashkin

A handful of grocery stores in L.A. consistently carry raw milk: Erewhon (Fairfax, Calabasas and Venice), Co-opportunity (Santa Monica), Sprouts (many locations including Torrance, Westwood and Whittier) and Lassens (12 locations including Los Feliz, Echo Park, Ventura, Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley). The raw milk in these stores currently comes from Organic Pastures (raw cow milk and kefir) and Claravale Farm (raw cow and goat milk); both farms are located in central California (Fresno and San Benito County, respectively). Their raw milk is delivered to retailers every week and marked with an expiration date about one week from the date of delivery.

Desert Farms
is a California-based company that uses a network of small farms across the country to provide raw camel milk in each region. Its products, both raw and pasteurized, are for sale in bulk on its website and on Amazon. Erewhon carries single pints of frozen raw camel’s milk for $25. (Camels do not produce as much milk as cows, which is one argument Desert Farms offers in explanation of the price.) 

As consumers continue to gravitate toward “whole,” “unprocessed” and “natural” foods, they want the best of past traditions — with improved health and safety records. A growing demand for such foods often increases both safety and public awareness — which means that raw milk might soon be as ubiquitous as grocery-store sushi.

Milk selection at Lassens in Echo Park; Credit: Sara Rashkin

Milk selection at Lassens in Echo Park; Credit: Sara Rashkin

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