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Raw Milk at Retail: A Glass of Confusion?

I grew up in a household where raw fruits and vegetables were forced upon me starting shortly after I was transitioned from baby formula to solid foods.  Along the way, I was informally schooled on the added nutrition that accompanies the consumption of fruits and vegetables in their raw state.  My parents’ pushy food choices must have worked because now, as a fully independent adult able to pick and choose my own meals, I select raw fruits and vegetables whenever possible.

If raw is generally considered to be the preferred state to consume most fruits and vegetables, the same should be true of other food products, right?

When it comes to animal products, the answer generally is “no.”  Uncooked beef, poultry, even fish, pose significant health risks of which most people are (or should be) aware.  But for other animal products, like raw milk, the dangers of “raw” are being called into question.

The most common arguments made in favor of raw milk consumption are the added health benefits not found in pasteurized milk.  So does raw milk contain some health benefits that pasteurized milk does not?  Maybe, but that’s not the concern of this article.  My concern is the risk.  Those potential benefits, which may include certain vitamins, minerals, and probiotics, are readily available from a multitude of other sources that do not have the absurdly high health risks that have been linked time after time to raw milk consumption.  Those risks include infection with Campylobacter, or worse, shiga toxin-producing E. coli–a really nasty bug.  For example, it only takes a few microscopic E. coli bacteria to produce bloody diarrhea, renal failure, and ultimately death.

Consider this true story (one of many just like it):  A young boy, then age nine, developed an E. coli O157:H7 infection in September, 2006 following his consumption of raw milk.  He was hospitalized beginning on September 8, suffering from severe gastrointestinal symptoms, including bloody diarrhea.  Shortly thereafter, he developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).  In an effort to properly treat his rapidly deteriorating condition, he was moved to multiple medical facilities, twice by life-flight.   His HUS was remarkably severe, marked by prolonged renal failure, pancreatitis, and severe cardiac involvement.  He required 18 days of renal replacement therapy.  On two occasions his cardiac problems became so severe that he was placed on a ventilator.  At several junctures, the possibility that he might not survive was very real.  Ultimately, he was hospitalized through November 2, 2006, and incurred over $550,000 in medical bills.  Renal experts have opined that he is likely to develop severe renal complications in the future, including end stage renal disease (ESRD), and require a kidney transplant.

Given the incredible harm that can result from raw milk consumption, is it good sense for a person to knowingly consume it for the few possible health benefits that can be derived from much safer sources?  As a person who is generally risk averse, I would argue that it is not good sense to make such a choice.  But what about the instance where a consumer does not realize they are choosing raw milk?

It is the locations where raw milk is available at the retail level that my concern for possible consumer confusion is at its greatest.  There are places in the United States where, for example, nostalgic, classic-styled milk bottles containing unpasteurized milk are easily found at the local grocery store, especially those stores catering to the consumer who favors organic and natural food choices.  These bottles usually have the name of the dairy from which the milk was derived, along with the fat content (non-fat, 2%, whole).  But one notation on the bottle that a consumer may not notice is the word “raw.”  The potential repercussions from inadvertently purchasing raw milk and feeding it to a person who is at-risk (including children, the elderly, pregnant women, and anyone with a compromised immune system) are enormous.  

Admittedly, the likelihood of this scenario is not equal across the United States.  The availability of raw milk for sale at the retail level is governed by a combination of federal and state laws, and at present there are many states that outright ban the sale of raw milk for human consumption.

On August 10, 1987, the FDA published 21 CFR Part 1240.61, a final regulation that mandated the pasteurization of all milk and milk products in final package form for direct human consumption. This regulation banned the shipping of raw milk in interstate commerce, and became effective September 9, 1987.  In the Federal Register notification for the final rule to 21 CFR Part 1240.61, the FDA made a number of findings, including the following: “Raw milk, no matter how carefully produced, may be unsafe.”  

Today, it is a violation of federal law to sell raw milk packaged for consumer use across state lines (interstate commerce), but each state can regulate the sale of raw milk within the state (intrastate).  Some states therefore allow raw milk to be sold.  Looking at the issue on a national level, the distinctions between applicable laws in individual states are bewildering.  In 2006, 25 states had laws outright banning the sale of raw milk intended for human consumption.  In the remaining states, dairy operations may sell raw milk to local retail food stores or to consumers directly from the farm, or at agricultural fairs or other community events, depending on the state law.  Restrictions are further varying, from specific labeling requirements, to requirements that milk only be bought with personal bottles, to the purchase of raw milk through cow shares exclusively, to permitting a sale only with a written prescription from a doctor, to sales of raw goat milk only, and to sales of a limited daily quantity only if made without advertising.  

Some states, like Washington, have strict labeling requirements which may reduce the likelihood that a consumer will unknowingly select a raw milk product from the store shelf.  By Washington state law, all retail raw milk products sold in Washington must prominently display the following label on the container’s principal display panel: “WARNING: This product has not been pasteurized and may contain harmful bacteria. Pregnant women, children, the elderly and persons with lowered resistance to disease have the highest risk of harm from use of this product.”  

Unfortunately, not all states have such a warning label requirement on raw milk products.  Some only require the words “raw” be printed somewhere on the product, while others require a statement that “raw milk is not pasteurized, pasteurization destroys organisms that may be harmful to human health.”  Personally, I think the Washington label is decent, although I prefer it define “risk of harm” to include the specific type of harm that can result from consuming the product–including renal failure and death from shiga toxin-producing E. coli strains frequently found in the feces of cows.

Because the potential for inadvertently selecting raw milk exists at the retail level, I implore you to please pay extra attention while selecting your milk at the local grocery store if you live in a state where raw milk is legal to sell.  Look carefully at the product for words like “raw” and “unpasteurized.”  And if you are a person who is deliberately choosing to consume raw milk or raw milk products in spite of the abundant scientific evidence and federal, state, and local health agency-investigated outbreaks that have linked devastating human illness to the consumption of raw milk, then please do not give it to those most at risk–children, the elderly, pregnant women, and any person with a compromised immune system.  The
potential for devastating he
alth consequences is not worth the possible health benefits that are available from many other, much less dangerous sources.

© Food Safety News
  • I would like to know how many proven cases there are of people being sickened from drinking raw milk in the last five years? What are the percentages of people getting sick or dying compared to drinkers of mass produced mixed batches pasteurized milk that is injected with chemical vitamins ? How many farmers family’s through the years have been sickened from drinking their own raw milk?

  • Crystal Palmer Bull

    typical bias against raw milk. food borne pathogens cause an estimated 2,718 deaths each year, of which 1,809 are attributable to foodborne transmission. how many were from hanberger, spinach, and such. Did you tell everyone to watch out and not eat those products? no of course not. Contamination is contamination what does it matter that it was Raw. Lets work on fixing contamination not destroying food like the industry seem to want us to do at every turn. did you see the NY Times aretical recently of the beef??? hello and you worrried about raw milk, crunch the numbers buddy,raw milk is way safer. Would you rather your infant have formula or breatmilk? We agree breast is best, why because of its amazing antibacterial propertied, are youreally telling me that other mammals milk would not hold those same remarkable properties?
    take the red pill neo

  • Jay

    Maybe we should outlaw hamburger or the other numerous gov’t inspected and approved foods that kill people each year. Does anyone question all the food recalls in this country? Why do you focus on one instance, when your story does not even account for other possible reasons the boy may have gotten sick. Maybe he ate some recalled hamburger or spinach too. My family and I have been drinking raw milk for years without any negative effects.

  • Jack

    Yeah, I agree with Barry, Crystal, and Jay. I regularly eat raw eggs, unpasteurized milk and cheese, and undercooked meat, and I haven’t gotten sick. So based on my experience, it is safe for everyone and we should all be allowed to feed our children whatever we want. I’ve also found that running across a highway is not as dangerous as everyone says because I’ve never been hit by a car. I still can’t believe I got a ticket once because the officer thought it was stupid and reckless to carry my three year-old son. I also despise the fact that government would intervene just because a couple thousand people have died. I mean seriously, why do we have the TSA either? After all, there’s only been a couple of terrorist attacks and it’s not like it happens every day.

  • Trent

    When my child was born and my wife was unable to produce enough breast milk we started using organic baby formula. After a month or so of using formula my child broke out with severe rashes all over his face. The pediatrician recommended pharmaceutical creams and medications. Being reluctant to start a 5 month old on pharmaceuticals we visited a holistic doctor who immediately upon seeing my child recommended raw goat or cow milk. Within days of feeding my child raw goat milk his rashes cleared up and have never returned. It was explained to me that the pasteurization process destroys the enzymes in the milk that our bodies use to break down the milk. In any case we’ve been drinking raw milk for two years and have never had any health issues and we have had no need for allopathic medicine either.

  • Laura H.

    I am a big proponent of raw fruits and vegetables, organic food (all types), local food, and we raise our own eggs, some of our own meat, and have a big garden ever year. We also eat a lot of game meat and process all of our own meat. However, I also work in public health and I will not own a dairy cow or goat to have our own milk. I have milked cows and it is impossible to entirely protect the milk from cow feces. I don’t feed my children raw meat and I will not feed them raw milk. The risks are the same, same bacteria, same severe illnesses. Many things involve a risk/benefit analysis and the evidence is strong that risks are not worth it with raw milk. One of my children had issues very similar to what Trent describes. I fed him infant probiotic, which if it comes from a good source does not have the potential to be contaminated with toxigenic E.coli, Campylobacter, Yersinia, or Salmonella, with the same results. This is an excellent article. People should know that there are those of us out there who strongly support organic food and all that comes with it, but do not advocate for raw milk!

  • c droog

    There is so much to say on this subject and many of you said it very well.Some of you get on a bandwagon and have no real clue of the facts. It makes no sense to me that can smoke.drink,use harmful chemicals as sweetners,put sludge on the land that grows our food that has very harmful chemicals and pathegens, all the chemicals in food and soap etc.our chemical laden water supply I could go on and on and you worry about my consumming unpasturised milk. I would suggest you could do a great deal more good worrying about a real problem as you are more apt to die or get severally hurt from a snowmobile accident in wisconsin {23 died in one season}than consuming raw milk products.

  • deena

    My family and I have been drinking raw milk for about eight years. We also make yogurt, whipped cream and butter out of it, keeping us from many chemical additives and saving us much money.
    We try to refrain from eating chemicals labeled as food, and we believe choosing the food that we eat is one of our most basic liberties, and should not be government regulated.
    We live in a rural area and are friends with many families who have been consuming raw milk far longer than we have. I am lactose intolerant, but I drink raw milk without any problems. We all get our milk from different sources, and none of us have ever contracted a disease or health problem from it.
    However, this is all anecdotal and I think, if we raw milk drinkers were all honest, articles like this one, as well as other scarier ones, can rattle our cages and strike us with fear and doubt, especially those of us with children.
    Though this article did not deal with specific possible diseases and statistics, many others do, and the raw milk advocates can blast back with their own statistics and accusations. The debate will continue to rage on between the two camps.
    Meanwhile, the consumer is left in the middle, being ping-ponged between confidence and fear, desiring to make a wise and healthy choice, yet left in doubt and confusion, forced to choose a side.
    Our initial reaction is to spout off about the risk of everything else that we do, making an attempt to squelch our concerns and to justify our actions.
    However, it is different if we are not dealing with any consequences from those actions, and our arrogance would quickly turn to doubt and regret if anyone came to harm, especially our children.
    I encourage each one of us to thoughtfully, logically and prayerfully consider our choices in conjunction to our families and their health, doing our own research, and doing our best to leave emotion and cynicism out of it.
    There is real science, and there must be real, accurate, unbiased testing and statistics, void of the politics.
    Is anyone aware of that kind of information, or a website that would display the facts, allowing someone to make their own informed decision without all of the scare tactics or freedom rallies?
    Does anyone personally know of someone who has ever had health problems from raw milk?
    Also, is anyone aware of a way to test our own milk, such as a test strip, before we consume it?