On Friday, the Oregon Public Health Division, Department of Agriculture and several local Oregon health departments announced that they were investigating an outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 (E. coli) infections that at the time had left three Portland-area children hospitalized, two with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a complication of E. coli infection that can lead to kidney failure.  All of these children drank raw milk from the same small farm:  Foundation Farm in Clackamas County.  The farm has voluntarily ceased its milk distribution to customers in Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington counties.  As many as 11 may be sickened.

According to news reports over the last week, Missouri state health officials have confirmed E. coli cases in Boone, Cooper, Howard, Camden and Jackson counties.  Health officials say a 2-year-old girl and a 17-month-old child developed HUS, and while not all 13 E. coli cases have been clearly attributed to raw milk consumption, investigators say raw dairy products are a “possible” factor in some of the cases.

I’ve been asked lots of questions about raw milk consumption, E. coli outbreaks, and other topics in the nearly 20 years I’ve been litigating E. coli cases.  Here are some of my favorite questions and answers about raw milk:

Q:  Pasteurization of milk was lauded as one of the biggest public health successes of the 20th Century.  Why are so many people turning away from pasteurized milk and seeking out sources of “raw”, or unpasteurized milk?

A:  People-especially those on the higher end of the socioeconomic range-have been turning toward raw milk for a variety of reasons.  Some believe pasteurization kills beneficial bacteria and enzymes in milk.  Others have heard that raw milk consumption can cure asthma, eczema, or attention deficit disorder (ADD).  A parent with adequate resources will go to almost any lengths to provide what they believe is the most wholesome source of nutrients for their child, and well-presented misinformation about the purported health benefits of drinking raw milk abounds on the Internet so it’s really difficult for a consumer – even a really smart one – who is desperate to find a remedy to his or her child’s medical condition to discern fact from fiction when it comes to raw milk.  

I think, too, that there’s an inherent distrust of government, so when the government or big agriculture tells people not to feed their kids raw milk–a natural food–it’s easy for people to ignore that advice.  Especially when they can afford it.

Q:  Whole Foods and some other stores that sell many natural food products have stopped selling raw milk.  Why?

A:  Whole Foods and Seattle-area co-op PCC stopped selling raw milk products just about two years ago for a couple of reasons.  One reason was because unpasteurized milk is considered a high risk food, especially for children, pregnant women, an immunocompromised people-like people receiving cancer treatment, or those with HIV.  Another was because the liability insurance necessary to cover multi-million dollar HUS cases is not inexpensive.

Q:  You started raising your own chickens a couple of years ago, after a Salmonella outbreak traced to eggs.  Would you ever consider buying a cow or a goat and drinking its milk?

A:  Interesting question.  Raw milk is dangerous in part because of sanitation issues.  Cows, goats and sheep all defecate very close to where their milk is produced, allowing for what I believe is too high of a probability for fecal contamination during the milking process to ever drink milk produced by this hypothetical new addition to my family.  In theory, I could home pasteurize milk produced by this animal and safely consume it, but I would still be responsible for cleaning up after it, and that would mean handling feces potentially contaminated with E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter or other pathogens.  I’ll leave that work to someone else and continue buying pasteurized milk from the store.

Q:  What would you tell someone who was contemplating a purchase of raw milk?

A:  The first thing I would say is, “Please, I beg you, don’t feed it to your kids.”  Any adult contemplating a purchase of raw milk to consume individually should be educated about the risks associated with consuming unpasteurized dairy products.  Real Raw Milk Facts was inspired by discussions following presentations related to the increasing popularity of raw milk.  It was developed and reviewed by scientists and health educators in universities, government, industry, and professional organizations, and is supported in part by Marler Clark.  The Hot Topics section presents the facts about commonly asked questions related to raw milk consumption.