Jane Says: Raw Milk Comes With Real Risks

Many incidents of food-borne illness are traced back to unpasteurized dairy.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Aug 13, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.
“Raw milk has such a mystique about it. What are the health risks and benefits?”
Edward Green

Because raw milk has become such a polarizing topic, and I’m up to my earlobes in research files, this is gonna have to be a two-parter. This week, I’ll endeavor to shed some light on the risks inherent in raw milk. Next week, I’ll devote this space to the nutritional aspects, as well as to flavor.

The milk you buy at the grocery store has been pasteurized—that is, heat-treated to kill pathogens such as salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, listeria, campylobacter, and more—thanks to the discovery, in 1864, by French microbiologist Louis Pasteur that heating liquids to a temperature slightly below boiling for a certain amount of time can eliminate harmful bacteria. It was a great advance for public health in an age when milk-borne diseases such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, severe streptococcal infections, typhoid fever, brucellosis (undulant fever), and scarlet fever caused countless deaths, especially of young children.

Pasteurization technology has grown increasingly sophisticated, but as culinary historian Anne Mendelson writes in Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages, a certain faction has always been suspicious of the process, opposing it “as an unwarranted interference with the natural qualities of milk.”

The past five years or so have seen increased interest in raw milk, and enthusiasts go to great lengths and great expense to get it. Only 12 states allow its sale at retail stores, so people may routinely drive several hours to pick it up from a dairy or a clandestine drop-off point, buy a share of a cow, and/or pay upwards of $10 a gallon for it. Why? Well, they want to consume less processed food, or they believe raw milk contains more nutrients than pasteurized milk, or that it can prevent or relieve any number of health problems. It’s a way to support a local, often underground, economy, and a rallying cry for foodies with a libertarian bent, who want the government to stop telling them what in the hell they can and cannot eat and drink. It’s not about safety (at least, not until it turns into a personal tragedy) but about individual choice. It’s about values.

“They have a point—how is it that cigarettes are legal in this country while, in most states, raw milk can’t be sold in stores?” Michael Pollan said in an October 2011 Q&A for The New York Times. “On the other hand, doesn’t the government have a compelling interest in protecting children from a product about which they can’t make an informed decision?”

I couldn’t agree more. Milk, whether raw or pasteurized, is not an essential nutrient but a food (and a perfect one only if you happen to be a calf), and we can decide to drink it or not. Consumers should have the right to drink raw milk, but it should be produced under stringently followed guidelines and testing protocols commensurate with the risk factor. Outbreaks occur from milk that has been contaminated after pasteurization, true, and plenty of folks say that they and their families have been drinking raw milk for years and have never gotten sick. Good for them. But their experience has no bearing on your risk—or that of your kids. Who are maybe not old enough to read this column.

For the report Outbreak Alert 2014, published in April, the Center for Science in the Public Interest analyzed 10,409 food-borne disease outbreaks reported to the CDC that occurred between 2002 and 2011. The introduction explains that “of those reported outbreaks, 3,933 outbreaks—responsible for 98,399 illnesses—were fully solved. ‘Solved’ outbreaks are those where both the contaminated food and the pathogen were identified.” Within the dairy category, 51 percent of outbreaks are associated with milk, and within milk, 70 percent are due to raw milk. According to various sources, raw milk is consumed by 1 to 3 percent of the U.S. population. As a whole, the public has a laissez-faire attitude toward drinking the stuff, but you have to understand why raw milk is of such concern to epidemiologists and other public health officials. Their reasoning is staggeringly simple: Pathogens are easily destroyed by pasteurization, so any deaths caused by them are preventable. Period.

Proponents of raw milk, however, are convinced of its protective powers, no matter what the science says. According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, a prominent advocate, a “five-fold protective system destroys pathogens in the milk, stimulates the immune system, builds healthy gut wall, prevents absorption of pathogens and toxins in the gut and ensures assimilation of all the nutrients.” The foundation goes on to say, “So powerful is the anti-microbial system in raw milk that when large quantities of pathogens are added to raw milk, their numbers diminish over time and eventually disappear.”

A blunt analysis in Food Safety News in November 2011 calls this a myth, and Mark Snyder, writing on the subject at sciencebasedmedicine.org, labels it “pure fantasy.”

Food poisoning outbreaks are associated with fruits and vegetables too. In CSPI’s Outbreak report, the produce category was tops for outbreaks, with 23,748 illnesses. Then why pick on raw milk? Well, E. coli 0157:H7, for instance, doesn’t occur naturally in plants, as it does in cattle, but is introduced through contaminated water or careless handling. Plants don’t shed E. coli the way cattle do. If you’ve ever spent any time in a barnyard, then you know manure is, well, everywhere. The splat-and-splash factor is considerable. Even if those cows are grass-fed and perfectly healthy, the latest research shows that they shed as much (and sometimes more) E. coli as animals given conventional cattle feed; outbreaks have been traced back to pastured animals. Keeping cows, equipment, and hands scrupulously clean is quite a job. Frankly, I can’t imagine the stress, let alone the insurance premiums.