What’s a building block in the food pyramid that’s important for building and maintaining bone mass? It’s milk.

Whether it’s from cows, goats, sheep, or another mammal, milk and milk products are an important source of calcium throughout a person’s life.

Most of the milk sold in the United States is pasteurized, a process during which the milk is heated to 161 degrees and kept there for 15 seconds. Pasteurization kills harmful bacteria–including Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria–that can contaminate milk before it gets to your table. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention recommend pasteurization for all milk consumed by people in the United States. 

Pasteurization Reduces Illness

Pasteurization of milk is an effective means of preventing outbreaks of foodborne illness, including tuberculosis, brucellosis, salmonellosis, scarlet fever, and listeriosis. It was first used in the United States more than 100 years ago and has been widely used for more than a half-century, says John Sheehan, an FDA expert on the safety of dairy products.

But increasingly, consumers are seeing “raw” milk–and cheeses, yogurts, and other products made from it–in specialty shops, farmers’ markets, and stores. That’s partly because many Americans have adopted a “back to nature” philosophy about the foods they eat, embracing the idea that locally produced and minimally processed foods are more nutritious.

But in the case of raw milk, FDA says that’s not true. Although the heating process slightly affects a few of the vitamins–thiamine, vitamin B6 and folic acid within the B-complex, and vitamin C, the changes are not significant. Meanwhile, there is a risk that milk could be contaminated by environmental factors such as soil or animal feces, animal diseases, or bacteria on an animal’s skin.

Consumers are also seeing more raw milk products because of the growth of the artisanal cheese industry, Sheehan says. These cheeses are made by hand using what are considered to be traditional methods–often on the farm where the milk is produced. Some of these cheese makers use pasteurized milk in their products, but others use raw milk that could contain disease-causing bacteria.

Some people believe cheese made from raw milk is better for you, but Sheehan says there is no scientific evidence to support that belief.

In countries where pasteurization of milk is less common, outbreaks of foodborne illness attributed to tainted milk or milk products occur more frequently than they do in the United States. In France, for example, the rate of foodborne illness attributed to milk and milk products was reported to be roughly three times what it is in the U.S., says Sheehan, citing a 2001 study by researcher Marie-Laure De Buyser and other French scientists.

When in Doubt–Ask!

Federal law prohibits dairies from distributing raw milk across state lines if it has been packaged for consumers. This means raw milk can only be distributed between states if it’s going to plants to be pasteurized or used to make aged cheese before being sold to consumers. Experts have long believed that aging cheese for 60 days or longer killed disease-causing bacteria. FDA is now reviewing the scientific basis for that belief.

Each state makes its own laws about selling raw milk within the borders of the state. About half of states allow some form of raw milk to be sold to consumers.

Consumers should be alert when they buy milk or milk products. To avoid raw milk, here are a few things you can do:

Read the label on milk or milk products before you buy them. Many companies put the word “pasteurized” right on the label–but, Sheehan says, it is not required.

Ask store employees if specific brands are pasteurized.

At farm stands or farmers’ markets, ask if the milk and cream being sold have been pasteurized. If the market sells yogurt, ice cream, or cheese, ask if they were made with pasteurized milk.

Symptoms of Foodborne Illness

Not all raw milk and products made from it contain harmful bacteria. But if they do, the bacteria could be especially dangerous to pregnant women, children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems. While most healthy people recover from a foodborne illness in a short time, some people may develop symptoms that are chronic, severe, or even life-threatening.

Symptoms of foodborne illness may include:

— vomiting

— diarrhea

— abdominal pain

— fever

— headache

— body aches

If you think you might have become ill from drinking raw milk–or eating yogurt, cheese, or a product made from it–see your health care provider immediately.


This article, first posted on March 8, 2011, appears on FDA’s Consumer Updates page, which features the latest on all FDA-regulated products.

  • Yasmine Motarjemi

    Few months ago I published a book to teach food safety to children. The book is called “les invisibles (in French), and through a story it teaches the science of food safety, among others, risks associated with raw milk. Recently, a journalist wanted to write an article on the book in s Swiss newspaper and accused me to attacking the farmers, while the objective of the book were innocently just to open the eyes of the kids to the invisible world of microbes. Regrettably, Food safety becomes so political.

  • Rob DeLay

    If pasteurization is so effective, then why do we have ever increasing amounts of milk showing up with a problem?!
    And why do we have so many people with allergies because of it?!
    And PLEASE leave raw milk cheese out of this discussion. Why?
    Because as a consumer of reputable raw milk cheese for over 35 years, and as someone with friends that have been consuming same for going on 25 years, and not having any problems whatsoever,we’re concerned about lumping cheese into this discussion. Besides, hasn’t anyone started to notice that consumers, in ever increasing numbers, don’t trust the FDA anymore? Genetic Modification ring a bell?
    Food Safety needs to tell BOTH sides of the dairy story.

  • Doc Mudd

    Raw milk cheese food poisoning, recent example:
    Raw milk facts:
    Food safety is a pretty simple concept, really.

  • Minkpuppy

    Mr. Delay,
    Raw milk cheese cannot be left out of the discussion because if you have been following recent outbreaks, you would know that an E. coli outbreak was attributed to raw milk cheese given out as samples at Costco stores along with other recalls associated with raw milk cheese products contaminated with Listeria. Europe has had an increasing number of outbreaks associated with raw milk cheese. We’ve had an ongoing debate on this website about the adequacy of the 60 day aging rule in controlling food-borne pathogens. It is increasingly under fire because of the recent outbreaks. Any discussion of raw milk has to include raw milk cheese.
    You have been very fortunate that you have not had any ill effects from your cheese consumption. However, diseases like brucellosis don’t always show up as an acute illness right away and can sit in your system for years before it causes problems. Brucellosis can be spread through raw milk and raw milk cheese.
    There’s absolutely no research backing up your claim that pasteurized milk causes allergies. What kind of allergies are we talking about here anyway? I have allergies but it’s not to dairy. Also, many ppl confuse lactose intolerance with actual dairy allergies and it’s two very different things. Lactose intolerance occurs when the individual lacks the enzyme to digest the milk sugar, lactose, and causes mostly GI symptoms like gas and diarrhea. Dairy allergy results in your typical allergic rxns like anaphylaxis, hives, etc. Not the same beast in the slightest.
    It’s one thing to not trust the FDA but when you completely ignore years of microbiological research conducted by individuals that have no vested interest in anything but understanding diseases, their causes and finding out how to prevent them, I have to question the logic being used by the raw milk lobby. If you want to consume the stuff, then do it. However, do not dismiss the potential risks just because “you’ve never had a problem”. I wonder just how often raw milkies get diarrhea and blame it on something else besides the raw milk?

  • Trevor

    Let us look at a special scenario. Sure, if all milk producers did not pasteurize their milk product before sending it off to the consumer, there would be an insurmountable problem at hand with the number of confirmed cases of contamination and illness due to consumption. But surprisingly, those cases won’t be linked to the farmers who currently do everything they can to ensure a safe raw product for consumption. Where you will see most if not all cases of contamination in this scenario will be from those milk producers who maintain the conventional process of rearing and producing milk (in other words, the industrialized producers of milk).
    Those facilities are extremely unsanitary; their cows are fed foods that are not their natural diet; as a result of poor diet, those same cows are in most cases sickly and a lot of the time they then require antibiotics; and the milk that is pumped from these poor creatures is at times in close proximity to their fecal matter. These businesses know that they do not need to produce a clean milk product because they know that their lack of cleanliness will be ‘wiped’ away through the process of pasteurization. That really is not the way to run a business. In conclusion, there is no wonder as to why pasteurization is an absolute must when you take into account the environmental attributes and the overall (lack of-) health of the cows under those conditions.
    Luckily, you won’t see these same conditions for those that currently sell raw milk for consumption. Their businesses and livelihood depend on the cleanliness of their operation and ultimate product, and their customers also depend and demand that level of quality. Therefore, you will see systems from these farmers where they rear their cows of healthy diets, one that they were always meant to live off of, which is essentially grass; those cows usually do not need antibiotics because of the sanitary conditions they live in and the food they eat supplies their dietary needs; and the milking process is keep as clean as possible so that fecal matter does not get mixed in with the milk.
    If you eliminate words pasteurization and raw from the two paragraphs above and present them as two forms of milk production, I would say without a doubt in my mind that the consumer would choose the latter product because how well kept the animal is raised and how clean the final product is found.
    Final point, pasteurization kills nearly all health benefits associated with the milk product including any potentially harmful contaminates. When this processing is utilized, you have an end product that is nearly devoid of the nutritional benefits it may have had before pasteurization and that is why the industry needs to supplement this pasteurized product with synthetically engineered ‘vitamins’ to enhance a ‘dead’ product.
    What it really comes down to, if one is ever to consider purchasing raw milk, is for that interested consumer to know their source and to check out the farm itself for cleanliness. There are good resources out there that give reasons as to why raw milk is substantially better for one’s health if milk is ever considered for consumption. Please seek out those resources as well.

  • Doc Mudd

    Trevor helpfully informs us: “…milk producers who maintain the conventional process…(in other words, the industrialized producers of milk)…Those facilities are extremely unsanitary; their cows are fed foods that are not their natural diet; as a result of poor diet, those same cows are in most cases sickly and a lot of the time they then require antibiotics; and the milk that is pumped from these poor creatures is at times in close proximity to their fecal matter…Luckily, you won’t see these same conditions for those that currently sell raw milk for consumption.”
    I don’t suppose you’d have credible documentation to back up any of your happy horse—-, would you Trevor? Anything at all, beyond flaming ignorance and smouldering hatred to explain yourself, son?
    Just another misquided crusader desperate to frighten & flim-flam you and me into purchasing over-priced food of questionable safety.

  • Minkpuppy

    I beg to differ with you on the sanitary conditions of raw milk dairies and conventional dairies. Both systems have good producers and bad. The Hartmann dairy in Minnesota is the classic example of a dirty raw dairy and recent recalls of raw milk cheese were partially due to insanitary conditions in the on-farm cheese factory.
    I often see raw milk advocates throwing the claim out there that all conventional dairies are dirty messes. Simply not true. Have you ever visited one or are you basing that on something you read on a website or one of those worst-case scenario videos that are posted everywhere? The conventional dairies have to meet bacterial standard counts in their milk for it to even be accepted for processing so it hardly stands to reason that they would be sending bacteria laden milk to be pasteurized. If the bacterial counts are too high, pasteurization is useless because it will not acheive the kill rate needed to make the milk safe.
    Your assertions that pasteurization destroys the healthful benefits is just flat out wrong and there’s no scientific data to support it. On the contrary, I can do a small of amount of looking and come up with all sorts of valid university research that refutes your claims. I’ve done my research by looking at both sides, can you really say that you’ve done yours?

  • dangermaus

    Even if all of the risks associated with raw milk are real, and are as significant as people that actually study the issue claim – and I have no real reason to doubt that they aren’t – in a free society, the government has no business interfering with people buying food from people that grow and produce it any way they wish. Who are the FDA to tell me that the value I put on the joy I get from food is not worth risk associated with it?
    The FDA and other organizations have way, way too much control over what is legal to buy to eat. When we want your advice, we’ll ask you. Otherwise, shut up and leave us alone.

  • Geez, Louise. Maybe the FDA isn’t telling you what you may or may not consume.
    Maybe they are telling you what you may or may not SELL for public consumption, based on product safety.
    The manufacture and SALE of potentially dangerous products like raw milk is regulated, not the consumption. Just reining in greedy unscrupulous producers and vendors. It’s that simple.
    Why is this so difficult for some folks to comprehend?

  • Anita

    My understanding is that we shouldn’t be drinking cow’s milk anyway….end of discussion.
    BTW, I have little faith in the FDA to protect the safety of the food that is sold to Americans – who mostly just want to pay as little as possible for any tasty combination they can get of fat, salt and sugar.
    A couple of years ago I read that Europeans spent more on food and less on health care…hmmmm, you think there’s a connection there?