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Publisher’s Platform: Raw Milk is a Risky Elixir

Opinion

There seems to be no middle ground in the debate over raw milk. On the one side, you have farmers happy to sell a product for $10 to $18 per gallon and consumers who believe they are purchasing a product that is not only more healthful but will also cure everything from allergies to autism. On the other side, you have public health officials defending the time-tested benefits of pasteurization as a way to make milk safe to consume. I posted some time ago the Legal History of Raw Milk.

But, even though the argument appears to have two sides, the reality is as simple as it is undeniable: raw milk is seriously risky and should be consumed, if at all, with extreme caution. Children, the elderly, or those with compromised immunity should not consume raw milk – period! If you are a healthy adult, go ahead and flip a coin, but do not feed it to your kids.

Over the past several years, I have tried to bring some level of rationality to the debate over the consumption of raw milk. I first published on my blog a summary of the findings of a review of peer-reviewed literature on the topic of the “pros” of the consumption of raw milk. Most alleged benefits were anecdotal, with a reduction in allergies as the only scientific observation. I then posted about the “cons.” The overwhelming “con” of drinking raw milk, according to the scientific literature, relates to the serious risk of infection, and the injury, disability and death that may result.

In trying to base the debate over the pros and cons of raw milk more firmly on facts, and not anecdote and emotion, I have found that the most instructive thing that I can do is remind debate-participants of the “real world” effects that drinking raw milk can cause. For example:

Chris Martin, then age seven, developed an E. coli O157:H7 infection in September 2006 following consumption of raw milk. He was hospitalized beginning September, suffering from severe gastrointestinal symptoms. Shortly thereafter, he developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). In an effort to properly treat his rapidly deteriorating condition, Chris 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, after incurring over $550,000 in medical bills. Renal experts have opined that Chris is likely to develop severe renal complications in the future. These complications include end stage renal disease (ESRD) and kidney transplant.

Mari Tardiff was one of those sickened in the June 2008 outbreak of Campylobacter connected to raw milk. As a result of her Campylobacter infection, Mari developed Guillain Barré syndrome, or GBS, a potentially fatal inflammatory disorder. By the time she was hospitalized in mid-June, Mari was essentially paralyzed. Mari was intubated and placed on mechanical ventilation. For weeks on end, Mari’s condition remained unchanged. She was heavily sedated, unable to move, and entirely dependent on mechanical ventilation for survival. In August, there were indications of slight improvement, and the very slow process of weaning Mari off mechanical ventilation began. At the outset, it was not clear that the process was successful. Through incredible effort on Mari’s part, she was fully weaned off mechanical ventilation by August and discharged to a rehabilitation facility. She spent more than two months at the rehabilitation facility diligently attempting to regain the ability to speak, breathe, and move her arms and legs on her own. She was discharged home in November, still in need of essentially 24-hour care. Since that time, she has worked every day toward achieving her goal, as yet unreached, of walking again. Medical expenses to date exceed $1 million.

Nicole Riggs developed an E. coli O157:H7 infection in May 2008 from consumption of raw goat’s milk. She was nine years old at the time. Nicole suffered from symptoms typical of E. coli O157:H7 infections – bloody diarrhea, cramping, and nausea – that quickly intensified and led to her hospitalization. Once hospitalized, Nicole developed renal failure, anemia, and thrombocytopenia (low platelet count), indicating that she was developing HUS. She was transferred to a children’s hospital and started on dialysis in order to save her life. She received dialysis for 18 days. Nicole’s renal function slowly returned to the point that she was deemed healthy enough for discharge on June 1. After discharge, she remained under the care of a nephrologist. In addition, damage suffered during her HUS has required that her gallbladder be removed. Medical costs to this point exceed $180,000. As a result of damage to her kidneys suffered during her bout with HUS, Nicole is at significant risk for severe renal complications in the future.

I certainly understand the desire of a farmer to sell a highly profitable product, just as I can understand the desire of consumers to make up their own minds about drinking raw milk. But farmers and consumers need to be fully informed, and the risks need to be fully understood. Because of the debate and the risks, I helped fund the building of Real Raw Milk Facts as a place where the pros and cons of raw milk production and consumption can be discussed against the background of scientific facts.

Bottom line, be informed. See Parent’s Food Safety Guide for Raw Milk.

© Food Safety News
  • Bill Anderson

    I’m a little confused by this editorial, Bill. On one hand you say:

    “Over the last several years I have tried to bring some level of rationality to the debate over the consumption of raw milk. [...] In trying to base the debate over the pros and cons of raw milk more firmly on facts, and not anecdote and emotion [...]”

    …but you then proceed to cherry-pick three anecdotes that represent the absolute worst-case-scenarios.

    Can you imagine if a personal injury lawyer who litigates cases related to automobile accidents were to write an editorial like yours, warning about the incredible danger of driving automobiles, by citing a handful of horrific car accidents?

    I can just see it now… after a few medical descriptions of some very grotesque injuries or deaths related to car crashes, the author concludes… “I certainly understand the desire of an automobile maker to sell a profitable product, just as I can understand the desire of consumers to make up their own minds about driving cars. But manufacturers and would-be drivers need to be fully informed, and the risks of driving cars need to be fully understood.”

    And the fact is that driving a car is statistically much more risky than drinking raw milk. There are about 40,000 deaths per year from car crashes, yet there has not been a single death from raw milk in many decades (the two from consuming imported “bathtub cheese” don’t count).

    Granted, a majority of the American population drives cars, while only 1-3% drinks raw milk on a regular basis, but if you were to extrapolate the car-driving statistic to raw milk, we should be seeing around 400 deaths a year from raw milk. Clearly, driving cars is much riskier.

    I’m certainly not saying there are no risks involved in consuming raw milk, but there are ways to effectively mitigate those risks, just as there are ways to mitigate the risks of driving an automobile.

    Its pretty clear to me that this is a fear-based editorial, and is certainly an appeal to emotion using anecdotes. There’s nothing especially wrong about that, but don’t deny what you are doing by trying to hide behind the veneer of objective scientific rationality.

    • Chris

      Mr. Anderson, your comparison of the inherent dangers of driving a car and drinking raw milk are not meaningful in this case. Driving is an important necessity today and there is no other way to get to where we need to be each and every day. Yes, we all recognize the danger of driving a car and that we must take good care. Drinking raw milk is not a necessity, it a voluntary decision made based on perceived benefits. I believe Mr. Marler is correct in pointing out the inherent dangers of raw milk.

      • Bill

        I disagree with you Chris. Like pasteurization, driving is a social convention, but is far from a necessity. I lived for many years without a car, getting around by biking, walking, and taking the bus. If the US were to invest in a more significant public transport infrastructure, the need for driving could be greatly reduced. Likewise, if we were to invest in promoting quality dairy farming (instead of the CAFO industrial model that receives most official support today) the need for pasteurization could be greatly reduced.

        • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

          A social convention?

          I don’t know why the discussion was so sidetracked into inconsequential debates, but pasteurization is one of the most important food safety techniques in use today. And milk isn’t the only food stuff that’s pasteurized.

          It is a _proven_ technique that has saved untold lives over the decades.

          And pasteurization isn’t used solely by CAFOs. There are small, responsible dairy farmers who use pasteurization.

          • carlos camargo

            Let me fix that for you:
            It is a coerced process that serves to make less harmful a totally unhealthy product due to its method of production.

            And pasteurization isn’t used solely by CAFOs. There are small, responsible farmers who also feed their cows an unnatural diet (grains) whose animals products thus require pasteurization to be even marginally safe.

          • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

            Your being uninformed does not make what you say, fact.

          • carlos camargo

            I’m rubber and you’re glue and everything you say bounces off me and sticks to you! You wanted to go to this level of discussion? I can take it there as well.

    • Michael Bulger

      Mr. Marler is a food safety lawyer. I’m sure there are many lawyers who advocate for safer cars.

      Still, to play along with this digression:

      “Granted, a majority of the American population drives cars, while only 1-3% drinks raw milk on a regular basis, but if you were to extrapolate the car-driving statistic to raw milk, we should be seeing around 400 deaths a year from raw milk.”

      Not necessarily, Bill. Much of the American population rides in an automobile multiple times a day. You’d have to adjust for the frequency that each population engages in each activity. (For example, about 1 death per 100,000,000 miles traveled).

      In any case, it’s an odd comparison. We know cars carry a serious risk of injury. That’s why we require seat belts, car seats for kids, driver’s licenses, car inspections, etc. For milk, most markets require pasteurization.

  • #1Goatgal

    Good article Bill. You should also have included the 5 year old in TN who is still undergoing medical treatment for her e.coli infection the past fall.

  • #1Goatgal

    @ Bill Anderson The way to mitigate the risks of drinking raw milk is to pasteurize it.

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    People had their own cows for centuries, too. If you want to own your own cow, go for it.

    But milk was not particularly safe. At the turn of the last century, many, many children died from contaminated milk. (And don’t bring up swill milk that was decades earlier.)

    The major event that started to make milk safer, was the use of pasteurization.

    How many times do we have to bring up the raw milk foodborne illness outbreaks, before people finally get it? How many children will need to suffer before people finally realize what they’re doing?

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    And if you want to age your cheese, then yes, you can use raw milk and sell cheese in the US.

    The number of foodborne illness outbreaks for raw milk has been kept down because there is very little raw milk consumption in the country. Unfortunately, people are determined to increase raw milk consumption, so it’s only a matter of time before the bodies start stacking up. Sadly, most will be children.

    Is this what you want? You want to increase the number of sick and dead by increasing raw milk consumption? Is that what you’re after?

  • pawpaw

    Bill,
    Thanks for making FSN possible; a valuable resource. Would like to present a case for a ‘middle ground’ in lessening food-borne illness, practiced by me and mine.

    Re: your call to “be informed”, hence lessening risk for children and the elderly; those immunocompromised: Leafy greens and eggs are (among the) top causes of food-borne illness. There are Asian cultures whose traditional cooking includes little to no fresh leafy greens, due to risks from historic fertilization practices. But they still eat significant amounts of cooked greens. And peel most fruits before eating them, to lessen risk. So, it is possible to greatly lessen/eliminate raw veggies from a diet. We lived, and traveled extensively in rural Asia with four young children, ate traditional foods in all manner of ‘restaurants’, and didn’t contract a single case of food borne illness in five months. All greens were cooked/pasteurized, at least briefly in a hot pan.

    Is FSN willing to call for less consumption of leafy greens, and more cooked greens? To ‘fully inform’ your readers and lessen this risk, to protect those most vulnerable among us?
    We’ve taught our children not to eat raw veggies at restaurants, and not to eat cantaloupe and most other foods from fresh fruit trays, due to well documented and ongoing risk of death during last few years.

    Pasteurized eggs are available; hence no need to bring that source of salmonella contamination into our homes, restaurants, or institutional kitchens.

    Is FSN wiling to call for greater availability and consumption of pasteurized eggs, to ‘inform’ those cooking for the most vulnerable among us of the risk of ‘raw’ eggs? To share specific case histories of the “real world effects” of undercooked/raw eggs? Again, we’ve taught our children to avoid egg dishes, unless very thoroughly cooked and the risk of cross contamination from raw egg to finished dish is very low. Haven’t made the time to look up # of hospitalizations/deaths from unpasteurized egg consumption, but deserves consideration when discussing what ‘informed’ adults feed their children. Or what is served from institutional kitchens to vulnerable populations.

    As I pointed out a few weeks ago, about 1/2 of FDA food recalls year to date were due to milk undeclared in ingredients. About 1/2 of children with severe food allergies have one more serious ‘incidents’ per year. Another area where we all can be more diligent and considerate. But life is full of tradeoffs, including respect for family food choices.

    Here’s our own middle ground on the ‘raw’ milk debate, which I’ve tried to share with FSN writers and readers, in my comments on certain ‘raw’ milk stories: We have a family milk cow. Before that we literally bought a cow and shared it with friends owning pasture, even though some question whether such genuinely exists. Know multiple other families who milk a single cow. We use a closed milking system. Though a rare event, we cook with any milk that is visibly contaminated upon filtering.

    I don’t know what percentage of “raw” milk consumption is from family milk cows. But I am concerned when FSN lumps all “raw” milk consumption together. And trumpets this risk over other well documented food risks. Deserves to be discussed, in context. But realize that many rural families still milk their own cow or goat. And also expose their kids to all manner of other farm intimacies. Some of those indeed with recognized health benefits, but that’s another topic….

    • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

      Your logic is flawed. You say, well let’s not talk about raw milk, because leafy greens are more dangerous. But we’re not talking about other foods, we’re only talking about milk. And what we can do to ensure milk is safer.

      Yes, there are more foodborne illness outbreaks because of leafy green vegetables. However, there is significantly more consumption of leafy green vegetables than raw milk. If the consumption of raw milk matched the consumption of leafy green vegetables, I believe we’d find that raw milk would be the number one source of foodborne illness in our country.

      So pointing to the foodborne illness outbreaks for other foods does nothing more than attempt to distract from the main point: raw milk is unsafe.

      And who is “we”, in your statement about discouraging certain foods at restaurants? I believe that no one is discouraging the consumption of salads or fresh fruit at restaurants.

      And you actually use the milk that you can visibly see is contaminated? Seriously?

  • Gordon S Watson

    indeed, “the risks do need to be fully understood.” which is what the Food Standards Agency is doing right now, in England = conducting a full-on actuarial investiation of the risks of harm from drinking raw milk. ALL of which – over there – is produced in artisanal dairies. They haven’t had a single report of illness for a decade. Some of those raw milk dairies, have NEVER had a report of illnes from their milk, in half a century. A country of 50 million + people, who get all the REAL MILK they want, with no illnesses. What is it they know that American farmers are too stupid to learn? Or : is it more likely that Big.GaG is doing its damnedst to stifle the supply of a product with which they cannot compete ? Consumers pay 4 times more for REAL MILK, because they believe they’re getting their money’s worth. Free Enterprise … what a concept!

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    So, how’s that raw milk dairy you own?

    The only “skin” I have in this game is wanting to counter the misinformation spread about by foolish, superstitious people. I’d like to also make parents think twice before they gamble with their childrens’ lives, because of the same superstitious twaddle.

    • carlos camargo

      Pasteurization for grain fed cows is a damn good idea. However, grain-fed cows are a terrible one and only a result of corporations (big and small) wanting to maximize profit by taking advantage of an uninformed consumer. For hundreds of generations raw milk was the standard, and the human race marched along. In other countries raw milk is the standard and they are outpacing us in population growth so aren’t being substantially harmed by it. No, the foolishness and superstition comes from those who think that technology and not nature is the answer to a healthy food chain. Yes, I mean to say that pasteurization is a stupid thing to do to milk that comes from a grass-fed cow.

      • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

        Cows that eat grass poop, just like cows that eat grain. Cow feces can contaminate milk regardless of the food source that ended up as feces.

        Actually, milk drinking wasn’t all that common until only a few hundred years ago. Most milk was made into cheese or butter, which had more stability. And milk was not transported over long distances either.

        Regardless, in the early 1900s, hundreds, thousands of children died from contaminated milk. It was only after pasteurization that the death toll stopped.

        You are relying on bad or no science and myth. I can only hope that anyone reading these comments has enough sense to know that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

        But I’m done arguing with someone who embraces ignorance.

        • carlos camargo

          Uh, drinking milk wasn’t all that common among people that didn’t keep cows is probably a fair statement. Cows that live on factory-like conditions are clearly at a much higher contamination risk. Cows that graze on open pasture and move around will never hang around their poop long enough to get contaminated. Cow feces from cows eating strictly pasture smells like chewed up grass, that from cows eating grain and animal byproducts smell like the human stuff. Disgusting, and bad and unhealthy, which is what ends up contaminating conventional milk. Find and read the book “CAFO” it is full of pictures and information, I’m sure you’d like it.
          Again, you come with the fantastic numbers and no citations, bring the citations Shelley Powers cause as it stands, you are unbelievable. You are also relying on corporate-sponsored “science” which is nothing more than support material for marketing.
          The problem Shelley has been that you’ve been arguing instead of attempting an intelligent debate or discussion. Hysterics work on Faux News discussions but not always elsewhere. Perhaps one of the echo chamber forums would be more your speed?

  • dale brown

    Pasturised or raw, any milk produced by dairy cows fed primarily GMO food is inherently UNSAFE.

  • Emily73

    Oh complete baloney. It’s impossible to get milk from a cow with no bacteria at all. Before pasteurization raw milk and raw dairy products accounted for most of the illnesses linked to food. You need to learn more history. And stop believing woo.

  • Emily73

    Oh for pete’s sake. You don’t have to work in an industry to have concern about a topic. Why don’t you talk to some of the mothers of children who have had strokes and lost use of their kidneys because they drank unpasteurized milk and contracted an E. coli infection? Your narrow minded attitude is disgusting.

    • carlos camargo

      hhmm, now I am narrow minded because I don’t buy the industry/government story hook, line, and sinker? Unpasteurized milk from a conventionally raised (CAFO) cow is a substance that is probably no safer to drink than raw sewage. Show me some links to actual harm from the raw milk of grass-fed (no grains at all) cows. C’mon Emily, for pete’s sake, bring something to the table other than fake outrage and amazement. I know you can do it, show us the proof, I’m sure you’ve got files brimming over with evidence.

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    Raw milk is legal in the US, too. You can go buy yourself a cow and drink the milk in any state in the union. It’s the _sale_ of raw milk that’s legislated, and it’s also legislated in many countries.

    Those raw milk cheeses in France? Most are disappearing. Raw milk cheese account for only 7% of cheese sales in France.

    Back in the first part of the 1900s, community leaders looked at whether to pursue pasteurization or to enact strict standards governing the milk production. They quickly realized it was impossible to govern the milk production to the level necessary to ensure the milk would be safe. Impossible.

    There’s a reason why there is so many raw milk foodborne illness outbreaks, though raw milk consumption is so small: raw milk is dangerous.

    I can only hope people reading these stories and these comments will realize how idiotic it is to consume raw milk products.

  • http://www.artofdrink.com/ Darcy O’Neil

    Actually Mia, if you look at history you will see that back in the
    1850s, when everything was raw, local and organic, the life expectancy
    was about 40 years of age. Current life expectancy is about 82 years, and most of this is do to the big 3 scientific inventions: sanitation, vaccination and pasteurization. It is very naive to believe that raw milk is safe to drink. You may have developed an immunity, but the vast majority of people haven’t, which would lead to major outbreaks of disease (e.coli, etc.). And yes I am a scientist (chemistry) and have no relationship with the industry. I just hate misinformation. Plus it’s just a friggin glass of milk, raw milk won’t give a person super-powers.