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.

  • Joseph

    Currently how liable are raw milk producers? Have most of the outbreaks associated with raw milk consumption resulted in lawsuits?
    I can understand why people may get upset at the government telling them what they can or can’t eat but I do not understand why some people think the entire scientific community is conspiring against raw milk producers. Raw milk could just as well be filed under the same category as all the other “miracle beverages” out there (Xangosteen, Noni, Goji) that claim to cure everything and cost an outrageous amount of money. At least those other beverages are pasteurized…
    I am fine with people having the choice to drink raw milk but this belief that raw milk will cure everything (or even anything) is pathetic. It is a dangerous product and people shouldn’t be led to believe anything else.

  • selma

    k, i can’t say that either pro or against raw milk (though you’ll probably think i’m pro, it’s just that you’re so far out against, that i can’t pat you on the shoulder), but i do consider choice to be as important as legal guardianship of our gvmnts over us dangerous. i would NEVER drink the milk i get from grocery stores unboiled if it was not pasteurized, and if i wasn’t sure of the origin of milk, aaaah i’d just boil it – why risk it. i had access as a kid to raw milk, my parents would get it, specially when i or my brother would get sick. now to claim that milk (if clean and from a healthy animal) can’t be beneficial with some diseases is beyond stupid. it is a part of mammal’s immune system and this is how the offspring is protected from many diseases, cause at birth their immune system is not fully developed and they use milk not only to feed but also for a protection. you should know that from your grade 6 biology (at least that’s when we studied mammals.) recently in california a doctor testified that the immunity in milk can kill listeria in 48 hours, and i’m not surprised at all. now to say that it’s such a universal cure, i would seriously doubt such a claim. but then i’ve never heard it before from pro-raw milk ppl, only heard about such claims from the agains-raw milk ppl. although i did meet somebody who was diagnosed with cancer, he lives here in southern ontario. and after diagnoses changed his lifestyle completely. one of the many MANY changes in his life was introduction of raw milk. he never claimed that raw milk saved his life, but he said that all of it (including raw milk) helped him fight the disease. i’m surprised that ppl are not pushing for pasteurized meat. that carries way more diseases and parasites that are much more dangerous, and at the same time i’ve never heard of any special benefits of consuming it raw (xcept for some acquired tastes in some parts of the world.)

  • paula

    Thank goodness the CHOICE to drink or not to drink raw milk is mine alone. American law guarantees it. Monopolistic/dictatorship interests can not change the law to serve themselves.
    And I choose to drink raw milk.

  • The specious nature of this question prompts a similar question. Who benefits from the current system of milk distribution?
    Having forced local dairies to invest inordinate amounts of money in equipment whose sole purpose is to make marketable an adulterated milk product, one must conclude that the distributors are the ones who benefit. Now they are feeling threatened by a vastly superior alternative to whole milk that has been robbed of its cream and 2% milk with powdered milk products added back in.
    The issue is no longer about the possible transmission of pathogen. The modern collection and refrigeration techniques of milk from properly pastured cows offers consumers food that does them no harm.
    When was the last time you heard a consumer ask for “more RGBH in my milk” or “Could I get a few more dead bacteria in this batch?”
    The truth is the monopoly sees consumers rising up against the propaganda that has ruined a marvelous industry.
    Too bad they are too greed to clean up their act and get in on the enthusiasm that accompanies healthy food.

  • MJ

    Considering the FDA’s track record on knowledgeably abiding by the noble “product safety law”, I’d be thoroughly disbelieving their CDC “statistics” on pasteurization of milk as so necessary for the safety of the vulnerable public.
    The American Medical Association has published in their prestigious journal that the annual DEATH rate due to FDA approved pharmaceuticals, properly prescribed according to FDA authorized medical standards and dispensed properly according to those standards is 108,000 Americans EACH YEAR.. THE THIRD LEADING CAUSE OF DEATH IN THE U.S.
    Trust their opinion of safety standards in caring for the vulnerable public?
    Somehow this level of trust in such killers who now demand pasteurization as a crucial *safety* measure in not sensible especially when government reaps substantial fees for overseeing the pasteurization processing. I say the statistics need another — and an unbiased analysis — before this suspiciously polished ‘review’ of statistics and rights is acceptable to logical readers.

  • Tony

    So you think something should be done about that “unregulated communication forum?”

  • Paula

    Does anyone remember the name of the most intelligent person who was clear headed enough to originally observe that the distributors with their ceegars and wine in hand have got the farmers laundering their money for them? Lucrative indeed is the distribution trade for pasteurized milk while our good farmers and their families rot.

  • Ed Hartz

    Who benefits? Humans do. MOst will. Majority wins, right?
    Refer to “THE UNTOLD STORY OF MILK” by Ron Schmid, ND.
    Refer to David Gumpert’s – “THE RAW MILK REVOLUTION.”
    Who will get it there? The Milkman. Milkmen USA. Milkmen Canada. Milkmen Europe. Milkmen Australia and New Zealand. Milkmen India. Milkmen China and Mongolia. Milkmen Russia. Milkmen Ukraine. Milkmen South America, Asia, Africa, Central America, and more. But not the Moon. Scrap the moon projects and spend your money, our money and energy on the seas and the lands, on earth.
    The Milkmen USA

  • Jacque

    I vastly prefer raw milk and in order to acquire it legally I got a couple of dairy goats and have a constant fresh supply. This is my choice and there are no government regulations involved. I find it easier to just exercise my freedom of choice rather than scream about someone trying to take it away. Don’t live in an area where you can buy raw milk? Move, if it’s that important.

  • Peasant

    Who stands to benefit from raw milk? Well, judging by the cost, I’d say they are not receiving the subsidies which corporate farms enjoy. Who’s benefiting? Judging by the extreme standards of sterlization a raw dairy is subject to (and rightly so), which a corporate farm can fudge on due to antibiotics and pastuerization, I’d say the raw milk movement is not about the bottom line, but about health.
    Was there any attempt to understand the sicknesses brought on by raw milk? Where is the thorough scientific study with controls? Maybe the teats were not sterilized properly, maybe the milk was not stored at a cold enough temp., or consumed within a healthy time frame – or both.
    I guess we’d better save the baby cows from their mother’s milk; next we will be going after breastfeeding moms for their raw milk. Strep and other bacteria live in our skin you know, the FDA might want to step in and make sure mothers are sterlizing properly. Sheesh. Just get milk from someone you trust and who’s practices you are familiar with – do you know where YOUR milk comes from or what THOSE cows have been eating, because it’s going in YOUR body.

  • Katie

    Raw milk, a cure all? No, probably not. However, I have been drinking raw milk for 4 months now and have seen a vast improvement in my health. Being lactose intolerant was a curse for me until I found that raw milk can be consumed by LI people. Why? Because the pasteurization process destroys lactase contained in milk. My cholesterol has also come into normal ranges after being very high 5 months ago (and no, nothing else in my diet has changed). I no longer have IBS due to the wonderful probiotics and enzymes in raw milk (more than you will ever get from yogurt or other cultured foods). Also, I have lost 10 pounds without even trying. Let me remind you I am drinking full fat raw milk!
    I am blessed to live in a state (Washington)where raw milk is legal and is even sold at some grocery stores. Our milk is clean and safe due to stringent certification standards for raw dairies. The Washington illnesses you cite have never been proven to be the result of raw milk. What the anti-raw milk articles fail to acknowledge is that the people who got sick had a lot more in common in their diets than just milk. The illness even showed up in people who DID NOT CONSUME THE RAW MILK.
    Safe and clean raw dairies promote healthy cows which is more than can be said for the majority of conventional dairies in the US.
    Raw milk is good for cows. Raw milk is good for the public.

  • Anna

    My family benefits a lot from raw milk and especially from raw cream. My second child was born after we switched to raw diary and she is better formed, has straighter teeth, better hair and skin than her brother.

  • Sally

    Show me the epidemiologocal evidence on those cases supposedly caused by raw milk. Does it really prove that raw milk did it? I doubt it. The powers that be just assume that, because they found raw milk in the fridge of some of those that got sick they could blame it on that, and stopped looking for any other cause. Did everyone that drank the same batch of milk as the sick folks get sick? I doubt it. Were there others in the community that didn’t drink the milk sick with the same thing? Probably. It’s funny how poor epidemiology is so accepted by the powers that be. Who benefits from that? The same industry that underpays the family dairy farmers so huge megadairies can pump out dirty milk that they can “make safe” after the fact. And to compare a wholesome food that has been part of the human diet for several millenia to poison is just plain laughable. You really are counting on people being that stupid that they won’t see through your logic, aren’t you?

  • Jill Cruz

    To the author of this article: Did you know that “harmful” bacteria is everywhere? Did you know that it is in your mouth right now and in your body? We are covered in bacteria, actually there are many more bacteria cells in our body than human cells. Why is it that some people get sick and others don’t? If Pastuer were right (and even he admitted that the blood is not sterile) than everyone would have died of the plague, and many more people would be dying of food poisoning from the thousands of beef recalls we see each year. What determines how sick you get and how often is not so much what you put in your mouth, rather, it is how healthy your immune system is. So don’t go blaming the camplyobactor!
    Are you aware that dairy-related food-borne illnesses only constitute around 1% of illnesses in any given year? Why don’t you focus your energy on the corporations that are truly putting people at risk? The large meat-processing facilities we see across the country who get a slap on the wrist when they mess up and thousands of pounds of beef need to be recalled. Or how about the factory-farms that have their dairy cows standing on concrete with feces all around them for their whole lives, never seeing the light of day and dependent on antibiotics to stay alive? Where do you think H1N1 originated? A pig factory-farm in Mexico. How about an article about that? Factory-farms are a source of torture for animals, completely unethical and should be illegal. They also are responsible for pumping the general public with antibiotics on a regular basis resulting in antibiotic-resistant mutations of bacteria.
    I’m not worried about myself, I consume lots of high-quality raw animal products and a little bacteria doesn’t scare me. But I do worry about the majority of Americans out there who are living on junk food. Now they could benefit from some wholesome raw dairy!

  • I found this “debate” interesting. As the founder of the trade magazine, Food Quality, I would have sided with what the scientific experts say who are against raw milk. However, I have seen first had, the benefits of raw milk with someone in my family and I now support the right for people to make their own choice.

  • LInda

    Raw milk is not a panacea, and like everything else in life, is not without potential drawbacks. Everyone needs to research and make their own informed choices on this issue. Many people are passionate about about raw milk because we’ve experienced dramatic turnarounds in our health when we added it to our diets. It’s been a good choice for our family and improved our health in numerous ways. For instance, it eradicated the intense multiple food intolerances my mother and I suffered from for decades. Dairy and dairy by-products were some of the biggest offenders, and we thought we were dairy intolerant. We tried many conventional and alternative treatments over the years with little or no benefit. Even large amounts of non-dairy probiotics weren’t effective. But after gradually introducing raw goat milk kefir, our guts healed and within 6 months we were able to eat anything we wanted(though I still can’t do gluten). This has been a HUGE relief, as we can now relax at parties and restaurants and eat what we want instead of reading labels, shaking our heads and walking away unfed. Also, the easily digestible raw dairy products nourished Mom and helped her survive osteomyelitis and sepsis (which caused a stroke and heart valve damage among other things). Doctors said she wouldn’t survive more than a week. She was down to 76 pounds when we re-introduced the raw dairy, and she immediately began gaining strength and weight. 4 years later she’s nearing 90, and is healthy and active. And she still drinks lots of raw milk.
    Also, I’m curious as to which milk producers are making lucrative profits from selling raw milk? All of the ones in our area work long, hard hours and are barely making enough money to survive.

  • I think it makes sense for Whole Foods to look hard at the risks and costs of retail sales of raw milk and raw milk products. As I said months ago:
    I would really urge you all to watch these videos:
    And, for the folks at Whole Foods:

  • Carolyn

    This is an interesting topic and debate. I’ve been reading papers and websites on both sides. What I’ve observed is that both sides tend to make unsupported arguments, both sides “cherry pick” findings from others papers. And both sides need further controlled testing before they can accurately claim to be right.
    I read the lengthy CDC paper (pdf) quoted in the 2nd paragraph of this article and from which they said “from 1973 to 2005, raw dairy products caused over 50% of milkborne illness outbreaks”. What this author doesn’t tell you is this was a total of 134 outbreaks over a period over more than 30 years! That’s LESS than 5 outbreaks per year for ALL types, raw and pastuerized.
    Also, that same CDC paper mentions in more than one place that often the raw milk products are from unlicensed sources or could have been contaminated by the consumer.
    I feel that this article, written by Alex Ferguson, does nothing to clarify or weigh the actual facts of this debate. It tosses around statements and numbers in a way that supports a personal opinion. It criticizes others for cherry picking statements to support their argument, then does the exact same thing.
    As someone that has very recently become interested in raw milk, I will continue to look for quality information. And when and if I choose to purchase raw dairy products I will certainly be sure to buy from a LICENSED dairy and handle the products so as not to contaminate them.

  • Phillip

    We just recently started buying our milk from a licensed dairy farm in Georgia. 2 of our boys have autism, and our daughter is developing normally. Do we expect this to cure our illnesses? Absolutely not. We believe stronger in a naturally developed healthy source of dairy, rather than some feed lot medicated mass production animal. Since we’ve had raw milk for only 2 days now, I cannot attest to any miraculous cures, or can I say that any one of us have been sick. Maybe I’ll come back and repost with more supporting data from my specific experience, but it is my opinion that we should all be looking to rely more on our local sources for food and not relying on genetically modified methods…

    • spam slayer

      What about milk from Organic Valley? It’s organic, from small farmers, yet it’s pasteurized.

  • Jim Tandy

    I have started, at 80 years old, imbibing in raw milk. There are those who tell me this is dangerous. But at my age it’s worth it to add to the list of what might kill me, something that is enjoyable. Raw milk tastes like the milk I loved when I was young and had an uncle who owned a dairy squirt “raw’ milk right out of the cows tit into my mouth! Even better, I can now very easily make with raw milk, things like butter, buttermilk, cottage cheese and yogurt that tastes so much better to me than the store bought stuff that it’s amazing! If the milk kills me, at least I’ll die a happier camper.

  • spam slayer

    So, every article I’ve read today cites the CDC. What if someone didn’t trust the CDC because of the long government arm also known as Monsanto? I’m personally in the camp of pasteurized milk, but I am also quite mistrustful of Monsanto. I have a friend that can not be convinced do to the conspiracy argument. Before anyone flippantly suggests she or we are of the tinfoil hat society please consider the real possibility that Monsanto does wield a lot of power and influence. How could anyone find access to articles that are independent of the CDC. I’d really love to be able to share good information. This may not be a winnable argument, but perhaps it’s one worth having anyway.