There has been much debate recently on the benefits/drawbacks of pasteurized versus raw milk. In Ohio, it is illegal to sell unpasteurized milk to stores and consumers, though dairy farm families may drink raw milk from their own herds.
In 2006, the Ohio Department of Agriculture revoked the license of a 100-cow dairy on grounds that it was selling raw milk. In light of this decision and similar rulings nationwide, there is a growing movement to allow consumers to directly purchase raw milk from farmers, thus, bypassing the regulatory mandates of state agriculture departments.
Individuals have the right to purchase and eat whatever food and beverage items they see fit for consumption, e.g. people eat raw oysters despite the risk of contracting pathogens such as Vibrio parahaemolyticus, or they can order their hamburger rare despite the risk of obtaining E. coli O157:H7. What is important is the familiar caveat: “buyer beware.”
Unfortunately, much information promoting the purported benefits of raw milk and the alleged evils of pasteurized milk is making the rounds in cyberspace. This disinformation and pseudo-science campaign needs to be addressed in order to allow consumers to make an informed choice about the milk they drink.
One argument made by raw milk advocates is that pasteurization kills “good” bacteria and enhances growth of harmful bacteria. While it is true that pasteurization destroys bacteria, that is precisely the intended benefit. Bacterial species such as E. coli, Salmonella and even Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the causative agent of tuberculosis, reside in the gut of cows. These microorganisms, harmless to cows, can contaminate raw milk and cause serious infection in humans. Pasteurization eliminates these pathogens.
The counterpoint – pasteurization destroys beneficial bacteria – is worthless. Bacteria are everywhere in the environment – found in soil, water, most foods and even on the outer layer of human skin. Due to the universal nature of bacteria, people are almost constantly ingesting microbes, which then colonize the gut.
The only way to eliminate the normal flora (bacteria that normally grows in the digestive tract and protects humans from opportunistic pathogens) is long-term antibiotic treatment. Drinking pasteurized milk will not have any diminishing effect on the normal flora of human intestines. Another nugget of disinformation raised by raw milk proponents is that pasteurized milk increases the risk of diseases such as cancer and osteoporosis.
These advocates state the fact that cancer rates were much lower before pasteurization was mandated. This argument is inherently misleading. There are many causes of cancer, involving complex interactions of genetics and environmental factors. Regardless of what precisely triggers cancer, the increase in various malignancies is largely due to the fact that humans live much longer lives than they did 100 years ago.
Prior to the 20th century’s advancement in food production, sanitation and medicine, the life expectancy was only 40-50 years of age and the most common cause of death was infectious diseases, primarily tuberculosis, pneumonia, influenza and diarrheal illnesses. Cancer, heart disease and stroke are now the three most common causes of mortality for the simple reason that people in developed countries often live into their 70s, 80s or beyond, thus giving time for chronic diseases to take hold.
Pasteurization of milk has little, if anything to do with this trend. As for osteoporosis, vitamin D is required for the absorption of calcium from the gut. Humans produce their own vitamin D from sunlight, as well as receive it from processed milk, which is fortified with this nutrient.
Raw milk does not contain vitamin D, therefore, less calcium absorption occurs from drinking raw milk than pasteurized milk. Proponents of raw milk also argue that pasteurization of milk destroys enzymes that aid in digestion of foods. One website even claims that drinking pasteurized milk “puts a strain on the pancreas,” (which secretes many digestive enzymes).
This could not be further from the truth. Enzymes found in raw milk are bovine enzymes, which, as foreign proteins, are destroyed naturally by the human digestive tract. Humans are incapable of using bovine enzymes to aid in digestion. Only enzymes produced by one’s own salivary glands, stomach and pancreas are useful for humans.
In conclusion, people have the right to drink raw milk if they think it better suits their taste. However, they should be forewarned that much of the information promoting the benefits of raw milk is overblown or worse, patently false.
Research conducted by credible scientists and organizations, including the FDA, overwhelmingly argues in favor of pasteurized milk’s benefits versus raw milk. So before anyone chooses to switch to raw milk, they must be properly educated on the facts, then they can make a truly informed decision on what goes into their body.
Illness from raw milk is 100 percent preventable and needs no additional rules, laws, inspections or audits. Consumption of pasteurized milk is not “erring on the side of caution,” it is a proven method of eliminating disease from this commodity.
This year, there have been an increasing number of cases of E. coli O157:H7 attributable to the consumption of raw milk. These cases, the ensuing human suffering and the mounting health care costs are 100 percent preventable. It is our responsibility as public health professionals to prevent and to advocate for interventions and modalities that will reduce the burden of illness in our society.
Melvin N. Kramer, Ph.D., M.P.H., is president of EHA Consulting Group, Inc.