White Lightning: Why Does Raw Milk Spark Such Heated Debate?

Mud in your eye!

Mud in your eye!

A week or so ago I drank a cold, refreshing glassful of a liquid that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says is “inherently dangerous” and “should not be consumed by anyone at any time for any purpose.”

We’re not talking about kerosene, or even the hard cider I brew in the basement, but milk, more precisely, raw milk.

I obtained my raw milk in return for a few dozen seeds I’d saved from last summer’s ultra-hot Scotch bonnet pepper crop. (Talk about something that should come with a FDA warning.) I gave some of my seeds to a neighbor who tends a small herd of Jersey cows. She filled a clean quart Ball jar for me from the cooling tank in her milking barn.

It seemed like a pretty good deal. I survived the experience and came away reminded that, safety issues aside, you’ve never tasted real milk in all of its rich, creamy, complex glory until you’ve tasted raw milk. I was also left wondering about why the mere mention of raw milk sparks such fierce controversy among its proponents and opponents.

Raw is the term applied to milk that has not been pasteurized, a process that involves heating it to a specific temperature and holding it there long enough to kill potentially harmful bacteria (typically 161 degrees F. for 15 seconds). The process destroys a virtual rogue’s gallery of bugs that can sicken or, in rare cases, kill people, particularly the young, the old, the pregnant, and those with weak immune systems. The list of germs includes Enterotoxigenic Staphylococcus aureus, Campylobacter jejuni, Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Mycobacterium bovis, Brucella, Coxiella Burneti, and Yersinia enterocolitica. Government agencies are fond of quoting the statistic that since pasteurization became common in the 1930s, the share of food-borne illnesses attributed to milk has dropped from 25 percent to less than 1 percent.

The FDA requires that all milk for human consumption to be pasteurized if it is to be sold across state lines. However, 28 states permit raw milk to be sold within their borders, though often under strict and even Byzantine regulatory guidelines that typically limit the amount a farmer can sell, prohibit advertising, and require that customers purchase directly from the farm.

(Click here to see your state’s policy.)

Proponents of raw milk contend that the government’s restrictions and dire warnings are exaggerated, misguided, and in some cases blatantly wrong. Among the most outspoken and controversial of the advocates for raw milk is Sally Fallon, founder and president of the Westin A. Price Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that promotes the consumption of nutrient-dense, non-processed foods such as animal fats, organ meat, eggs, butter, and other dairy products, preferably raw.

The government’s position, she says, is based on the premise that pasteurization is the best public health initiative we’ve ever had. “I believe is that pasteurization is the most disastrous public health initiative we’ve ever had,” she said in a telephone interview.

Fallon claims that pasteurization compromises the nutrition of milk, destroying vitamins and enzymes necessary for good health. Drinking raw milk, in her view, prevents allergies and promotes a healthy immune system. And furthermore, raw milk contains beneficial bacteria and other components such as lactoferrin that kill harmful microbes. The FDA and other health agencies and academic groups say that such assertions are flatly untrue.

Fallon also points out that the percentage of illnesses caused by raw milk compared to other foods is small. The Price Foundation’s website cites statistics showing that between 1990 and 2004, bacteria-contaminated produce caused 639 disease outbreaks in the United States, poultry 541, beef 467, and seafood 984. Between 1994 and 2008 there were only 85 disease outbreaks associated with raw milk, according to the FDA. Most recently, campylobacter-tainted raw milk sickened 13 people in Michigan late last month and sparked a barrage of dire warnings from the FDA.

One outbreak of any kind is too many, but these statistics do beg the question of why the government is not prohibiting the consumption of salad greens, steak tartare, oysters on the half-shell and sushi. “I think the dairy industry is putting a lot of effort on the FDA to protect their industry. They don’t want the consumer to have access to a different kind of product, and they certainly don’t want farmers to get a better price for their milk,” Fallon said.

“We are in the midst of a very degraded food supply. We’re surrounded by advertising for total junk foods. It just doesn’t seem just that raw milk is not available to everyone.”

So who to believe?

How about neither. Last summer, Vermont, the state in which I live, adopted a middle course that requires farmers who sell raw milk to adhere to strict standards of sanitation and animal health. Milk samples must be taken each day and preserved. Sellers must maintain a contact list of all their customers and can only sell to end users, not middlemen. The containers in which raw milk is consumed must bear a label clearly warning of its potential dangers. And—here’s my favorite—customers must be provided with the opportunity to tour the farm from which their milk comes.

Thus armed, consumers are left make their own informed decisions, which is more than they can when they buy a bag of pre-cut fresh spinach shipped in from California, a product that in recent years has killed more people than raw milk.

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15 comments

  1. TJ says:

    It seems to me that you’re making a fundamental statistical error here. Raw milk may have lower raw (ha) numbers of illnesses, but if it’s prohibited in large swathes of the country and very few people actually consume it, it seems like it must have a higher rate of causing illness than the other foods. Do you have any per capita or other such data on raw milk that ties the number of illnesses to the total amount of raw milk consumed?

  2. Barry says:

    TJ, Thanks for the comment. You are absolutely correct. I was unable to find anyone who had figures that compared the number of illness outbreaks to the number of consumers of a particular food. Nor could I find and hard numbers on how many people consume raw milk. I did not mean to imply that raw milk is statistically safer than other foods. I doubt that it is. My point was that you don’t seem to see the same governmental reaction when someone is sickened, say, by produce or beef as you do when someone is sickened by raw milk.

  3. Beth says:

    TJ, I was going to say the same thing about the statistics. I tend to think drinking raw milk is probably just fine, but the numbers don’t help the argument.

    On the other hand, I’d love to know what caused the campylobacter outbreak in Michigan. Was it due to an unhealthy animal or contamination during the collection process or some other reason?

    I think one of the primary issues with eating non-processed foods is that consumers are used to having things all labeled and hygenic and ready to eat. We’ve forgotten how to ask the questions about the origins of our food that would indicate whether something was safe or not. Perhaps the Michigan outbreak was due to something in the collection process that, if monitored more closely, would not occur again. The more we understand this, the less scary ‘raw’ or unprocessed foods become.

  4. Diane Hinkle says:

    My husband and I had a registered Holstein dairy farm for almost 30 years. We never, ever sold raw milk to the public. We were often approached to do so but realized that one ‘unhappy’ customer could cost us our livelihood so we always said no. We were a grade A dairy and kept the bacteria or Somatic Cell Count (SCC) of our product well within the safety guidelines set by the government. There is so little education out there for the general public to be comfortable with the whole cow to carton process…our entire family(7) drank raw milk for those 28+ years and never had a problem and we often attributed that practice to our good health. MOST dairymen produce a very fine product, one of nature’s best. But because a milk truck picks up milk from many different dairies, the pasturization process is a consumer protection must!

  5. I’m not sure I’m for making raw milk legal to sell in stores, but I see no reason why farmers can’t sell directly to consumers. In my state we get around it through herdshare agreements, but the rules seem kind of silly.

  6. Nick says:

    Learning about how many nutrients are lost in the pasteurization process is pretty interesting, but I’m still not sure if it’s worth the risk.

    http://milk.procon.org/view.answers.php?questionID=000806

  7. Terry says:

    There’s very little I believe from the government anymore – including the FDA!

  8. franklyn forest says:

    I am all for raw milk, it is time to get back to natural!

  9. Barry: I spent five years of my life as a volunteer co-worker at Camphill Villages in PA and MN, working with so-called mentally handicapped folks and learning the ins and outs of Biodynamic Agriculture. The village in PA was home to 120 people; in MN it was 30 or so. All Camphills are agriculturally based and at PA the farm provided at least 90 percent of the food consumed in the community, including raw milk, cream, cheese, butter (also, of course, produce, home-butchered meat, fruit and grains–the bakery was a huge part of village life). Nobody ever got sick from drinking raw milk, and in fact the village marketed milk and cheese widely in Philadelphia health food stores.

    The “risk” Nick speaks of is mostly imaginary.

    Deep Gardening: Soul Lessons from 17 Gardens, Biodynamic Memories now available  at http://www.trafford.com/Bookstore/BookDetail.aspx?BookId=SKU-000138866
    ISBN: 9781412085922
    Woody Wodraska’s 40-year gardening career has taken him to 17 gardens and another dozen agricultural endeavors in almost as many states and provinces. Always the questions arose—how to grow food, how to live in beauty and abundance with grace and in harmony and in co-creation with Devas and Nature Spirits. From backyard family gardens to a CSA enterprise feeding 100 families, Woody started from scratch or built on other gardeners’ vision.

    Woody Wodraska
    wodraska@mac.com

  10. Jim says:

    I love how people say “Nobody ever got sick”. Please define for me your definition of “sick”. How many times has someone said “I must have the stomach flu”? Well, I wonder what it was that they ate that truly got them sick. What minor illness did someone have that they never mentioned but they still had loose stools or a low grade fever?

    Never got anyone sick is the biggest line of BULL that everyone uses.

  11. <> More to the point, who is it that keeps the statistics on risk? The same medical establishment who goes bonkers over anyone consuming raw milk, any time, for any reason. The same folks who promote vaccines and corporate medicine.

    The point is not that the jar of milk Barry consumed didn’t kill him. Rather, it enhanced his health with complete nutrition and any number of vitamins and enzymes that phony milk doesn’t provide.

  12. Lisa says:

    Nobody ever got sick is like saying that (insert name) is not a criminal because they have never done anything with the obvious yet. It is an error in logical reasoning.

    Anyway, I don’t know about the relative merits of eating raw shellfish or other hazardous food vs. drinking raw milk using hold time, average microbial load, average growth rate at the usual holding conditions (temperature), etc.

    The issue is that you can never test things away into zero risk because you can never test the whole sample, you would then have no product left. However, people take risks with every food they eat, some much smaller than others. Letting people take an informed risk by looking at the farm and their sanitation history is better than we get for most foods.

    The other comment though about being afraid of put out of business is unfortunately true. There are guaranteed microbes in that milk. If someone lets it sit around too long or contaminates it and does get sick, then sues the farmer is going to bear the brunt of it. I’d make people sign waivers if it was me that you are choosing to drink a raw product that may harm you, like restaurants have on their menu about undercooked meat and raw shellfish.

  13. sissie says:

    I think the argument is a silly one.

    We have only been pasteurizing milk since the 1930’s and people have been around for thousands of years.

    If milk was so dangerous, we would have not survived to the age of pasteurization.

    Many, many people drink raw milk all over the planet. In my opinion, with proper sanitation (as with all food products) it is a excellent source of vital nutrients and a wonderful life giving food source.

    Want to put a warning label on it? Fine. Doesn’t bother me one bit.

    But why don’t we put warning labels on really dangerous foods like processed foods that contain ingredients that cause cancer, diabetes, and heart disease?

    I think we should put a warning on the pyramid food guide that tells people to eat vast amounts of grains that lead to diabetes 2.

    Since the 1930s, with all our progress and all our agencies taking over our health and safety, why are more people chronically ill?

    What about the governments fight AGAINST labeling GMO foods??

    Even geneticists say the genetic mutations in GMO foods is not stable and continue to mutate in ways that they can not control or predict.
    But that doesn’t need a warning label??

    Why should we trust these people to give us good sound health information?

    Personally, if agencies are recommending something one way or the other, I check it out thoroughly . I’m always surprised by what I find.

    It’s your body and your health. Don’t leave the important decisions to strangers who may or may not have an agenda. Check it out for yourself and make your own decisions.

    We need less reliance on government and more self reliance.

    Think for yourself! and respect others who choose differently from you.

  14. Darrell says:

    Sissie,

    I couldn’t agree more, accept for the part about grains leading to diabetes. Whole grains DO NOT lead to diabetes, and typical portion sizes for pretty much all food groups are extremely low. The main cause of diabetes in the American diet is SIMPLE carbohydrates. Whole grains are actually very good for you. I’m not sure what you mean by “vast amounts”.

    D.

  15. sissie says:

    I wasn’t talking about whole grains I was talking about the food pyramid.

    The food pyramid I grew up with, has always had grains as the biggest piece of the pie saying we need to eat daily 6 to 11 servings of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta.(this pie piece was referred to as “grains”)
    6 to 11 servings is what I meant by vast amounts…

    (that is a recipe for diabetes)

    I agree that whole grains are better for you, but a box of sweetened cereal with a big “made with whole grains” sign is not a healthy low glycemic choice, and does lead to diabetes 2.

    Most people read “whole grains” on the side of a package and assume its a healthy choice, and when they get sick, are baffled.

    Most people do not eat actual unprocessed whole grains (which are very good for you)

    Hope I cleared that up!!
    :)

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