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You Ask, I Answer: Raw Milk

Raw Milk SignWhat are your thoughts on raw milk?

– Adina Grigore
Queens, NY

What a timely question!

A few days ago, the Food & Drug Administration officially stated that raw milk should be avoided, since it can “sicken and kill people.”

Why make that statement now?  It follows “twelve confirmed cases of illness in Michigan after consumers drank raw milk from Forest Grove Dairy in Middlebury, Indiana.”

The FDA also points to the following statistics related to raw milk consumption, acquired between 1998 and 2008:

  • 1,614 reported illnesses (my emphasis)
  • 187 hospitalizations
  • 2 deaths

If we break it down by year, that’s:

  • 161.4 reported illnesses (my emphasis)
  • 18.7 hospitalizations
  • 0.2 deaths

I am not trivializing any person’s death, but consider, for instance, that 28 people died after being struck by lightning in 2008 alone (the average, by the way, is estimated at 40 deaths per year).

So, while raw milk is not some magical elixir that is nutritionally superior to pasteurized milk, I also don’t think it is a hands-down lethal concoction.

FYI 1: In 22 of the 50 states, it is illegal to sell raw milk for human consumption.

FYI 2: Certain populations (individuals with compromised immune systems, the elderly, pregnant women, and toddlers) need to be especially careful.

The real concern with raw milk is improper handling.  It can be very easy to produce unsafe milk, since cows do not reside in the cleanest of environments.

That said, there are plenty of small farmers who take great care to produce raw milk, and certainly a good number of individuals who drink raw milk regularly and do not get food poisoning.

If raw milk is what you seek, I would check out the source very carefully.

Don’t be afraid to ask raw milk providers important questions: how long have they been producing and selling raw milk for?  What precautions do they take to ensure minimal risk (with raw milk, there is never zero risk), etc.

This is a bit of a catch-22.  Since the FDA does not condone raw milk consumption, don’t expect any sort of governing body to ever set standards for raw milk and make the process safer for consumers any time soon.

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5 Comments

  1. Marianne said on March 29th, 2010

    Raw milk is also illegal in Canada. In fact, there is a court case going on now with a producer in BC, that I think she just lost, but is appealing and still selling the milk in the mean time.

    Well…I say selling, but I think technically all the people who purchase the milk to consume do so as “part owners” in a co-op farm so as to avoid it being a commercial sale.

    Some news articles:

    http://www.cbc.ca/health/story/2009/01/27/f-health-raw-milk.html
    http://www.cbc.ca/canada/british-columbia/story/2010/03/21/bc-raw-milk-injunction-chilliwack.html

  2. Elizabeth said on March 30th, 2010

    While I agree with your response, the statement that cows ingest fecal material and it ends up in their milk isn’t quite accurate. Bacteria in raw milk doesn’t come from what the cow eats, but from the milking/handling/storage environment. Cattle who are dirty are more difficult to clean, and sometimes even in the best conditions bacteria finds its way into the milk. Milk is an ideal growth media for bacteria so it can multiply rapidly. I grew up drinking raw milk from my family’s farm, but I wouldn’t drink it from just anywhere!

  3. Andy Bellatti said on March 30th, 2010

    Elizabeth,

    It was my understanding that part of the issue is that due to unsanitary living conditions, some cows end up housing listeria in their intestinal systems via fecal material. Are you saying this isn’t as common, or that it never happens?

  4. Elizabeth said on March 31st, 2010

    Andy,

    Infected cattle house listeria in the GI tract, so it is shed in the manure. The majority of the time, milk is contaminated with listeria because manure or soil that contain listeria somehow found its way into the milk during the handling of the milk. The listeria in the cow’s GI tract don’t directly enter the milk in the body of the animal. It can enter it after the milk is removed from the cow. However, milk can be contaminated while it is still in the cow if she has mastitis (udder infection) that is caused by listeria. Mastitis caused by listeria is not very common, so this does not happen often.

    I have references for this information if you would like it. I just wanted to clear up any confusion. There are so many misconceptions about the dairy industry that it’s always important to present a clear picture!

  5. Andy Bellatti said on March 31st, 2010

    Elizabeth,

    Thanks for sharing this information with us. Makes perfect sense now!

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