For some, drinking raw milk is a way to get back to nature, improve family nutrition, and hedge against asthma and allergies. However, according to public health authorities, drinking raw or unpasteurized milk is a big mistake—even fatal. So what's the story?
Animal milk products have been a mainstay of the human diet for thousands of years. For just as long, humans have been infected by pathogens, like bacteria, in milk. In order to understand the position of public health today, it is worth taking a look at why pasteurization came about in the first place.
In 1865, French scientist Louis Pasteur developed the process of mildly heating liquids to kill bacteria, a process now known as pasteurization. It was German chemist Franz Soxhlet, in 1886, that suggested pasteurization be applied to raw milk. Raw milk can become contaminated by the cow itself, from bacteria in the environment, from milking, or cross contamination by equipment and handling.
Prior to widespread use of pasteurization, milk-borne pathogens routinely killed young and old without regard for rank. A 1943 article in the British Medical Journal reels off the grim disease counts attributed to raw milk in the years 1912 to 1937. Bovine tuberculosis killed 65,000 people in Wales and England, while thousands suffered other diseases like brucellosis, also spread in raw milk.
As cited in Public Health Reports, between 1910 and 1914, cities in the United States reported 446 cases of typhoid fever attributed to raw milk products.
Aiming to lower the high death rate of children from tuberculosis, scarlet fever, typhoid fever, and other milk-borne diseases, little-remembered philanthropist Nathan Strauss funded and operated pasteurized milk stations around the world between 1893 and 1920. In that time, Strauss is credited with saving the lives of 240,000 people and for helping popularize the life-saving benefits of pasteurized milk. From coast to coast, cities opened infant milk depots to give away free pasteurized milk for children based on the milk stations built by Strauss. Michigan was the first state to require all milk sold to consumers be pasteurized in 1948.
With pasteurization came dramatic drops in death and disease rates from milk-borne germs. Today, 30 states allow the sale of raw milk subject to various restrictions, while 20 prohibit sale of raw milk to consumers.
The rolling away of time and the rise of modern medicine have largely erased the specter of everyday death from milk-borne and other infectious diseases. Strides in public health, like vaccines, sanitation, and water treatment, have increased longevity and improved quality of life.
While hygiene regulations around dairy farming have improved, grass- or grain-fed dairy cow milk can still carry the same pathogens that so ruthlessly killed decades earlier. The difference is that raw milk is now a choice, rather than a necessity.
As the number of consumers drinking raw milk has increased, so have outbreaks of milk-borne disease. The primary dangerous pathogens in raw milk include Escherichia coli (E. coli), Campylobacter, and Salmonella. A surveillance report from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, for the years 2007 through 2012, reports the average number of disease outbreaks related to raw milk is four times higher than it was between 1993 to 2003. The average number of outbreaks rose from 3.3 per year to 13.5 per year. The report's authors note the shift followed legalization of sales of raw milk in some states.
These are serious diseases with potentially life-threatening impacts—what reasons do people give for exposing themselves, or their children, to such risk? For many, the choice to drink raw milk is not made with an eye to the danger, but is based on a belief in the advantages of raw milk, for example:
- Proponents of raw milk believe it has greater nutritional value than pasteurized milk. But in reality, the pasteurization process does not reduce protein or mineral quality. It does slightly reduce levels of vitamin C, and the B vitamins. Vitamin levels in both raw and pasteurized milk are equally impacted by exposure to light, storage temperatures, and time until use. Yet the minimal difference in nutritional quality is set forth as justifying the risk.
- Word of mouth anecdotes have a big impact on those who choose raw milk. For some, raw milk eases digestive troubles, has a pleasant taste, rids the body of skin conditions or, conversely, does not cause the digestive upset, skin conditions, or other malaise experienced from pasteurized milk. Currently, science does not support these outlying reasons for choosing raw milk.
- Allergies are often mentioned as a reason for giving children raw milk. There is some evidence that children raised on rural farms, drinking raw milk, experience fewer allergies than city counterparts. While the allergy connection needs further research, so far, the science suggests that the association comes from the greater exposure by farm children to a whole host of pathogens from the land and animals, not necessarily those in raw milk. With undeveloped immune systems, children represent one of the most vulnerable populations to disease caused by raw milk products.
- The commercialized image of of raw milk appeals to many. Unfettered cows grazing in fields, eating grass instead of grain, offers an attractive image of sustainability.
- Those who choose raw milk sometimes say they feel a connection to their food, because they believe raw milk is "alive." Milk, from any source, is the secretion of a lactating animal to feed its young. It is true that the bacteria in raw milk are very much alive, and can cause potentially life-threatening disease.
- Advocates of raw milk and cheese products feel safety regulations involving milk testing, cow health, cleanliness, and other factors can prevent the passage of life-threatening bacteria into their glass of milk. Bacteria sampling on raw milk applies only to the batch being tested, and while that may offer some sense of security, it does not mean a bottle you buy from the next batch does not carry Campylobacter.
Minimally processed and whole foods are popular and oftentimes very healthy options. We live in a time where we are lucky enough to be able to make choices for our own health. Unlike 100 years ago, pasteurized milk is plentiful. While there is no proven benefit to drinking raw milk that outweighs serious illness, in the states where it is legal, the choice to drink raw milk is yours.