31 August 2010

Risk, Milk, and the Scientific Method


Public Enemy #1     Bessie the Cow

Our little bit of Heaven is now cold and often rainy.  A bear was spotted in the village a few days ago.  I think the wildlife wants its privacy back.

We’re finishing food in the fridge and cans that may be soon out of date. Larissa is washing, airing, folding sheets and blankets... packing them away to keep them vermin free. The last three days we had a kitchen fire to dry apple slices placed on old refrigerator racks and oven trays.

Seasons Change

The evening of the last day of summer... 18 August... after swimming in the lake and a day outdoors, I topped off  with some kefir and fresh applesauce.  The next morning  it turned 10 degrees colder, with wind and wet weather approaching.  On waking I had a heavy and rather painful stomach.

So started fall *, and a churning gut condition.  It took a week for me to have any interest in food. I spent time on the Internet and found a boiling controversy in the States about access to raw milk.

* Ever since 19 August we have been wearing warm sweaters and jackets.  Indubitably fall arrived suddenly and forcefully!

Which side are you on?

Laissez faire. Proponents of raw unpasteurized milk want to have the freedom we have by default in Russia... to purchase milk without government interference.  They see this issue as having to do with parents’ rights and freedom.  They do not like the heavy enforcement, with guns drawn, of various levels of American government.

Law and Order. Opponents look at unpasteurized milk through a different lens.  They  see  raw  milk as risky to consume. To them, people (and their children) should be protected from  bad decisions. 

How I view the additional risks of living in Russia, and how I look at risk...

An expat here needs to handle more risk in daily living than he probably had to back home...

This is an uncertain country... the sidewalks, the roads, inadequate fire protection, slow emergency response, uninspected elevators. Those who can live with a degree of anarchy deal better with living in Russia.  You must reduce your risk exposure where you can and hope for the best.

I believe “That government is best that governs least” (attibuted to Thomas Paine).  An orderly system of inspections and enforcement (for food, drugs, fire safety) is necessary... but has to be balanced against the peoples’ need for freedom. 

Government should not interfere with home schooling, family behavior, or what you buy at the market. 

Risk failure if you want success...

Acceptance of risk is what helped made America great.  Did the pioneers practice abuse... who crossed the prairie and expose their wives and children to possible scalping. ?  I believe that people should have the right to ‘go to Hell in a hand basket’ if they wish.

Raw milk is available in Russia everyday...

Lactobacillus (x1000)
Image by shok via Flickr

Lactobacillus (x1000)
I’ve been sick several times in my life but never before because of my own behavior.  Two of the great things about living on a former kolhoz  (collective farm)...  is the fresh high fat milk and dark yellow-yoked eggs.

True, we get raw milk in our St Petersburg courtyard from one of the remaining collective farms selling in the city... but we don’t know the cows... face to face.  Here they have the roam of the village, are tame and enjoy a little scratch around the ears... even the bulls.

Our relatives give us milk , but Larissa insists on paying for eggs.  Sometimes the milk is still warm  from the cow.  We set aside some for kefir, the rest goes into a large aluminum sauce pan to be pasteurized.  The part set aside is what threw me for a loop last week!

Pastuerizing milk...

If you Google home pasteurize milk the listings routinely  say to  heat milk to 62.8 C (145 F) and keep it there for 30 minutes.  Then cool to 4.4C (40 F) and refrigerate.  For this method you need a stainless steel double boiler and a food thermometer.  

Larissa has an easier and apparently effective way.  She brings milk to a boil at 78.9 C (174 F).  At the boiling point it suddenly rises to the top. This is a dramatic moment, especially if the cook has left the room!  It’s then allowed to cool on the counter, and put in the fridge.

Why does milk boil so quickly compared to water?  Water boils at 100 C (212 F),  but milk boils at a lower temperature because of the milk solids. 

Cheryl Bowman of 123Life.com includes a sterilizing way that is similar to what we do... Heat milk to 74 C (165F), keep it there for 15 seconds, cool fast to  63C (145F), and then cool to 40C (4.4F) and place in the fridge.

Untrained, unscientific, deduction... with intuition!

We have been here six summers in the last seven years.  In that time I have drunk homemade unpasteurized kefir.

But time goes on and variables change.

~     I’m older and have a condition.  Now I am one of the elderly.

~     Our relatives the farmers have aged.  One had a stroke, the   other is losing vision and refuses treatment.  Only one milk cow remains.

~     I have never seen a veterinarian or milk and cow inspector who has bothered to come down the rugged road to our village. 

Bessie the Cow and Robert the Expat...

If you scientifically want to investigate something, first limit variables... ideally to one.  In my case this would require that Bessie the Cow and Robert the Expat be tested for bacteria.  Not possible.


On the 18th I consumed my kefir with some home made apple sauce mixed in.  The next morning I was sick and continued so for over a week.  I lost all appetite, and had pain in the stomach and intestines that became worse with spasms.  With each day it seemed more obvious to me that the likely cause was unwelcome milk bacteria.

This is just my theory and conclusion.

There were times I didn’t think I was going to get or feel better.  Milk can be nasty when harmful bacteria is  present such as...

Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, Campylobacteria, Brucella.

Risk - benefit...

Bad milk can have permanent effects, besides the initial illness... and they can be severe for weak infants and the elderly.  Bacteria can kill.

Raw milk proponents claim that untreated milk has extra nutrients and ingredients that naturally helps you resist bacterial infection.  A good example of anecdotal evidence... Scandinavians who now drink pasteurized milk appear to have more bone troubles than their parents and grandparents did. 

Unpasteurized milk can be relatively safe if it comes from a sanitary dairy where the cows are monitored and tested frequently.  But like a chain the milk is only as free of bad bacteria as the last worker who handled it.  A fomite is an object that is contaminated.

I reduce my risk to zero.

If I were younger and free of health conditions, I would probably continue using some raw milk.  But in my case it isn’t worth the risk.


So now I use home pastuerized milk.  It still has high fat and the taste of raw milk.  If I’m going to have bacteria with my milk, let it be lactobacillus 

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Technorati Tags: kefir, raw milk controversey, bears, dried apples, bacterial milk infection, Russian life risky, kalhoz collective farm, home milk pasteurization, milk boils 78.9C, dairy inspections, lactobacillus acidophilus.

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  1. Interesting! We drank nothing but raw (goat) milk for years when my children were young,and never suffered for it, but we were extremely particular about getting it cooled off immediately- putting it in a cooling bath and then right into the 'fridge in small containers. I think I would have no problem drinking my own raw milk, but would think twice about buying it from someone who I did not trust. On the kefir- one of my Russian friends here used to take milk and put it out on the counter for several days, trying to make kefir... didn't work because 1)milk was pasteurized, and 2) we don't have the right bacteria in our homes. So, she bought some 'mushrooms' to add to the milk and now has a supply of very tasty kefir- as do many others now as the cultures grow and can be shared over and over. My own piece has been used continually for 8 months now and has provided many other friends with starts. The good thing is that it works well in pasteurized milk. What method does your wife use to make kefir? It would be interesting to see photos of her making it!

    I hope you are feeling back to yourself now...

  2. Thank you for mailing me (via BookMooch) the link to your blog...
    Nice to learn something about a country not so far away from Belgium, and yet so unknown...
    I don't like milk, pasteurized or not, but I regret it isn't possible anymore to buy those delicious French, Italian, English cheeses made from raw milk in Belgium, because the European Union has decided against export of those delicacies...

  3. I can't drink milk at all. I use soymilk as a replacement for cereal and things of that kind. Personally, I would not trust american un-pasturized milk...too many generations away from real farm knowledge I think. But then, I don't really like the idea of most of our milk. I think we over protect the cows with too much anti-biotics and things. It gets into the milk, and then into us which we don't need.

    I hope you are feeling better and am glad it didn't do terrible damage to you. The way things are all over the world bacteria scares me far worse than actual war.

    Thank you for writing! love your work!

  4. Thank you, Margo. I am feeling well now.

    In my next life, goats will keep the grass short and provide milk for drinking and cheese!

    Larissa puts the milk on kitchen window counter covered with cheese cloth for a day or two. The result is what is called prostiquasha.

    She makes kefir with a starter.

    One of the many careers I would enjoy would be Food Photographer! It's sort of a joke in our family that Robert would rather photograph tasty food than take shots of people. So your suggestion is accepted with alacrity!

  5. What lovely photographs of butterflies and other subjects in your blog, AnneTanneKruidenklets!

    Thanks for adding the information that the ER restricts access to tasty raw milk cheeses.

    In America much of what is considered cheese by consumers is actually labeled Cheese Food as it is processed to an entity far from natural cheese.

  6. Thank you Lisa for your well wishes and for your heart felt advice on your blog, Widow Lady.
    It is a great help for those of us who want to navigate life in a less stressful way.

    Yes, bacteria can cause many problems from TB to gum disease to digestive misery. Antibiotics are a two edged sword as many people in Russia take them too frequently, thereby possible impairing their ability to fight future serious disease.

    When I see the word Namaste I quickly think of you!


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