April 2009, eleven Colorado residents develop Campylobacter infections after consuming raw milk sold through a cow share program. September 2009, thirty-five Wisconsin residents develop Campylobacter infections after consuming raw milk sold through a cow share program. November 2009, three persons in Washington State develop pathogenic E. coli infections after consuming raw milk. January 2010, five persons in Saratoga County, New York develop Campylobacter infections after consuming raw milk.
The list could go on and on. Drinking raw milk is, to say the least, a risky proposition. Sure, raw milk advocates argue that we should look at the numbers of illnesses caused by pasteurized milk as a comparison. Unfortunately for raw milk supporters, the numbers just aren’t in their favor. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) documents (pdf), from 1973 to 2005, raw dairy products caused over 50% of milkborne illness outbreaks, despite the fact that only about one percent of the United States population drinks raw milk.
Without a doubt, the widespread use of milk pasteurization over the last 60 years has led to fewer incidences of foodborne illness. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), tainted milk was the source of approximately 25% of all reported foodborne and waterborne disease outbreaks in 1938. Today, thanks to pasteurization, tainted milk accounts for less than one percent of such reported outbreaks.
Regardless of the clear safety benefits of milk pasteurization, there are still those among us that fight ardently for access to raw milk. They claim that raw milk cures everything from diarrhea to rickets, from ear infections to asthma. The claims made by sellers of raw milk often sound eerily reminiscent of the snake oil salesmen of yesteryear. The feverish tone of these raw milk advocates begs one question: Who are raw milk sales really helping–average consumers or the farms that sell raw milk for up to $13.00 per gallon?
Raw milk salesmen (and women) have turned into classic cure-all peddlers as a way to boost sales. I am certainly not disputing the fact that there might be health benefits associated with consuming the probiotics found in raw milk, even if the CDC doesn’t agree, and even though probiotics can be found in many products. Nor am I claiming that farmers should be denied potentially lucrative revenue streams. The main problem I have with this issue is that the advocates have stretched their sales pitches too thin, claiming that cows excrete an elixir that treats almost any ailment. At the same time, they seem to be trying to sweep the potential dangers of consuming fecal-bacteria-tainted milk under the carpet. Unfortunately, the end result is that the real victims of this deceptive advertising are often persons with already-weakened immune systems, such as children and the elderly.
The raw milk debate strikes a particular chord with me because it is so intertwined with my legal field of interest, products liability. Products liability was born out of the need to hold producers of medicines liable for injuring consumers. The rationale behind holding producers liable was simple: consumers couldn’t be expected to chemically analyze medicine before putting it into their bodies, therefore they had no choice but to rely on the producer’s good word that the medicine did what it purported to do in a safe manner. From an ethical standpoint, this made sense. If a supposed expert advertises a product as safe, it doesn’t seem morally sound to blame the consumer for his or her subsequent injury or death.
The birth of the products liability movement provides a valuable lesson about the raw milk debate of today. By today’s standards, the claims made by producers of medicines in the mid-1800s often seem outrageous. Products containing large amounts of mercury were a common treatment for syphilis. Lead was also used to treat a variety of ailments. Scientists even suspect that Beethoven’s death was likely due to lead poisoning, developed after a lifetime of exposure to lead-based medical treatments.
Of course, the error of comparing the treatment of diseases with toxic medicines to the treatment of diseases with raw milk lies in the fact that the dangers of such medicines were not known in the 1800s. The dangers of consuming raw milk, on the other hand, were known by scientific pioneers such as Louis Pasteur as early as 1862. Indeed, in the modern day there is no excuse for exposing persons with weakened immune systems to raw milk that is known to contain deadly bacteria.
Despite a clear history of outbreaks, and a history of contamination with deadly bacteria that was known by scientists over 140 years ago, raw milk advocates continue to fight for their right to consume the product and feed it to their children. The internet age has created new avenues for proponents to reach consumers. It has also created an unregulated communication forum in which assertions of fact are rarely questioned. That sentiment of course applies to this article as much as it does any article posted on the World Wide Web. But, I would urge consumers to think long and hard about the goal behind campaigns that tout endless positive benefits of a product, side by side with sales pitches about the lucrative cash-earning potential of product sales. Like the products of yesteryear, we may one day look back in horror at the health risks consumers were willing to take in the name of a product that claimed to cure everything from heart disease to stomach cancer.
As with medicine, I will be the first to admit that some milk is more dangerous than other milk. There are relative risks and benefits of consuming either raw milk or pasteurized milk. Nonetheless, for the sake of my own health, I would rather avoid medications and milk that are not subjected to a sterilization process. Then again, I don’t pretend to have all the answers. There may be some great benefits to raw milk, but it’s hard to ignore the federal government’s pleadings to stop the sale of raw milk. The government may be wrong. I may be wrong. Or perhaps, the reality is that raw milk is simply not a safe product to feed to our nation’s children. Nonetheless, I’m sure that many raw milk advocates will unwittingly continue to paraphrase Stephen Colbert as they keep trying to convince us that reality has a well-known anti-raw milk bias.