Everybody’s Crying Over Raw Milk

Recent outbreak of contaminated raw milk leaves 38 sick in the Northeast. Has the movement spoiled?

Jill Cruz serves raw milk to children Sonia and Isabella
Jill Cruz serves raw milk to her children, Sonia, 4, left, and Isabella, 8, right, at their apartment in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Getty Images)
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

In case you missed it, 38 people are now sick after consuming raw milk from a dairy in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, last week. According to health officials, the confirmed cases of campylobacter bacterial infection included 31 people in Pennsylvania, four in Maryland, two in West Virginia, and one in New Jersey.

Days later, reactions remain mixed. Most raw milk aficionados, like farm owner Edwin Shank, seemed shocked: "We are not physically ill, but we are sick at heart and spirit," wrote the fifth generation organic farmer on the farm's website. "It is so hard for Dawn and I to accept and understand that we made some of our loyal customers sick when we were trying so hard to provide food for them just like we feed our own children."

When it comes to health, people need to think for themselves.

Meanwhile, detractors have issued their I-told-you-so's: “The intensity with which raw milk supporters believe in this product is almost unheard of, certainly for a food. It’s like snake oil," says Sarah Klein, an attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in an interview with The Washington Post. "These are still animals; they defecate inches from where the milk is produced. They stand in it, they swat their tails through it. That’s all very natural. It’s just a matter of course that raw milk is contaminated.”

They're both right. For centuries, we all drank raw milk. And many of us did get sick from it: in 1938, for example, milk caused 25 percent of all outbreaks of food and water-related sickness. (Campylobacter infection, just one of the infection possibilities, causes diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, fever and can be life-threatening if it spreads to the bloodstream.) As population boomed so did factory farms, and pasteurization became necessary to guarantee the safety of our increasingly unsanitary milk supply. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy group in Washington, by 1993 universal pasteurization had brought down milk-related outbreaks to just 1 percent. The consumption of raw milk disappeared almost completely, and in a number of states it was even made illegal.

A growing segment of population is now fighting to bring it back. Citing nutritional benefits and a richer, more complex taste, advocates are looking for increased access and openness in parts of the country where raw milk sales are still forbidden. Though there is little scientific evidence that raw milk is more nutritious, enthusiasts have cited positive results across a wide range of health problems, including eczema and irritable-bowel syndrome. Pasteurization, they claim, not only destroys dangerous pathogens like E. coli, salmonella, and campylobacter, it also robs our bodies of "good" bacteria and enzymes like lactobacillus, which aids in digestion.

So are the benefits worth the risk? It's a matter of personal choice. But even for the skeptical, a total ban seems a bit extreme. Raw milk can be dangerous, yes. But so can oysters, rare meat, and sushi, along with "safe" foods like spinach, ground turkey, and yes, pasteurized milk. Anything, when contaminated, can make us sick. The resources used by opponents of the raw milk movement would be better spent fighting unsafe mercury levels in our fish, obesity-causing high-fructose corn syrup in our food, and cancer-causing chemicals in our plastic. Raw milk drinkers, at the very least, know the risks. Said Mary Lusk, a holistic health coach who buys raw milk from a farm in Elizabethtown, PA, to Penn Live: “Yes there’s a risk involved, but there are risks in everything you do. Walking out of your house poses a risk, getting into car. People who drink raw milk have done the research and have learned it has more extreme benefits to the ratio of risks."

"When it comes to health, people need to think for themselves,” said Lusk. “This is America. We don’t live under the hand of someone else. I hope we can always make these personal decisions. I want to show support for these farmers.”

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