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Is Raw Milk Key to Better Health?

By Charles Manley Ann Arbor, MI (Michigan Radio) | publicbroadcasting.net

The rising cost of health care has many people thinking about preventative care.

For some, the answer may be on the breakfast table.

Shana Milkie and her husband Pete Crusbach pay a little extra for a gallon of milk.

"It works out to the equivalent of $7 a gallon for the milk," says Milkie.

Shana and Pete and their three children all drink unpasteurized milk, often called raw milk. That means it's unprocessed. The milk goes from cow to cup.

"From about here up is cream so we shake it up before we drink it to mix up the cream and the skim milk," says Milkie.

Since they started drinking raw milk 6 years ago they've seen an improvement in their overall health. Not enough to pin entirely on milk, but Pete says it's definitely a factor. He says it tastes better too.

"Once you're used to the taste of raw milk, you taste pasteurized milk, it will taste burnt. It tastes horrible," says Crusbach.

Ted Beals is a pathologist trained at the University of Michigan and an advocate for raw milk. He says pasteurizing milk might make it safer to drink, but it also kills all the good stuff.

"This milk actually has beneficial bacteria in it," says Beals, "Fairly large numbers of them and those are essentially all killed off by pasteurization."

In 1948, Michigan became the first state to require that milk be pasteurized before it can be sold in stores. Pasteurization heats milk to about 140 degrees, which kills off harmful bacteria. The process is backed up by government health organizations.

Casey Barton Behravesh is with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Chances of raw milk being contaminated are much higher than for pasteurized milk so avoiding raw milk is your best option," says Behravesh.

The CDC, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Michigan Department of Agriculture all say raw milk is unsafe for human consumption. The only legal way to buy raw milk in Michigan is through what's called a cow share program. Customers pay for a portion of a herd and can then buy the milk. Richard Hebron runs a cow share program with the Family Farms co-op in Vandalia, MI.

In October of 2006, Hebron was stopped by the state police while delivering raw milk.

"Pulled over by a state police officer. And was accompanied by the MDA. And then we were escorted to a rest stop where they searched the truck and took all the contents," says Hebron.

Hebron was never charged with a crime, but he was fined 1,000 dollars for transporting raw dairy across state lines. Ted Beals admits there are risks to drinking raw milk. But he says the risk is the same for pasteurized milk.

"It turns out that more people are struck by lightning on golf courses than get outbreaks from milk that hasn't been pastuerized," says Beals.

Meet the woman who was struck by lightning.

"I do feel like in some ways I was just unlucky, but I think that there probably are quite a few unlucky people," That's Kalee Prue. She lives in Connecticut, where it's legal to buy raw milk in a grocery store. A year ago she decided to try it. Prue got the e coli infection and ended up with something called TTP.

"Thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, which is what I ended up with. It affects your kidneys, it affects your blood, your nervous system, everything," says Prue.

Prue spent a year in and out of the hospital. It took a serious toll on her kidneys, which she says are now like a 70 year old's waiting for a transplant.

"You can't belittle the fact that there are people that might get sick from unpasteurized milk," says Ted Beals, "But from a public health point of view the relative risk doesn't make any sense at all."

It's impossible to study possible health benefits of raw milk because the FDA considers it a dangerous food. Most raw milk drinkers believe that buying unprocessed milk is the right of an informed consumer. And they believe the benefits are worth the risk. © Copyright 2009, Michigan Radio

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