By: Candess Zona-Mendola

Welcome to the first installment of The Raw Milk Diaries. This is a series discussing all things surrounding the hot topic of raw milk – including its effect on public health, legislation involving its control, and any outbreaks relating to raw milk, raw milk cheese, and other raw milk products.  The comments section below is open and ready for any of your raw milk questions.

So, without further ado, let’s talk milk.

What is Raw Milk anyway?

Simply put, raw milk is unpasteurized milk. Those in support of the raw milk revolution call it “Real Milk” and describe it as milk that comes directly from the cow, full of the fats present upon extraction from the cow, and has not been processed in any way. It is part of the recent movement of consumers to get back to nature with their diets. Pro raw milk enthusiasts argue that, when milk is processed, it loses its vital nutrients and pathogens that make it a superfood. They claim that, as long as the cows whom make the milk are healthy, that is it extracted in a sanitary way, and that it is immediately stored in a safe fashion, raw milk is perfectly safe. These are among the many “myths” that the FDA and CDC are working diligently to debunk.

If there is one thing this blogger has learned, is that the food industry is not always safe.

Pro raw milk enthusiasts continue to argue that the pasteurization process removes all of the crucial nutrients and probiotics from milk – thus making it completely devoid of its health benefits. However, it is important to note that the pasteurization process does not completely kill all of the “good” pathogens and probiotics. In fact, the same facts and proteins present in the milk before pasteurization are still present after pasteurization. Vitamin C is reduced during the pasteurization process, but not completely eliminated. For those concerned about the lack of probiotics, it is a simple process to re-introduce those after pasteurization. In fact, extensive research has found only minor variable differences in the nutritional composition of pasteurized and unpasteurized milk. Stay tuned for more on pasteurization and the debate on which milk is healthier for you – raw milk or pasteurized milk.

Is Raw Milk Dangerous?

Oh yes it is! To put it in a better term, raw milk could be deathly. The FDA and CDC have come forward and made a firm stance on raw milk – it is dangerous and should not be ingested.  The CDC is so concerned about the dangers involving raw milk, that they have released a detailed letter to state and public epidemiologists and veterinarians about the ongoing health hazard of raw milk consumption[1]. The letter warns, among other things, that dangerous pathogens can be present in even the most healthy-looking animals. For your reference, a PDF version of this letter has been uploaded to this post for your viewing pleasure.

Even in the most sanitary of circumstances, these dangerous pathogens could contaminate the milk upon its extraction. As dangerous pathogens are present in the feces of healthy-looking animals, it is a typical occurrence that the product (raw milk in this case) can easily come into contact with dangerous pathogens. In short, sanitary milking and storage practices can reduce the likelihood of contaminating the milk, but it cannot eradicate it.  No matter what steps are taken to sanitarily and carefully extract the raw milk, there is no guarantee that the product will be free from contamination. This is an argument that pro raw milk enthusiasts have yet to counteract because no one can confirm with one hundred percent certainty that a batch of raw milk is perfectly safe. The CDC outright condemns raw milk consumption and openly takes the stance that pasteurization is the only guaranteed, fool-proof method for ensuring that milk is consumed safely. Another important factor to note is that it does not matter what animal the raw milk comes from. Whether it is from a cow, a goat, a sheep, or another dairy animal, the dangers and need for pasteurization remain the same.

What Makes Raw Milk So Dangerous?

Pathogens are what make raw milk so dangerous. Escherichia coli O157, Campylobacter jejuni, and Salmonella are just a few of several different pathogens that, when ingested by humans, can cause severe illness. These pathogens can cause a variety of health problems and issues in human beings, even though some are perfectly safe for the animal.

For more information about these dangerous pathogens, stay tuned for future installments of The Raw Milk Diaries.

How Can we Make Raw Milk Safe?

We can pasteurize it! As just previously noted, pasteurization is currently the only way to ensure the safe consumption of milk.

Just the Facts and Stats, Man

Now that you are educated on what raw milk is and why there is a lot of concern surrounding it, let’s talk some facts statistics as referenced by the CDC in its letter and website:

  • Raw milk was recognized as a source of severe infections over 100 years ago, and pasteurization of milk to prevent these infections is one of the public health triumphs of the 20th century.
  • Raw milk is still available for sale in many states, and CDC data shows that the rate of raw milk-associated outbreaks is 2.2 times higher in states in which the sale of raw milk is legal compared with states where sale of raw milk is illegal.
  • Eighty-one percent of outbreaks were reported from states where the sale of raw milk was legal in some form; only 19% occurred in states where the sale of raw milk was illegal.
  • CDC reported that unpasteurized milk is 150 times more likely to cause foodborne illness and results in 13 times more hospitalizations than illnesses involving pasteurized dairy products.
  • From 2007 through 2012, 81 outbreaks due to consumption of raw milk were reported to CDC from 26 states. These outbreaks resulted in 979 illnesses and 73 people were hospitalized.
  • In 78 outbreaks from 2007 to 2012 with information on the patients’ ages available, 59% involved at least one child under the age of 5 years.

What can I do to protect myself and my family now?

As raw milk, and related products, are illegal in some states, you may not even have a concern over whether you may accidentally purchase a raw milk product. However, to be safe, it is encouraged to read the labels of any dairy product you purchase to ensure that the milk used in the product has been safely pasteurized. The word “pasteurized” will be easy to find on the label. When in doubt, ask your grocer! Also, ensure that you are storing your dairy products at the correct temperature, under 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The best thing you can do is simply avoid ingestion of raw milk.

[1] http://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/rawmilk/raw-milk-resources.html