There are many reasons why some people are thinking about drinking raw milk these days. (Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized to kill harmful germs.) Some people want to eat less processed food. Others have heard that raw milk contains more of certain nutrients than pasteurized milk, or that it can prevent or even solve various health problems. Still others think of buying raw milk as one way to support local farmers and sustainable agriculture.
As a public health epidemiologist and veterinarian, I know firsthand how animals and their germs can contaminate all kinds of food, including milk. Also, in my job in the Outbreak Response and Prevention Branch at CDC, I help investigate outbreaks caused by contaminated food and contact with infected animals.
If you’re thinking about adding raw milk to your diet (or your family’s diet), it’s important for you to understand the risks of drinking raw milk.
Why raw milk is dangerous
Raw milk can carry harmful bacteria and other germs that can make you very sick or kill you. Yes, it’s true that it’s possible to get “food poisoning” or foodborne illnesses from many foods, but raw milk is one of the riskiest of all. Raw milk and products made from raw milk (such as cheeses and yogurts) can cause serious infections, such as Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli.
What happens if you get sick from raw milk
Getting sick from raw milk can mean many days of diarrhea, stomach cramping, and vomiting. Less commonly, it can mean kidney failure, paralysis, chronic disorders, and even death. The seriousness of the illness is determined by many factors, such as the type of germ, the amount of contamination, and the person’s immune defenses.
Speaking of immune defenses… it’s important to remember that some people are at higher risk of getting sick from drinking raw milk. The risk is greater for certain age groups, such as infants, young children, and older adults. It’s also particularly risky for pregnant women (and their unborn babies) and those with weakened immune systems, such as people with cancer, an organ transplant, or HIV/AIDS.
Though some people are at higher risk of getting sick from raw milk, even healthy adults and older children can get seriously ill. Those who recover often suffer from life-long medical consequences. To see how devastating these illnesses can be, check out these real-life stories about the dangers of raw milk.
Even healthy animals may carry germs that contaminate raw milk
Outbreaks of illness related to raw milk have been traced back to both grass-fed and grain-fed animals. Raw milk supplied by “certified,” “organic,” or “local dairies has no guarantee of being safe.
How to stay safe
To keep your family safe, follow these simple tips:
— Always drink pasteurized milk. Check the label or package to be sure.
— If you prefer organic milk, make sure that it’s pasteurized. Raw, organic milk is not safe.
— If you or a member of your family consumes raw milk and then becomes ill, call your health care provider immediately. If it’s an emergency, call 911.
For more information, including questions and answers about raw milk, see Food Safety and Raw Milk (CDC).
LCDR Casey Barton Behravesh, DVM, DrPH, U.S. Public Health Service works in the Outbreak Response and Prevention Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This article was originally posted Feb. 15, 2011 at www.foodsafety.gov.