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Raw Milk Dangers, Myths and Misperceptions

Not so long ago, milk was this country’s number 1 food safety concern. Before milk was routinely pasteurized beginning in the 1920s, it regularly caused large outbreaks of deadly diseases. Now in 2011, raw, unpasteurized milk has made its way back into some Americans’ diets and is once again causing outbreaks of disease.

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Hello, I’m Dr. Robert Tauxe, internal medicine physician and infectious disease epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). I’m pleased to speak with you today as part of the CDC Expert Video Commentary Series on Medscape about the dangers — as well as some persistent myths and misperceptions — surrounding raw milk or products made from raw milk.

Milk is an important and nutritious natural food, but the recurrent outbreaks related to unpasteurized milk and milk products require that we work together to put out accurate and consistent messages about the serious illnesses that can be caused by consuming raw milk.

First, let’s dispel some common myths about raw milk.

Myth #1. Raw milk is healthier and more nutritious than pasteurized milk.

Not so! All of the nutritional benefits of drinking milk are available from pasteurized milk without the risk for disease that comes with drinking raw milk.

Myth #2. Drinking raw milk can prevent or cure diseases such as asthma, allergies, heart disease, or cancer.

No. There are no health benefits from drinking raw milk that cannot be obtained from drinking pasteurized milk that is free of disease-causing bacteria.

Myth #3. Milk is safe as long as it is labeled “organic.”

Again, this is not true. Even raw organic milk is not safe. Only organic milk that has been pasteurized is safe to drink.

Myth #4. Milk and raw milk products like soft cheeses and yogurts are safe if they come from healthy animals.

No, even the healthiest of animals can carry pathogens, such as Escherichia coli O157, Campylobacter, and Salmonella that can contaminate milk.

Myth #5. If animals are raised in sanitary conditions on humane farms, this ensures that their milk is safe.

It may surprise many to know that the dairy farm environment, even when every precaution is taken, is a reservoir for illness-causing germs. Even if the farm’s raw milk tests come back negative, it is no guarantee that the milk, or the products made from the milk, are always free of those pathogens.

Myth #6. Drinking raw milk may not be safe, but no harm will come from eating products (cheeses, yogurts) made from raw milk.

Unfortunately, this too is quite false. In fact, both people who died in outbreaks related to unpasteurized milk between 1999 and 2008 died of infections caused by fresh Mexican-style cheese made from raw milk. These unfortunate cases show how raw milk made into fresh cheese can cause dangerous infections.

Now that we’ve put to rest the myths about raw milk, let’s discuss the recent facts about the illnesses caused by consuming raw milk and raw milk products. In the 10 years from 1999 to 2008, 86 outbreaks related to unpasteurized milk were reported to CDC, leading to 1676 illnesses, 191 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths.

That is about 8 outbreaks per year. Most of them were due to either E. coli O157, Campylobacter, or Salmonella. Especially concerning was that, of the 86 outbreaks reported to CDC, 79% involved at least 1 person under the age of 20. Some of the most severe illnesses can occur in young children, like kidney failure due to E. coli O157. And remember, E. coli O157 can spread from one young child to another in a day care or nursery school.

Some states permit sale of raw milk and, not surprisingly, about 80% of these outbreaks occurred in states that permit the sale of raw milk. Finally, because not all foodborne outbreaks are investigated or reported to CDC, the actual number of outbreaks that occur is likely to be greater than the number reported.

Our recommendations are simple and straightforward.

* Pasteurization of milk is a fundamentally important food safety measure;

* CDC strongly supports measures to promote pasteurization and restrict the sale of raw milk; and

* Specifically for clinicians, we urge you to educate your patients about the dangers of consuming raw milk or raw milk products.

Thank you!

Robert V. Tauxe, MD, MPH , is Deputy Director, Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Tauxe is Deputy Director of the division that is charged with prevention and control of foodborne, waterborne, and fungal infections at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Division monitors the frequency of these infections in the United States, investigates outbreaks, and develops strategies to reduce the disease, disability, and deaths that they cause.


Dr. Tauxe graduated cum laude from Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1975, and received his medical degree from Vanderbilt Medical School in Nashville, Tennessee. In addition, he holds a Masters in Public Health degree from Yale University. Dr. Tauxe’s interests include bacterial enteric diseases, epidemiology and pathogenesis of infectious diseases, epidemiologic and clinical consequences of bacterial genetic exchange, antimicrobial use and resistance to antimicrobial agents, and teaching epidemiologic methods. Dr. Tauxe has supervised many domestic and overseas epidemiologic investigations. Dr. Tauxe has authored/co-authored 254 scientific journal articles, letters, and book chapters.

© Food Safety News
  • Jeff

    You are a quack…

  • Thaddeus

    This “information” might be a tad more believable if Dr. Tauxe had was willing to site a reference or include a footnote. You would think that someone who has published 250+ scientific articles, letters, and book chapters, would have more respect for the scientific process and how one supports a hypothesis / conclusion with evidence. Sounds like more industrial propaganda to me.

    • Librarian

      You might be a tad more believable if you understood that the word “site” means a place or location. The word you should have used is “cite.”

  • Michael Bulger

    Thaddeus, you might find this link helpful: http://www.realrawmilkfacts.com/scientific-references/
    Also, there are many scientific articles available through traditional journals. A few that you might like to start with:
    Potter, M. E., A. F. Kaufmann, P. A. Blake, and R. A. Feldman. 1985. Unpasteurized milk. The hazards of a health fetish. Jama 252:2048-52.
    jama.ama-assn.org/content/252/15/2048.full.pdf
    Lejeune JT, Rajala-Schultz PJ. 2009. Unpasteurized milk: a continued public health threat. Clin. Infect Dis. 48(1):93-100.
    http://cid.oxfordjournals.org/content/48/1/93.full
    I hope you find these informative.

  • Rachel Kaldor

    Thank you for providing this information. While obviously upsetting to some advocates of raw milk consumption, the repeated food borne illness outbreaks traced to raw milk speak to the caution that should be exercised when consuming these products. This is especially true for children. Assumption of this acknowledged health risk by adults is their choice; exposing children to such risk is another matter.

  • John Cardoza

    “Milk and milk products provide a wealth of nutrition benefits. But raw milk can harbor dangerous microorganisms that can pose serious health risks to you and your family. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 800 people in the United States have gotten sick from drinking raw milk or eating cheese made from raw milk since 1998.”
    That is from the US FDA website, at this link..
    http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/consumers/ucm079516.htm
    …so, lets see if I have this straight, in the last 14 years or so, approximately 57 people per year “have gotten sick from drinking raw milk…”. FIFTY SEVEN PEOPLE PER YEAR! Seriously? 57 people in FRESNO California got sick between 9 and 10 a.m. this morning from drinking water out of their tap, and we’re supposed to be worried about raw milk???? Good god, this is one of the reasons the country is broke and on its way out. We actually spend tax dollars on this nonsense.
    Drink raw milk…it tastes a LOT better, and none of the nutrients in it will be changed in any way.

  • Led Head

    It must have been God’s will that all those people survived before Louis Pasteur. How many years did people drink raw milk before Louis Pasteurs’ discovery? er..I mean centuries.

  • tttt

    I grew up on a very small dairy farm and NEVER consumed raw milk, we always boiled the milk before drinking it. Now having said that, I can also say that if I drink milk purchased from a store I WILL get bloated and be very unconfortable for a few hours.If I drink milk from a farm that is being boiled first I would have no problems.Pasteurization in my opinion do change the milk. No scientific fact just my observation from what happens to me.

  • anniess

    I cannot believe that people consume and serve their children raw milk in the name of “health” and because “it tastes better,” even though it has the potential to cause not only disease, but death. My feelings about this range between “ICK” and horror.

  • Jeff

    I cannot drink pasturized milk. I feel horrible after drinking it. I drink all raw milk I want and have no problem. I get from local farmer weekly who has 12 children. They all drink it. Healthiest looking bunch of kids!! I also buy there free range chicken eggs and eat at least 3 raw a day. I am 49 years Old healthy and strong body fat 7%. Explain that scientists. I would get more sick from fast food scienific burger than salmonela for sure.