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Worrying About Raw Milk

Posted Jul 26 2010 10:39pm

The deeper I delve into the topic of dairy consumption, the more I get sucked in. I am learning so many interesting things. For instance, the earliest evidence of humans consuming milk is from 9,000 year old milk cartons found in the Near East and, also, drinking milk could increase your likelihood of having twins . Weird, huh? When I wrote my last post about milk I was not the least bit concerned with talking about unpasteurized milk because I think there is enough debate surrounding dairy itself , period, but raw milk was brought up by commenters . Then today’s news report of an armed raid of a raw food store and seizure of raw milk by government investigators, further captured my attention.  If a gun-toting crackdown doesn’t send out a message, I don’t know what will.

Why all the fuss? Pasteurization is the process of heating milk to 161 degrees Fahrenheit to kill pathogenic microbes. Pasteurization was first enforced in the US in New York City in 1914 during the heat of a typhoid epidemic that was linked to raw milk. Seven years later, when the city’s infant death rate, which had hovered at an appalling 240 of every 1,000 live births, had dropped to 71 deaths per 1,000, a victory many credited to pasteurization. In most of the U.S., unpasteurized raw milk is banned and in Canada officials went as far as to declare raw milk more dangerous than cigarettes and alcohol . According to former FDA Food and Safety division chief, David Acheson, “Raw milk is associated with significant human illness and potentially with microbes that are deadly.”

Pure foodists claim that raw milk has health-benefits and that pasteurization robs milk of nutrition content. There is no current scientific evidence supporting any of such raw milk health claims. The sole study on the issue, a European study of children who lived on a farm and drank raw milk at an early age, showed that it may offer some protection when it comes to allergies, but it’s unclear whether the protection is from being regularly exposed to bacteria from animals or from the milk itself. There is some truth, however, to the claim that pasteurization robs milk of nutritional content, but David Acheson thinks that there’s no weight to the point, “You are going to impact vitamins, you are going to do other things to it. But in the grand scheme of things, in a complete, healthy diet, it is, frankly, in my opinion, irrelevant,” he says.

Here are two key remaining questions addressed by :

How many people get sick from raw milk compared to pasteurized milk?

According to CDC, between 1998 and 2008, there were 85 outbreaks of human infections resulting from consumption of raw milk reported to CDC, including a total of 1,614 reported illnesses, 187 hospitalizations and two deaths. Illnesses and deaths have also been linked to the consumption of fresh cheese made from raw (unpasteurized milk), especially the Mexican-style queso fresco  cheeses. Since many millions of people drink pasteurized milk every day in the United States, and only about 1-3% of the population drinks raw milk, the number of illnesses reported show that the actual risk of getting sick from drinking raw milk is tremendously higher than drinking pasteurized milk.

Statistics from the CDC and State Health Departments comparing raw and pasteurized dairy products linked to reported foodborne disease outbreaks (1973-2006) show that raw milk and Mexican-style queso fresco soft cheeses (usually made from raw milk) caused almost 70% of the reported outbreaks even though only 1-3% of the population consumes raw dairy products.  If raw and pasteurized milk were equally risky, it would be expected that there would be far more pasteurized outbreaks since the number of people drinking conventional milk is so much higher.

People get sick from all kinds of foods.  Is raw milk any different than other foods like deli meats, spinach, beef, peanut butter, and pasteurized milk?

Yes, raw milk is different from other foods marketed as “ready-to-consume.”

“Ready-to-consume” means that you are not expected to have to cook the food or take special precautions when handling it like you would with raw meat or raw poultry, for example.  While illness is sometimes caused by ready-to-consume foods like fresh raw fruits and vegetables, deli meats, peanut butter, and pasteurized milk, these events are unusual because these foods are not normally contaminated with fecal bacteria.  If there are fecal bacteria in these ready-to-consume foods, it is because of a breakdown in the food safety precautions that are in place to protect these foods from contamination.

However, products including raw milk, raw meat, poultry, and fish products are produced in environments that are unavoidably contaminated with fecal material (milking barns and slaughterhouses).  These products should always be thoroughly cooked before consumption to eliminate the disease-causing fecal germs.

In my opinion, in our society drinking raw milk is dangerous, even if you personally know the farmer. Raw milk seems to be something that is inherently dirty and requires cooking, like raw meat, as pointed out above. I also don’t see the motivation in pursuing a system that would allow us to ensure safe raw milk be available to everyone because we already have a system in place that is meant to guarantee the safety of other food sources of calcium:


Although milk is commonly thought to be the premier source of calcium, many other foods are calcium-rich. Consider that a cup of cow’s milk contains about 300 milligrams of calcium. The following portions of foods each supply more than 250 milligrams of calcium: a cup of collard greens, a cup of turnips, an ounce of Swiss cheese, three ounces of sardines, or four ounces of flour. Not only do these—and foods like beans, tofu, and fish—contain calcium but evidence suggests they supply it in a form that is more fully absorbed by the body than milk-derived calcium. Thus a diet high in calcium-rich plant foods or other nonmilk alternatives may reduce the amount of calcium you need to take in to keep your bones healthy. In the United States, the suggested daily calcium intake is 800 milligrams for kids 4 to 8, 1,200 milligrams for kids 9 to 18, and 1,000 milligrams for adults. The World Health Organization, however, recommends 500 milligrams for children and 800 milligrams for adults.

I am not opposed to making raw milk legal, however, because I think people should be allowed to make their own decisions on what they consume. But with all the people out there making false health claims about raw milk, it is easy to imagine a scenario in which people have difficulty making a truly informed decision. Nonetheless, being able to choose to drink raw milk does strike me as a freedom we should possess so that the minority can gamble with their health at will.

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