What’s so bad about raw milk?

Maybe it’s just coincidence or maybe it’s just my imagination, but it seems that since Farmageddon was released, the heat has been turned up against raw milk. (Yeah, double enténdre intended.) Anyway, up until recently, some “experts” would just say that raw milk could make you sick. Well, yes, any food can make you sick if it is contaminated. I guess they thought that was not scary enough, so they are trying a lot harder now.

Here is a quote from the recent article, “Amish farms to hippie co-ops fight FDA’s inquiry over raw milk

“We know there is a real risk with raw milk,” David Theno, chief
executive officer of Del Mar, California-based Gray Dog Partners Inc., a
food-safety consultant. “Is it okay to feed your kid vodka? It’s less
risky than giving them raw milk.”

Seriously? Could you cite the study that shows that vodka is safer for children than raw milk? That comment sounds like the last gasp of a desperate man. But if that doesn’t make you feel like an irresponsible parent, how about this quote from the former Undersecretary for Food Safety, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dr. Richard Raymond, published in Food Safety News —

But to buy this product and feed it to your children? Might as well lock
them in your car on a 100 degree day while you stop by the casino to
try and win the jackpot.

So, anyone who gives raw milk to their children is not only dumber than dirt, but is just plain cruel and hateful.

If Raymond had written his opinion piece for one of my college speech
classes when I was teaching, he would not have received a good grade. He
throws around lots of scary-sounding comments like, “nearly all
milk-related outbreaks are from raw milk and cheese made from raw milk,”
but doesn’t give us a source. He doesn’t even offer any numbers comparing raw milk to pasteurized milk foodborne illness. His whole piece reads as if it were written by an advertising exec, rather than someone with any knowledge of food borne illness. These particular comment sounds quite damning:

Now milk is responsible for less than 1 percent of foodborne outbreaks.
But it could and should be less than 0.1 percent because nearly all
milk-related outbreaks are from raw milk and cheese made from raw milk.

Basically, if we eliminate raw milk, Raymond is claiming that we have just eradicated almost all dairy-related cases of food-borne illness, and . . .

As I stated, the number of outbreaks linked to raw milk has been climbing recently. Between 1998 and 2008, the CDC identified 85 outbreaks from drinking raw milk. In 2010 alone, the number was over a dozen outbreaks.

How can you argue with that? Since Raymond did not offer up any sources, I was forced to search on my own. Since he seems to like the Center for Disease Control, that’s where I began my search. Nowhere could I find verification of his numbers.

When looking at Trends in Foodborne Illness, I clicked on a link for “national goals” for reducing food-borne illness, which took me to the website for HealthyPeople.gov. And there, using statistics from the CDC, I learned that

786 reported outbreak-associated infections, on average, per year due to Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O157, or Campylobacter, Listeria, or Salmonella species were associated with dairy products in 2005–07

By saying that food-borne outbreaks in dairy products could be reduced
from 1% to .1%, Raymond is saying that raw dairy accounts for 90 percent
of food-borne outbreaks associated with dairy products, which does not even match the statistics from food safety lawyer Bill Marler, which claims that raw dairy accounts for 56% of food-borne illness outbreaks from dairy products. I find it interesting that the anti-raw-milk crusaders are always talking about “outbreaks” rather than number of people who become ill. One of the benefits to a local food system is that you rarely find yourself with an outbreak that makes more than a few people sick. On the other hand, when national corporations cause an outbreak, it is not unusual to have a hundred or more illnesses reported from multiple states.

In fact, according to Marler, there were 75 outbreaks associated with raw milk and cheese from 1973 to 2005 but only 47 associated with pasteurized milk and cheese during that same time. Sounds bad until you look at the total number of people affected. While 1,689 were sickened by raw dairy products, 19,950 were sickened by pasteurized dairy products, meaning that it is a far cry from the “safe” food that Raymond claims.

Raymond’s one percent number does not pan out either. According to the same site, there were 200 annual infections associated with beef,  311 with fruits and nuts, 205 with leafy vegetables, and 258 with poultry. I don’t even have to do the math to know that dairy represents a much bigger chunk of food-borne illness than one percent. Dairy makes more people sick than any other single food. Looking at the overall picture, dairy products are responsible for 45 percent of the food-borne infections. If Raymond was including allergic reactions to foods (which are counted as food-borne illness by the CDC), that might make the commercial dairy industry look far more perfect than it really is, but that would be comparing apples to oranges, which is why I only looked at food-borne infections.

Interestingly enough, there is no data broken out for raw milk. But why should there be? There is no data broken out for raw meat or nuts or leafy vegetables either. Everyone knows that if raw food is contaminated, it can make you sick, right? In April, eleven people were infected with E. coli O157:H7 bacteria from guacamole at a deli in Texas. In July, 15 people were infected with E. coli after consuming contaminated strawberries from Oregon. The list goes on and on. And if you have cooked or pasteurized food, it can become contaminated afterwards and still make you sick. Last week, an Indiana dairy recalled their cheese made with pasteurized milk because it was contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. In February 2010, five people were infected with Listeria monocytogenes after consuming cheese made with pasteurized milk. In January 2010, eight people were infected with Listeria after consuming hog head cheese, a type of luncheon meat, produced by a Louisiana company that had also recalled its meat forListeria contamination in 2007. In 2008, 268 people in a New York restaurant became ill with campylobacter after eating raw and/or steamed clams. This is just a tiny sample of all the various foods that make people sick on a regular basis.

I could go on and on. It makes no sense that some people get so excited about raw milk when the fact is that any food can make you sick, and no one is trying to outlaw sales of raw meat, fish, vegetables, or nuts, although I did hear a little rumble about outlawing raw nuts a couple years ago.

What really fries my bacon about Raymond’s argument is that he says he wants the
choice to buy pasteurized meat, but says he is denied that choice.
Really, Dr. Raymond, when did the government outlaw pasteurized meat?
Hmm, I can’t find any source that says it’s been outlawed. I guess
industry just doesn’t want to spend the money on trying to keep you safe
from undercooking or cross-contaminating their product. So, Dr. Raymond
wants the choice to buy a product that industry doesn’t want to give
him, and he wants to make it illegal for parents to give their children
raw milk to drink — because in his mind, they’re as bad as a parent who
locks their child in a car on a 100-degree day to go into a casino and

On the other hand, many states make it illegal
to sell raw milk, and it is also a federal crime to transport milk
across state lines to sell it. It makes no sense that the government
merely tries to educate consumers about the possibility of salmonella in
raw eggs or E. coli in raw meat, yet they are doing their best to make
raw milk illegal and even bringing in SWAT teams to confiscate raw milk
from farms and buying clubs. When is the last time you heard of an armed
raid on your favorite sushi bar? Are children not allowed to eat there?
Is anyone talking about prosecuting parents for child abuse if they let
their children have raw seafood?

Ever heard of vibrio vulnificus?
It is an infection caused by eating contaminated raw shellfish,
especially oysters, which causes vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, but can be fatal. While most forms of food-borne infection have stayed
relatively stable or decreased in the past decade, vibrio has gone up
by 115%, which the CDC attritributes to, “the lack of implementation of
available control measures.” And how does one minimize the risk of
getting vibrio vulnificus? The CDC recommends thoroughly cooking all shellfish before eating —

Although oysters can be harvested legally only from waters free from
fecal contamination, even legally harvested oysters can be
contaminated with V. vulnificus because the bacterium is naturally present in marine environments. V. vulnificus does not alter the appearance, taste, or odor of oysters.

why can people buy raw shellfish (or an over-easy egg or steak tartare)
in a restaurant but not raw milk? I flunked Mind Reading 101, so I
don’t know what the people at the FDA or CDC are thinking, but I do know
that there are big lobbies on Capitol Hill for the commercial dairy
industry, which knows its milk needs to be pasteurized because their
cows are not living in grassy green pastures. And there are lobbies for
every other sector of Big Ag. Big corporations also donate lots of money
to legislators. And plenty of people at the FDA came from industry jobs
and will likely go back to industry jobs. But there are no lobbyists
for small farmers with a few cows. And those farmers don’t donate big
bucks to any politician. And if anyone with a dozen cows or goats ever
applied for a job at the FDA or USDA, they’d be laughed right out of the
room as being unqualified.

I have never told anyone
that they “should” consume raw dairy products, and I don’t think that
pasteurization should be abandoned entirely — but I believe it is
everyone’s choice to eat or drink whatever they want. And it appears
that the government thinks everyone should be allowed to eat whatever
they want — as long as that food is produced by a big corporation or
someone that’s lobbying in Washington. They seem to feel as if they’ve
done their job to protect us by simply informing us that undercooked
eggs or raw meat can make us sick. But when it comes to raw milk, they
want to make it illegal from multiple angles.

really frustrates me as a taxpayer is that millions of dollars have been
spent to try to shut down farms that sell raw milk, even when there was
not one single case of illness attributed to that farm. Yet big factory
farms can cause large outbreaks of food-borne illness, get fined over and over again
for breaking a variety of laws, and still stay in business. Where would
you rather get your food — from a small farmer that is trying and
succeeding in producing healthy products, or from a big corporation that
keeps breaking the rules, paying fines, and going about business as

15 thoughts on “What’s so bad about raw milk?”

  1. Thank you for taking the time to put this together. It's amazing what a little research and critical thinking can do to an hysterical argument. I'm heading out to the country next week to buy my raw milk and my eggs produced by chickens that actually have beaks and roam the yard scratching and being chickens. God save us from ourselves.

  2. I agree that Raw Milk should be available to everyone who wants it. There is no doubt in my mind that it is healthier than pasteurized, especially UHT. It is a matter of personal freedom, we should be able to eat what we want. However I opt for low temperature pasteurized milk because it offers much of the raw benefits and all of the protection of pasteurization.

    I do however have two questions about your post. They are just Devil's Advocate type questions that I have about Raw Milk in general…

    The first-One of the big reasons I don't search out raw milk is that many farmers that provide raw milk oppose government regulation of food in general. While I agree in food freedoms, history has proven that farmers can be unethical business people too. That is why we have pasteurization in the first place. If we deregulate, it is likely that some farmers will take advantage and put out unsafe milk. How could we create a food system that allows for strict regulation of people like Dean Foods and allows the small family dairy farmer to go unregulated? Would you be willing to give up your right to sue your farmer if you found that what you thought was grass fed milk actually turned out to be milk from cows fed GMO corn?

    And secondly I would like to respond to the following quote: "While 1,689 were sickened by raw dairy products, 19,950 were sickened by pasteurized dairy products, meaning that it is a far cry from the "safe" food that Raymond claims." This claim is used alot in the fight for Raw Dairy. The issue I have with this arguement is that the size of the groups. Only about 3% of the population drinks raw milk versus like 85% drinking pasteurized milk (or possibly even more). That is like 9 million people versus 250 million. If you convert the cases of illness to a percentage of the total you quickly see that the occurance of illness is about 2.25 times MORE likely among raw milk drinkers than pasteurized.

    I agree–we need less processed foods. Small farmers should be supported by the Farm Bill, cows should NOT be fed corn and people nor animals should be fed GMO ANYTHING. But how do we create a regulartory system that preserves our nutrition while regulating people out to make an unsafe product?

  3. Very good!

    I agree that raw milk should not be too heavily regulated as it is in Sweden and some parts of the US as far as I can see from this article. Why not just allow people to buy raw milk 'at their own risk' and make their own choices just like with meat and eggs (although eggs in Sweden very rarely contain salmonella and we are not adviced by the authorities to not eat them raw instead they say it is fine).

    My brother in law grew up on a farm and now runs it so both him and his children has drunk raw milk without any ill health and so have I every time I have been there. On top of that he delivers to a dairy so his milk is also tested and it does not contain harmful bacteria and most milk doesn't if they have good hygiene.

    I would love for it to be easier to get raw milk, now you can only get it if a farmer sells it in secret and I do not live in the country and that means it is even harder because farmers usually only sell to those they trust 100% so that they do not get in trouble and that means neighbors and relatives. My brother in law lives to far away for me to buy from him regretfully.

  4. @Anonymous: The role of regulations are to (imperfectly) substitute for the seller to directly verify conditions face-to-face with the producer. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate to have stricter regulations for longer supply chain lengths. For example, when the buyer cannot directly ask the seller what the ingredients are, there should be a labeling requirement. Also, even if a farm is unregulated, it does not mean a consumer gives up the right to sue it.

  5. Thanks Deb for taking the time to point out the FDA's consistent inconsistencies. In Illinois dairies can sell their raw milk (if the customer comes to the farm with their own container) but the farmer cannot ADVERTISE he has raw milk. Obviously they are afraid the small farmer might actually make a decent living. Its time for all of us afraid of losing our basic rights to stand up and say "NO!" before we lose one more freedom: The freedom to choose what we put in our own bodies.

  6. What an excellent article. I am so happy to see that more and more people are recognizing the need for wholesome, natural, local foods. Corporate farms have done great harm to our overall health yet the government is not raiding them but subsidizing them! To Congress: now do you see why your approval ratings are so low?!

  7. Just to let you know…this article will go to everyone I know! Thanks for spending your time researching this…don't let it go, let's get it out their! I think it's time us ants stand up to the grasshoppers…ya know!


  8. Very well written article. Citing sources is important and I don't think many people think about the claims that some public figures make. Now I know not everyone has a journalism degree as I do but people should ask themselves basic questions about the sources of the information they're given.

  9. I found your post through Rachel and was so glad to read this. Moving back to local food sources where long-term storage isn't needed and no or very low processing is done is imperative to our health. It is so scary to think about what people are eating. I cringe when I walk through grocery stores with aisle after aisle full of dead over-processed "food".

    My husband was recently diagnosed with cancer and so we are learning what foods will heal him. It turns out that acid-forming foods cause cancer and alkaline-forming foods create an environment that cancer can't live in.

    And what do you know! Raw milk is alkaline-forming and very good for us. Pasteurized and (shudder) homogenized milk is an acid-forming food that can cause cancer. So phooey on all farmers who sell raw milk being threatened, etc. They are saving people's lives. To think our government is so controlled by a few who would sacrifice our health for profit that it has come to this.

  10. Thanks so much for this article, I agree 100%. Raw milk has many benefits, and although it may not be the best for people with compromised immune systems, studies show that many people with lactose sensitivities actually have no problem with raw milk. (Maybe due to no rBGH/ rBST? Antibiotics? the crappy "food" that is given to the poor over-milked conventional dairy cows?)

    You're completely right about BigAg and the huge amount of money invested in lobbying Capitol Hill. I live in a state where it is legal to sell raw milk (straight from the farm, so the customer can see where it's being produced, not from stores), and have no problem with the fact that it undergoes strict regulations, but what really bothers me is that big corporations undergo virtually no inspections/ pass through strict regulations behind their big locked doors. It's not fair that small farmers have to fork over so much money to be inspected so thoroughly while BigAg literally gets away with murder.

    As you have sited, there have been many, many more cases of illness and infection in conventionally produced products, from meat to dairy products to fresh produce. The battle against organic, local, seasonal, raw, etc. is all a big marketing ploy to make people afraid and keep consuming blindly.

    Thanks for standing up and educating.


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