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Food Safety News

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Drinking Raw Milk: It’s Not Worth the Risk

There are many reasons why some people are thinking about drinking raw milk these days. (Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized to kill harmful germs.) Some people want to eat less processed food. Others have heard that raw milk contains more of certain nutrients than pasteurized milk, or that it can prevent or even solve various health problems. Still others think of buying raw milk as one way to support local farmers and sustainable agriculture.

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As a public health epidemiologist and veterinarian, I know firsthand how animals and their germs can contaminate all kinds of food, including milk. Also, in my job in the Outbreak Response and Prevention Branch at CDC, I help investigate outbreaks caused by contaminated food and contact with infected animals.

If you’re thinking about adding raw milk to your diet (or your family’s diet), it’s important for you to understand the risks of drinking raw milk.

Why raw milk is dangerous

Raw milk can carry harmful bacteria and other germs that can make you very sick or kill you. Yes, it’s true that it’s possible to get “food poisoning” or foodborne illnesses from many foods, but raw milk is one of the riskiest of all. Raw milk and products made from raw milk (such as cheeses and yogurts) can cause serious infections, such as Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli.

What happens if you get sick from raw milk

Getting sick from raw milk can mean many days of diarrhea, stomach cramping, and vomiting. Less commonly, it can mean kidney failure, paralysis, chronic disorders, and even death. The seriousness of the illness is determined by many factors, such as the type of germ, the amount of contamination, and the person’s immune defenses.

Speaking of immune defenses… it’s important to remember that some people are at higher risk of getting sick from drinking raw milk. The risk is greater for certain age groups, such as infants, young children, and older adults. It’s also particularly risky for pregnant women (and their unborn babies) and those with weakened immune systems, such as people with cancer, an organ transplant, or HIV/AIDS.

Though some people are at higher risk of getting sick from raw milk, even healthy adults and older children can get seriously ill. Those who recover often suffer from life-long medical consequences. To see how devastating these illnesses can be, check out these real-life stories about the dangers of raw milk.

Even healthy animals may carry germs that contaminate raw milk

Outbreaks of illness related to raw milk have been traced back to both grass-fed and grain-fed animals. Raw milk supplied by “certified,” “organic,” or “local dairies has no guarantee of being safe.

How to stay safe

To keep your family safe, follow these simple tips:

– Always drink pasteurized milk. Check the label or package to be sure.

– If you prefer organic milk, make sure that it’s pasteurized. Raw, organic milk is not safe.

– If you or a member of your family consumes raw milk and then becomes ill, call your health care provider immediately. If it’s an emergency, call 911.

For more information, including questions and answers about raw milk, see Food Safety and Raw Milk (CDC).

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LCDR Casey Barton Behravesh, DVM, DrPH, U.S. Public Health Service works in the Outbreak Response and Prevention Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This article was originally posted Feb. 15, 2011 at www.foodsafety.gov.

© Food Safety News
  • Dinah Everett Snyder

    What nonsense. This article is only about fearmongering and perpetuauting more food myths.
    Raw milk is healthy and nutritious. Pasteurized milk is, well healthy and nutritious but tastes absolutely nothing like whole, unpasteurized milk.
    Sanitation is what is important, NOT the notion of pasteurized or not pasteurized. Feed Lot farming is not conducive to paying attention to animals on an individual basis, therefore antibiotics are given as part of their
    ” standard care”, with everything done on a large scale, including milking. Hygiene standards are poor at best.
    The truth is that cows in Feed Lot farming are prone to pus issues with their udders. The pus contaminates the milk, but don’t worry, pasteurization will kill those germs, along with the more heat sensitive nutrients ( pasteurization=heat)
    Indivdidual farmers or families with a small herd pay more attention to their animals, give antibiotics on a clear need basis only and if there is an udder issue ( rare under these conditions) the milk from that animal is thrown away ( or fed to the pigs)until the infection clears up.
    Hygiene is important, washing the udders with a mild disinfectant before milking and keeping all milking equippment clean is key, NOT pasteurization as such.
    Feed Lot dairies are filthy, disgusting places with smelly, dirty and unsanitary conditions. Animals stand around in their own feces and then stand nose to tail for production style milking. OF COURSE their milk needs to be pasteurized.
    Milk has been mans one true source of sustenance for hundreds of years,( along with bread, ale and meat) and milk is vital in Africa still. Millions of people around the globe drink raw milk with very very low incidence of risk or attributal health outcomes. Pasteurization has been around for a very short time relative to the history of “man plus milk” and all this dis- information does NOT serve in the publics interest.
    Dinah Everett Snyder
    dinaheverettsnyder@hotmail.com

  • http://www.realrawmilkfacts.com/ Doc Mudd

    Dinah wishfully misinforms us: “The truth is that cows in Feed Lot farming are prone to pus issues with their udders…Indivdidual farmers or families with a small herd pay more attention to their animals…”
    A quick Google search brings up the following credible site from the National Mastitis Council (qualified experts who actually know a little something about milk quality):
    http://www.nmconline.org/articles/scc2009.htm
    Interesting to note a declining average cell count each year (steady progress) and a trend to healthier cows in larger herds: “As herd size increased, average daily milk production generally increased and average SCC [Dinah's "pus"] generally decreased. The percentage of test days with SCC more than 750,000 in herds with fewer than 50 cows was 5.0%. This compares to 1.4% for herds with 50 – 99 cows; 0.7% for herds with 100 – 149 cows; and only 0.3% in herds with 150 or more cows.”
    “The truth”, as it turns out: on average the larger herds produce a higher quality product than the smaller herds. The results are striking – herds with fewer than 50 cows shipped pus-filled milk fully 5% of the time!
    When one doesn’t know what one is talking about, it always pays to do some basic factchecking before publishing deliberate misstatements of “The truth…” or risk having a silly bold-faced bluff exposed for all honest folks to see.
    No need to place your trust in snake oil saleswomen or quacks when you can go right to the source. Find the relevant raw milk FACTS here:
    http://www.realrawmilkfacts.com/

  • Dinah Everett Snyder

    oh Doc Mudd,
    you may post all the “information” you like. However, the fact remains that pasteurization is by and large a misnomer. Though I do agree that dairy farming on the scale needed to feed a
    ” population” is necessary, and pasteurization is a working model. By definition that does NOT mean that ” raw milk is bad”. Again, these broad sweeping statements are the worst kind of dis-information and not only unfair but untrue to boot.
    Furthermore, the antibiotics in animal feed, along with the growth hormones to stimulate milk production bring a host of well documented issues of their own.
    I happen to OWN 4 little Dwarf Nubian goats which we milk by hand, make cheese from, by hand and have NEVER had ONE problem. Ever. They are checked weekly, milk is checked and the milking equipment is kept clean and sanitary. Their udders are washed with a mild antimicrobial agent before every milking and their milk output is optimal.
    Once one has tasted raw milk one realizes that pastuerized milk is a poor replacement for the rich, flavorful real milk, cream and butter straight from the source.
    The new FDA Food Safety Laws however mean that I am just as susceptable to a federal food raid as a regular dairy facility, ( despite their claims to the contrary, before you rush to post yet another ” link”) and therin lies the problem. The public has been continually fed erroneus information and people like you are the perpetrators of more intruths by ritterating biased government standpoints which are based on economics and NOT real facts.
    This notion that broadly speaking, unpasteurized milk is bad for one is utter and complete rubbish. Government mis- information to protect their vested interest in the fees and licenses, along with inspection fees that they charge to facilities.
    Non Profits such as Heifer International for example rely on the Public to ” purchase ” dairy animals for donation/distribution in rural areas of Thailand, China, Estonia and Africa precisely SO THAT individual families will have their own source of
    “a steady supply of wholesome milk directly from the cow/ goat”. Since there is no pasteurization issues/ fees and or mortalities and the benefits are tremendous I reitterate the TRUTH that raw milk does not mean bad milk.
    Dinah Everett Snyder
    dinaheverettsnyder@hotmail.com

  • http://honestfarm.blogspot.com Honest Farm

    I appreciate your article and your expertise in this area. It’s shocking to me how casual (and stubborn) many in the locavore movement are on the subject of raw milk.
    In my former life, I did a lot of traveling as a food writer and was always keen on the local cheese, many of which were raw milk products. I thought it innocuous myself until I became very ill and was diagnosed with Brucellosis (bovine) from raw milk butter. It came from a conscientious small organic farmer, in this country. I don’t care how clean someone is, animals get diseases from other animals, the soil, insect carriers.
    I live in a supposedly brucellosis-free state so there’s no requirement for the vaccine here. Even so, using raw milk products is a risk I’m no longer willing to take. And I certainly wouldn’t rely on the theories of an early-20th century dentist for my health information. Thanks again.

  • MWDunn

    Dinah,
    How is pasteurization a “misnomer”? You seem to feel that it’s covering up the “real problems” of poor animal care and sanitation, but that does not mean that pasteurization itself does not make milk safer. Yes, there are effects on the milk composition from pasteurization besides killing germs and all. But is the risk worth it?
    I commend you on your care of your goats. Likewise, I have a handful of dairy goats, and care for them just as well as you. But we’re lucky in that we have the time and labor (relative to the number of animals) so that we can spend time with them, working with them, and caring for them properly. (As a side note, we still pasteurize our milk.)
    Small farms often have just as many labor and time challenges as large dairies, perhaps more. Often, I have learned, the “small family farms” everyone years for (me included!) struggle in the awkward position where they’re too small to be able to hire extra help, but too large to be able to just get by with the family labor. Their wages are often too low to keep skilled employees around long, and this high employee turnover hampers proper sanitation. A large dairy may have employees trained for specific jobs – stripping, pre-dip, etc etc – so the work gets done every time.
    I know many extremely responsible and high-quality small dairies. And I know many responsible and high-quality large dairies. I also know of many poor-quality small AND large dairies. I love buying from local, small farmers. However, I feel less comfortable knowing that some can’t afford to update stall-cleaning equipment, or can’t afford proper medications, or can’t afford to lose the yield of a sick cow – so she’s milked along with the others. Yes, there are plenty of large “feedlot” dairies that do the same. But the higher level of scrutiny placed on these dairies force stringent standards.
    I’m not pro-big-ag (though I’m not against big ag), and I’m not anti-local, or anti-natural…I’m just pro-safety.
    If people want to drink raw milk, I’m okay to let them do it…but what happens the one time *something* happens and their kids end up with listeriosis? Does it matter that “they know the farmer and the cow’s name is Mabel” then? I doubt it.
    Doc Mudd, thanks for the links and info!

  • Dinah Everett snyder

    @MW Dunn
    You misunderstand, I am am not against pasteurization, in fact I say as much above. My issue is with the idea that IF pasteurization is good THEN by definition to NOT pasteurize is bad.
    One must be ever watchful for this: “if this then that” perception and label creating. It spreads dis information, which is also bad.
    If govt is allowed to dictate that pasteurization is the ONLY acceptable means or way to go, then they have elliminated individuals right to choose. While I respect everyones right to choose to drink pasteurized milk, or eat pasteurized cheese, I value my right to choose to have access to unpasteurized product. Give information to the public, yes by all means, just make sure that it is unbiased and factual. Then let the decision making alone, do not inflict the bias of law upon me and others who may feel the way I do. That is all.
    That ” one time something happens” that you mention could just as easily happen with cilantro ( food recall) celery ( food recall) or eggs ( food recall)or granola bars ( food recall) or tainted Benadryl ( drug recall)or Heparin AI ( drug recall).
    FDA or CDC or any other govt stamp of approval is no guarantee against all harm, on the contrary in fact.
    I provide my own eggs ( ducks) celery, cilantro and make my own granola bars and bread, along with cheese and butter, ice cream too, and milk. Tomatoes, lettuce, potatos, pumpkins, onions, cabbage, brocoli, beets and carrots to name a few.
    I have never gotten sick from my own produce, and the fruits of my labor feed 9at a minimm, at our table. year in and year out.
    Dinah Everett Snyder
    dinaheverettsnyder@hotmail.com