Despite a multitude of warnings about the dangers of drinking raw milk (milk that hasn’t been pastuerized), why do some people continue to turn a deaf ear to those warnings, even in light of continued food poisoning outbreaks linked to raw milk?
Could it be the “messenger” — typically federal and state agencies and public health officials?
A clue to that possibility surfaced in a recent study, “Motivation for Unpasteurized Milk Consumption in Michigan, 2011,” by Paul Bartlett and Angela Renee Katafiasz, of Michigan State University, which appeared in a recent issue of “Food Protection Trends.”
In an email to Food Safety News, Bartlett said that what surprised him the most about the results of the survey of raw-milk drinkers was that such a small percentage of them trusted public health officials regarding what food is safe to eat.
Only 4 (or 7.1 percent) of the 56 raw-milk consumers who responded to the study’s questionnaire agreed with a statement that “in general, they trusted recommendations made by state health officials about what foods are safe to eat.” Another 10 (or 17.9 percent) indicated they didn’t agree with the statement, while another 41 (or 73.2 percent) said they weren’t sure.
“This lack of trust,” says the study, “casts doubt on whether or not consumer education by local or state health departments would be effective in preventing milk-borne disease due to raw-milk consumption.”
None of this surprises Mark McAfee, the outspoken co-owner of California-based Organic Pastures, the nation’s largest raw-milk producer.
In an email to Food Safety News, McAfee said he has always thought that any area where raw milk is sold should have a huge ultra-red pink sign that says something like: “The FDA says raw milk is dangerous because it has not been processed.”
“If that were the case,” he said, “sales would skyrocket. No one trusts the Food and Drug Administration or its propaganda.”
McAfee said the problem is that “state and federal agencies have cried wolf so many times against raw milk that now any cries that might be an honest attempt to warn of the rare incidence of illness is ignored as hatred against all things FDA.”
FDA comes into the picture because the agency doesn’t allow raw milk sold for human consumption to be transported across state lines.
That same skepticism about what public health officials and agencies have to say about raw milk kept surfacing in the recent Michigan study. When asked if raw milk should be regulated by the government to ensure quality standards, 27 (or 48.2 percent) of the respondents disagreed, while only 9 (or 16.1 percent) agreed. Another 17 (or 30.4 percent) said they weren’t sure.
Along those same lines, some of the raw milk consumers in the study said they generally believe that their producers maintain a higher standard of animal care and cleanliness than does the mainstream dairy industry.
The respondents also took issue with some of the survey’s other statements, once again revealing sharp differences of opinion with official government views on the potential health hazards of drinking raw milk. For example, when asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement that “Drinking raw milk increases your risk of getting a foodborne disease,” an average of 44 (or 78.6 percent) disagreed. Only 6 respondents agreed with the statement, and another 5 (or 8.9 percent) of the respondents said they weren’t sure.
In Februrary, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study showing that the rate of disease outbreaks linked to raw milk was 150 times greater than outbreaks linked to pasteurized milk.
In 2010, Michigan had two Campylobacter foodborne outbreaks associated with raw milk. And last year, 3 probable cases of Q-fever were reported in people who participated in raw-milk cow-share arrangements, which according to the report, were presumably caused by drinking raw milk.
Back in 1947, Michigan became the first state to require that all milk for sale be pasteurized. As such, the sale of raw milk for human consumption is illegal in that state. However cow- and goat-share agreements in which people buy a share of a herd and are therefore considered owners of the milk from the herd are permitted through an informal agreement on the part of the state.
Profile of a raw-milk drinker
The Michigan study starts off by acknowledging that “it is largely unknown why some consumers prefer raw milk over pasteurized milk.”
As such, one of the goals of the peer-reviewed study was to come up with a some sort of profile of raw-milk drinkers in Michigan and from there, to summarize their reasons for preferring raw milk to pasteurized milk.
The profile that emerged was a well-educated adult in his/her late 20s who typically lives in a rural area. Overall, the ages of the raw-milk drinkers, which included family members, ranged from less than one year to 75.
The profile, which, co-author Bartlett readily says is limited due to the small number of raw-milk drinkers surveyed, contrasts starkly with a profile of raw-milk drinkers in California that emerged in an earlier report, “Profile of Raw Milk Consumers.”
Authored primarily by scientists then at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the report analyzed responses to questions in the 1994 California Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Survey that asked respondents about whether they drank raw milk, the amount consumed, the reason for drinking raw milk, and where raw milk was most often obtained.
The researchers found that among the 3,999 survey respondents, 128 (about 3.2 percent) reported drinking raw milk the previous year. These raw-milk consumers were more likely that those who didn’t drink raw milk to be younger than 40, male, Hispanic and to have less than a high school education.
However, these survey results included any responder who had drunk raw milk in the previous year no matter how much or how little.
One of the conclusions of the California report was that additional research is needed to further refine the profile of raw milk drinkers and determine their risk of adverse effects from drinking raw milk.
The report also said that “Although the role of raw milk as a vehicle in disease transmission has been well-documented, information regarding the prevalence of raw-milk consumption in sparse.”
Estimates of the percentage of milk drinkers who drink raw milk range from 1 to 3 percent of the U.S. population, although no one knows for sure since it’s too difficult to track the information.
Organic Pastures McAfee was happy to share some information about his raw-milk customers, based on informal studies and polls conducted by the dairy. What surfaces is that 50 percent of the dairy’s raw-milk customers are well-educated moms between 20 and 45 years old. The rest of the dairy’s raw-milk customers are what McAfee describes as “being all over the place” and can be anyone: young, old, fat, skinny, gay, straigh
t, religious, agnostic, healthy, sick, abandoned by doctors, not wanting to go to doctors, Eastern Bloc immigrants, left wingers, right wingers, no wingers, Tea Party members, and homeschoolers.
“It is everyone,” he said.
Why raw milk?
Supporting local farms topped the list of the reasons the Michigan raw-milk survey respondents gave for preferring raw milk, with 48 (or 85.7) of them citing that as a reason. Next came taste, with 47 (or 83.9 percent) giving that as a reason. “Holistic health benefits” were cited by 43 (or 76.8 percent) of the respondents. Thirty-two respondents (or 57.1 percent) said they don’t feel processed milk is safe.
A majority of the study’s raw-milk drinkers shared their beliefs that raw milk was beneficial for relieving digestive problems, intestinal diseases and allergies. Some said they believe raw milk is beneficial for heart disease, neurologic disease, acne, and cancer. Others shared anecdotal claims that when they drink pasteurized milk, they experience symptoms of lactose intolerance, which they said doesn’t happen when they drink unpasteurized milk.
People with lactose intolerance have a hard time digesting lactose, which is a type of natural sugar found in milk and dairy products. The intolerance occurs when the small intestine doesn’t make enough of the enzyme, lactase, which is needed to break down or digest lactose. Symptoms include gas, belly pain, and bloating.
However, a study out of Stanford Medical School (financed by raw milk advocates) not only raised questions about how widespread lactose intolerance really is, but found that raw milk did not confer any benefit over pasteurized milk in relieving symptoms of lactose intolerance.
Health authorities say that no matter what benefits might be associated anecdotally with raw milk, the risk of contracting a foodborne disease such as E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter or Listeria infection outweighs any of the unproven benefits. They point out that if harmful microorganisms from cow excrement contaminates the raw milk, those drinking it can come down with serious digestive problems, kidney failure, or even death.
In California, labels on raw-milk containers must say: “Raw (unpasteurized) milk and raw milk dairy products may contain disease-causing micro-organisms. Persons at highest risk of disease from these organisms include newborns and infants; the elderly; pregnant women; those taking corticosteroids, antibiotics or antacids; and those having chronic illnesses or other conditions that weaken their immunity.”
The Michigan study also revealed that the average number of years the respondents have been drinking raw milk is 6.1 and that 92 percent of the milk the respondents’ families drink is raw milk.
A commitment to purchasing raw milk can be seen in the average number of miles a respondent travels out of his or her way to buy raw milk: 24.2 miles. The average number of pickups of raw milk each month was 4.1.
Questionnaires were sent out to raw-milk producers, 20 of whom agreed to participate in the study. The producers, in turn, were sent survey questions, which they forwarded on to their cow- or goat-share members. Of the 160 questionnaires sent out, 56 were returned.
While the study has been criticized for being self-selecting in that it only questioned people who drink raw milk and biased because it started out with the assumption that it’s potentially harmful to your health to drink raw milk, co-author Bartlett told Food Safety News that it was done “for the cost of postage” as a project for a 3-credit course. And, yes, he definitely would have liked to have had a higher response rate and a larger study.
He also pointed out that the hypothesized health benefits of raw milk are difficult to study because it would be unethical to randomly assign people to drink raw milk and others to drink pasteurized milk. Besides which, such a study could not be done blindly because the study subjects would certainly know if they were drinking raw or pasteurized milk (although the Stanford study effectively masked the taste differences with an added flavoring.)
More information about raw milk can be found here.