I note the ruckus over raw milk. Sorry, but I wouldn’t touch raw milk with a 10-foot straw.

I wouldn’t drink it, I wouldn’t eat it as cheese and I wouldn’t take a bath in it, either.

Nothing personal, but I don’t believe claims that pasteurizing milk destroys its nutritional value or that it’s a conspiracy of big agribusiness and big government to promote the interests of big pharma.

I see pasteurization of dairy products as a blessing. It prevents our return to a dreadful past in which diseases transmitted by raw milk afflicted hundreds of thousands every year. In fact, they still do in many parts of the world where people can’t get pasteurized dairy products.

The “raw milk revolution” looks more like an exotic caprice for rich (by comparison to the developing world) dilettantes who benefit from more than half a century of the developed world technology they dismiss.

Consider brucellosis. It’s a nasty, debilitating chronic disease that’s transmitted from cattle to humans. The symptoms include fever, anorexia, fatigue, headaches, depression and weight loss. It’s often confused with malaria or typhoid. It was a candidate for engineering as a biological weapon during the Cold War.

The principal vector for human infection with brucellosis is still raw dairy products. There are about 500,000 new cases of brucellosis every year, mostly in countries without access to the production infrastructure that permits large-scale pasteurization.

Africa is particularly vulnerable. Brucellosis is widespread in Tanzania, for example, and aside from the human health concern, is highly damaging to food security and to the sustainability of local economies because of the production losses it causes among the livestock it primarily affects – cattle and goats.

Other regions considered at risk are rural parts of the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East, Eastern Europe, South and Central America and parts of Asia.

By comparison, there are only about 200 cases of brucellosis each year in North America although a reservoir of infection persists in cattle. The disease emerged again in herds in Texas, Wyoming and Montana during an outbreak in 2003.

What sets developed countries apart from regions where brucellosis widely affects human populations is the presence of pasteurization of dairy products and deployment of aggressive control measures to eradicate reservoirs of infection.

Raw milk advocates who trumpet the health benefits of unpasteurized products are in fact the beneficiaries of precisely the public health “conspiracy” to pasteurize that so many deride and vilify.

And it’s not just transmission of brucellosis that pasteurization has helped to eliminate in North America. The implementation of this technology is directly associated with corresponding declines early in the last century in diphtheria and tuberculosis that were transmitted through raw dairy products.

How significant was the introduction of pasteurization?

In the 1920s, there were up to 200,000 diphtheria cases a year in North America. The fatality rate was as high as 10 per cent among children and resulted in up to 15,000 deaths annually. Tuberculosis is estimated to have killed one billion people globally between 1700 and 1900. Pasteurization helped control both.

Or course, factors other than pasteurization helped eliminate these scourges from Europe and North America, but pasteurizing dairy products and thus seriously restricting a major transmission vector is a big one. In North America, human brucellosis cases fell by 97 per cent, for example.

The medical literature provides anyone who cares to read it with evidence of the alarming consequences of consuming unpasteurized dairy products. Since 1993 there have been scores of disease outbreaks associated with raw dairy consumption in Canada, the United States, France, Ireland and the United Kingdom.

So, call me conservative if you like, but that will be strictly pasteurized for me, thanks.


Stephen Hume is a columnist for The Vancouver Sun. This column, reprinted with permission, first appeared in the newspaper on Jan. 23, 2011.