By: Candess Zona-Mendola
Raw milk. It is one of the hottest, most controversial topics in the food safety world. Despite the statements of how dangerous it is from medical providers and health agencies, raw milk can be legally sold in 42 states in the United States. Raw milk supporters defend it to the hilt, claiming it is a superfood with properties to cure anything from skin conditions to allergies. Its hazards, though well documented, are brushed aside. Ironically, raw milk has sickened even those who have fought victoriously for its legalization. Raw milk is a product that some people seem willing to risk illness, and even death, to consume.
Yet, it is not these supporters I will focus on for this post. Rather, let us take a look at those who may not know of the danger, say that customer who just purchased a gourmet cheese made by Vulto Creamery from the cheese section at their local grocery store. Did that customer know that indulging in such a product could lead to hospitalization or even death? This question only leads to another one: should the producers of raw milk products inform their customers that their product could be dangerous?
Raw Milk – Always an Issue, Always a Health Concern
Nearly every month there seems to be a new outbreak or a recall involving a raw milk product. In 2017 alone, there have been several recalls involving Cozy Vale Creamery, Pride & Joy Creamery, and Winters Grass Farm to name just a few. There have also been raw milk product illness outbreaks this year, including the current Listeria outbreak related to Vulto Creamery raw milk soft cheeses.
The latest raw milk recall, involving New York-based Winters Grass Farm, also involves Listeria. According to the New York Department of Agriculture and its Markets Commissioner Richard A. Ball, “consumers in Oneida County and the surrounding area not to consume unpasteurized raw milk from the Winters Grass Farm due to possible Listeria contamination.” The suspected contamination comes after a health inspector tested a sample of the raw milk product – which tested positive for Listeria. At this time there are no illnesses reported, but with a latency period of 3 to 70 days, there still may be cases of illness associated with the products.
Raw Milk Supporters Neglect to Mention the Dangers
Raw milk is simply milk expressed from a variety of animals (like cows, sheep, goats, etc.) that is sold in its purest form, lacking pasteurization. In an era obsessed with the notion that minimally processed foods and organic foods are better for our health, raw milk has become a poster-child. Its supporters rave about its benefits, especially for children. One author recently wrote in a raw milk expose that she was told by Mark McAffee, the Chief Executive Officer of Organic Pastures, “[p]eople see amazing results when they give this stuff to their kids – they have ear infections and asthma and allergies, and with raw milk it goes away.” She was not swayed. After research she found “[m]ilk that hasn’t undergone pasteurization—a heating process that kills pathogens—can harbor bacteria such as campylobacter, listeria, and E. coli—all of which can cause severe illness and even death.” She had no warning. No idea. She was only fed (no pun intended) more rave reviews from Mr. McAffee. “In the majority of people, it works fantastically well,” he says, “and they don’t pick up the next superbug that comes down the road.” Never was there a warning from Mr. McAffee or a discussion that the product could cause her or her children severe illness.
What Are the Dangers?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is only one of the various health and food agencies that strive to educate the public about the dangers of raw milk and raw milk products. According to their website, “between 1993 and 2006 more than 1500 people in the United States became sick from drinking raw milk or eating cheese made from raw milk.” The report also mentions 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.” Local health agencies, like the City of Houston for example, also preach the dangers of raw milk products. According to their literature, “Raw milk may harbor a host of disease-causing organisms (pathogens), such as the bacteria campylobacter, Escherichia, listeria, salmonella, yersinia, and brucella.”
Supporters of raw milk products claim that milk harvested from clean, well run dairies and from animals fed a grass diet are low-risk foods. They sometimes cite outdated studies and the works of pre-nineteenth century physicians as evidence to their plight – that raw milk is safe and cures a slew of health maladies. They compare the risks of drinking raw milk and eating raw milk products to the risks in operating a motor vehicle.
However, even the best farmer cannot guarantee his products are safe. One such idyllic farm was subject to an outbreak of this kind at the beginning of this year. In fact, the dairy that provides Vulto Creamery with its raw milk products fits a similar idyllic model. Still, there is so resolve to preventing these outbreaks for the future from the suppliers of the product.
A Sub-Debate – Should the Product Maker Warn Consumers of Their Products’ Dangers?
A concerning reality in our food system is that rarely consumers know where their food originated. In fact, the journey from farm to fork can be a lengthy process, with the product travelling through various companies and many hands before it hits your plate. Raw milk products are not an exception to this process despite their “pure” nature and minimal processing. This reality only exemplifies why pasteurization is a necessary element to keeping milk products safe for the public to enjoy.
Rarely is there a warning label that a particular food could make one sick. The makers and producers of raw milk products are aware that their product could cause sickness. In fact, it would cause more concern if they were not aware. So, should manufacturers, processors, distributors, and retailers share what they know about the potential dangers of their products with their customers?