Many years ago, I had stumbled upon the Raw Milk Debate whereby local farmers in America were defending raw milk and its quality as a nutritious beverage to be sold. Yet these small scale farms were losing out to the large commercial dairies that were pumping out more gallons of milk due to the advent of pasteurisation. Several policies had made the sale of raw milk complex and even illegal in some states .
What is the milk situation like in Singapore? In our local supermarkets, we see a variety of milk products that can be found in chillers (or shelves). We have full-cream, low-fat, skim, pasteurised & homogenised, Ultra High Temperature (UHT), condensed, evaporated and flavoured dairy milks. Yet, we don’t give enough thought about these common products.
Where is raw milk (unpasteurised)? We certainly can’t find it in our local supermarkets and in our local milk farms found at Lim Chu Kang, the milks are pasteurised with the cows and goats kept in confinement. (HayDairies sells goat milk while DairyFolks and Viknesh Dairy Farm sells cow milk, all available via deliveries on their respective websites)
So raw milk seems to be non-existent in modern Singapore but our forefathers did have access to it. In the early 1920s, Indian milkmen situated in Little India would deliver raw milk by bicycles to the richer residents, as the cows were milked daily along Serangoon Road .
Raw Milk Debate?
Briefly, the Raw Milk Debate represents two fronts, organic dairy farmers are collaborating together to campaign that clean raw milk is not only safe for consumption but is a living, nutritious health food loaded with prebiotics and enzymes that can benefit consumers. Pasteurisation, they argued is a process that deteriorates the quality of milk by heat treatment .
At the other front, health authorities such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) indicated that raw (unpasteurised) milk is not consumable for it can contain harmful pathogens such as Listeria, Salmonella and E.Coli that have caused illnesses in consumers as reported by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) . The health benefits of raw milk may not be supported by scientific studies as well, indicated by a health blog by two experts in the Mayo Clinic .
In spite of the concerns that the health authorities have highlighted, we must bear in mind what type of a raw milk product that they have identified with. Were they talking about organic, raw and grass-fed cows producing milk? Or those in confined industrial dairy farms?  The latter needs pasteurisation but what about the former?
(For the purpose of the Raw Milk Debate, the type of milk mentioned onwards refers to dairy milk)
Let us begin with the main focus the debate, pasteurisation. What is it? Pasteurisation is a process that was developed by Louis Pasteur to kill pathogens in food while preserving its quality while promoting its shelf life. It involves heating the milk to 71.7°C for 15 seconds before rapid chilling to 3°C. The ‘heat shock’ is responsible for killing said pathogens .
So why are raw milk advocates criticising against milk pasteurisation? Firstly, it can be related back its early history when the process itself was a breakthrough – distilleries and milk farms were dirty and cleanliness precautions were non-existent, pasteurisation had saved many consumers from deadly pathogens that thrive as a result of the contamination. The bacteria notion had stuck, such that organic farms today adhering to strict regulations on clean milking practices are unable to sell their products, unless pasteurised .
Secondly, it lies the conflicts of pasteurisation and milk quality. There have been evidence suggesting that pasteurisation do denature some proteins in milk but the proteins are not required by the body, denaturing them may even help digestion. In addition, despite some reduction in vitamins (B1, B12 and C), the losses are insignificant and other vitamins such as (B2, B3, A and D) are not affected by heat .
Thirdly, pasteurisation is gaining criticism for killing bacteria too well, the probiotics (beneficial bacteria that benefits the host) are getting killed with the pathogens during the process. It seems that despite any benefits that these probiotics may have, it takes a very high consumption for there to be any effect as noted by a study published in the journal Food Control. This means that the there are larger risks of food poisoning before any benefits can result . Hence, fermented milk products like kefir may be better as an alternative.
Lastly, there lies yet another conflict of illnesses associated with raw and pasteurised milk. The CDC in America had reported outbreaks of diseases when comparing consumption raw and pasteurised milk between years 1993 and 2006, with 73 outbreaks versus 48 respectively, making the claim that raw milk is more associated with serious illnesses . Interestingly, when contrasting their own data, more people have fallen ill and died when consuming pasteurised dairy total illnesses of 2786 & 4 deaths than Raw milk’s 2,128 total illnesses & 2 deaths .
Summing things up: Pasteurisation is indeed a breakthrough in the food industry today, no argument. Without this process, food-borne illnesses would be widespread and much of our beverages won’t even last to our supermarket shelves. However, we should consider that if raw milk itself is met with strict hygiene standards and tested rigorously for pathogens, it should be made available for consumption and not outlawed completely.
Industrial Dairies – Livestock
While I may not know for sure about the conditions of regional milk farms behind our local supermarket milks, but based from my experience when visiting some dairy farms in Lim Chu Kang, animal confinements are standard procedures.
It is worth a guess that maximising profits are behind the minds of these dairy companies. In the article, “The Big Business of Dairy Farming: Big Troubles for Cows” written by Lorraine Murray, she had highlighted a few key points the industry did to make the dairy industry profitable.
In the past, farmers that engaged in cow-milking would do so after a baby calf was born. The milk the farmer took was the excess after the calf was natured. In the business-model, this natural state of affairs is highly inefficient, so cows were artificially impregnated (frequently) to initiate the milk-making process and when the calves are born, they are usually removed so that more milk can be gathered. This separation really upsets and stresses the mother. 
(Male calves are usually killed after pregnancy or raised for beef)
Moreover, the cows are usually housed indoors for most of their lives and if fortunate, are given room to walk. They are kept close together and the high-densities of dairy cows housed in one large single unit results in difficulties in keeping up with sanitary levels. The lack of exercise, fattening feed (physiological) as well as emotional stresses result in cows that fall ill easily and usually with very short life-spans [ibid].
(Disclaimer: This photo depicts only the standard confinements that these animals endure. HayDairies have done a better job in feeding and tending to the animals needs than the abysmal conditions provided at more industrialised dairies overseas)
When these conditions combined, it makes pasteurisation absolutely necessary to prevent widespread outbreaks of food poisoning from occurring. It is more convenient and safer then to sell these milk to the public and health outbreaks relating to raw milk occurs when hygienic conditions are even neglected slightly.
The next topic, which is critically important is.. what are the cows eating? A cow (like goats) are ruminants, ruminants are organisms that have evolved to develop specialised stomachs (rumen) to digest cellulose such as grass through its gut microbes. In modern dairy farms, the cows are rarely fed grass if at all, and the most common feed is corn. Corn is used for it satisfies as a feed while being really cheap as discussed in an earlier article . This makes it suitable for the business model of low expenses and high profits..
There is one catch, the cows fall ill even more easily now. Cows have to learn how to eat corn, they had never eaten these starchy grains as part of their natural diet of grass. Antibiotics are used heavily in livestock for this reason, to prevent illnesses, but it only works in the short-term and more antibiotics have to be administered progressively. At some point, the cow would be unable to digest grass as the microbes in the rumen begin to die off [ibid].
Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH)
rBGH is an artificially created hormone that mimics a naturally occurring hormone found in the pituitary gland in cows. It is developed by biotech company Monsanto and is receiving huge criticisms for the damages that is occurring to the environment and health of cows and humans. rBGH was administered previously for increased milk productions (short-term benefits) and it is fortunate that dairy companies are using less of it now .
While raw milk is indeed lost in Singapore, I do believe that it deserve its own place in our food system. In America, the Raw Milk Institute was established to unite organic dairy farmers that produced raw milk to a strict standard to adhere by, which was absent before. There lies many testimonies of consumers that indicated raw milk as a profound, safe and nutritious beverage when purchased from the right sources.
In addition, the advocacy for raw milk should be favored when you consider that these farms mostly treat the animals and the earth with respect especially when abiding by the standards set by Raw Milk Institute. This is in contrast with the Industrial Dairies that treat the animals as digits and even if our local milk manufacturers aren’t as cruel (or harsh) as these large confined operations, I believe we that the food system can be better.
It is likely all our milks are pasteurised so as to absolutely prevent any dairy-related illnesses (especially in an import-dependent country).
With a final note, if you are fortunate to have an opportunity to consume raw milk out of Singapore, please ensure that you have seen the conditions where the cows (or goats) are raised. or if there are strict sanitary guidelines that the farmers had followed. If upon consumption that you feel unwell, it is likely that raw milk may be bad for you and can differ from one individual to another.
“One Farmer’s Perspective on the Raw Milk Debate”