Is it safe to drink raw milk and eat raw milk products?

Raw milk is not pasteurised, which means it misses out on an important process that kills harmful bacteria. Learn about the health risks of drinking raw milk and eating raw-milk cheeses, and how to reduce them.

Pasteurisation kills harmful bacteria

Most milk sold in New Zealand is pasteurised, which means it is heated for a short time. This kills bacteria that can make us sick. Raw (unpasteurised) milk from any animal may be contaminated with illness-causing bacteria such as:

  • Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC)
  • Listeria monocytogenes
  • Campylobacter
  • Salmonella
  • the bacteria which causes tuberculosis.

Read more about the types of bacteria that can be found in raw milk

These bacteria most commonly cause severe diarrhoea and vomiting. Some have been linked with more serious complications that include:

  • miscarriage
  • paralysis
  • serious kidney problems in children.

Illness caused by drinking raw milk

Between 2014 and 2018, there were 25 reported outbreaks of illness associated with people consuming raw milk.

Raw milk is associated with 38.6% of all potentially foodborne outbreaks of campylobacteriosis in New Zealand.

Many people with STEC infections from raw milk need to be hospitalised. Some even develop haemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which is life threatening.

Update to the assessment of the microbiological risks associated with the consumption of raw milk [PDF, 1.3 MB]

Raw milk is especially risky for some people

Raw milk is a risky food for anybody who consumes it. But the risk is higher for some people such as:

  • young children and babies
  • pregnant women
  • older people, especially those with underlying health conditions
  • people with low immunity.

Find out about food for people with low immunity

Can I get risk-free raw milk?

No – you can't. Harmful bacteria live in the gut of even healthy animals. These bacteria can be present anywhere on a farm. Bacteria can live on clean-looking surfaces and spread from there to the milk.

Careful sanitation practices during raw milk production can reduce health risks but they can't be removed completely. There is no easy way to tell if raw milk is carrying harmful bacteria. It has to be analysed in a laboratory to be sure it is safe.

To reduce your risk of getting sick

If you choose to drink raw milk, we recommend the following to reduce the risk of getting sick:

  • Buy it only from a registered raw milk supplier, which must follow strict hygiene practices and sell raw milk directly from the farm gate or by home delivery.
  • Keep it chilled while transporting it home from the farm.
  • Store raw milk at 4 degrees Celsius or less in your fridge.
  • Throw it out if it's been left out of the fridge for 2 or more hours.
  • The safest option is to heat raw milk to 70 degrees Celsius and hold it at that temperature for 1 minute. If you don't have a thermometer, heat the milk until it nearly reaches a boil (or scald the milk) before drinking it.

If you're serving raw milk to friends or visitors, make sure you let them know the milk is unpasteurised.

When purchasing raw milk, supply your contact details when asked. You can then be notified if a batch of milk is found to be contaminated with harmful bacteria.

Infographic: Raw unpasteurised milk: What you need to know [PDF, 214 KB]

Registered raw milk suppliers

Raw milk regulations

Video – Reduce your risk of getting sick (3.14)

Raw-milk cheeses can also have risk

Bacteria found in raw-milk cheeses comes from the raw milk itself. The process of making cheese can kill some bacteria. This depends on the type of cheese. Safer raw-milk cheeses are low-moisture or hard cheeses like parmesan or gruyere. The cheesemaking process may not kill bacteria in soft cheeses like camembert, brie, feta, or fresh cheeses, so these could have a food safety risk.

An assessment of available information on raw milk cheeses and human disease 2000–2010 [PDF, 327 KB]

Other sources of bacteria can come from the cheesemaking environment including equipment and personnel, or cross contamination between finished products and raw materials. Both pasteurised and raw-milk cheeses can be contaminated this way.

You can tell if a cheese is made from raw milk if the label says "raw" or "unpasteurised". If unsure, ask shop staff, or if you are at a restaurant, ask the waiting staff.

Pregnant women are most at risk from the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes and should avoid eating raw-milk cheeses.

Evaluation of the microbial safety of raw milk cheeses [PDF, 1.2 MB]

Risk profile update: Listeria monocytogenes in cheese [PDF, 1.4 MB]

Keeping and handling raw-milk cheese

If you choose to buy and serve raw-milk cheese, take care how you store and handle it.

  • Buy your cheese from a reputable supplier.
  • Keep the cheese wrapped in your fridge and separate from other ready-to-eat foods.
  • Make sure your fridge is between 2 degrees Celsius and 4 degrees Celsius.
  • Use separate knives and chopping boards for the cheese.
  • Discard the cheese on its use-by date.
  • Don't leave it at room temperature for more than 2 hours.

Scientific evidence doesn't support raw milk health claims

There is no substantial scientific evidence to suggest raw milk offers any health benefits over pasteurised milk.

An Assessment of the Effects of Pasteurisation on Claimed Nutrition and Health Benefits of Raw Milk [PDF, 340 KB]

Who to contact

If you have questions about raw milk, email info@mpi.govt.nz

Last reviewed: