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Got Raw Milk? Think Twice Before You Drink It

By Jill Richardson |

Evidence is piling up that drinking raw milk may lead to autism and asthma, but clear scientific proof of its dangers is lacking.

Mention raw milk to some people, and you'll have to wait for them to stop yelling before you can have a conversation about it. Few foods provoke such strong reactions (for and against it) as raw milk.

Some people credit it with beneficial health effects, but others believe it's so risky it ought to be banned. The issue of raw milk -- milk that has not been pasteurized -- also raises a number of questions about our government's role in regulating foods when that is in conflict with individuals' freedom to choose foods that they consider important to their diets.

Those who drink raw milk go to great lengths to obtain it -- paying $5 to $10 per gallon for it -- sometimes even buying a share of a cow or regularly driving several hours to pick it up from a dairy.

They don't do this just because it tastes good. For some, it is a desire for natural, unprocessed foods. For others, it is part of a larger interest in sustainable agriculture and supporting farmers who use methods that help the environment.

For many, it is about the health benefits derived from probiotics, enzymes and nutrients that are destroyed during pasteurization. Few studies have been done in the U.S. on the health benefits of raw milk, either to prove or disprove them. However, the health benefits of breast milk are well known, as Scientific American reported, and breast milk is raw milk. Recently, European studies have shown that raw milk provides a protective effect against children developing asthma or allergies.

Aside from scientific evidence, raw-milk drinkers point to numerous anecdotal benefits. In a survey of milk drinkers in the state of Michigan, over 80 percent of those advised by a health care professional that they were lactose intolerant were able to consume raw milk without problem. Individuals have written testimonials crediting raw milk with alleviating their allergies, asthma, Crohn's disease, other digestive problems, osteopenia, failure to thrive in infants and boosting their immune systems so that they do not suffer from colds and the flu as they did before consuming raw milk.

There are even reports of improvement in autistic children, such as one mother who attributes to raw milk her son's ability to attend regular school instead of special education. The boy lived in his own world up until the age of 7, when his mother changed his diet, including the addition of raw milk. A high-schooler today, he can drive, and he plans to attend college.

Ultimately, the scientific evidence is not conclusive, and the anecdotal stories are just that -- individual reports that may be attributed to other factors.

The benefits of raw milk have not been scientifically proved or disproved. In order to understand all of the facts, scientific studies should be conducted to verify which of the reported health benefits of raw milk are accurate.

If raw milk might be an overlooked superfood, then why is there such controversy?

Regulators point to the risk of consuming a raw animal product. The basic facts about raw-milk safety are the same as any other food. If raw milk is not contaminated by microbial pathogens, it is safe to drink. If it is contaminated, then the microbe can sicken anyone who drinks the milk. Contamination can come from bovine diseases, or manure or dirt that is brought into contact with the milk by insects or humans.

Most raw-milk drinkers take care in choosing the sources of their milk and choose farmers who take steps to reduce the risks (for example, by careful sanitation of their equipment). In contrast, milk that is intended for pasteurization is typically produced in large, confinement dairies that can fall back on the knowledge that any bugs in the milk will be killed during pasteurization.

The question is: Which is more significant, raw milk's health benefits over and above pasteurized milk, or its health risks? And the answer to that question depends on who you ask.

Regulators point to statistics on food-poisoning outbreaks and cases attributed to raw milk compared to the number attributed to pasteurized milk. According to the CDC's numbers, there were 74 outbreaks due to raw milk in the U.S. from 1993 to 2006. These outbreaks led to 1,600 individual food-poisoning cases, including 202 hospitalizations and two deaths. During the same time period, there were 48 outbreaks due to pasteurized milk, leading to 1,223 cases, 30 hospitalizations and one death. These numbers look roughly equivalent until you consider that many more people drink pasteurized milk than the number of those who drink raw milk. Regulators estimate that less than 0.5 percent of U.S. milk is consumed unpasteurized. If that's the case, assuming the above statistics are accurate, then raw milk is much riskier than pasteurized milk.

Raw-milk drinkers question the "official" statistics for a number of reasons. First, raw milk is not legal in all U.S. states, and about one-fifth of the raw-dairy outbreaks (and one-third of cases) are due to raw milk sold illegally, with the higher risks that typically accompany black-market products. Some of this was milk intended for the pasteurized market, where producers presumed that contamination would be addressed by pasteurization and therefore did not take the appropriate management and sanitation measures for milk to be consumed raw.

Second, raw-milk drinkers feel that when regulators learn that a food-poisoning victim consumed raw milk, they stop looking for the cause of the food poisoning -- even if raw milk is actually innocent.

David Gumpert documents two such cases in his book, The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America's Emerging Battle Over Food Rights. In one case, a family of four all drank raw milk, but only the 4-year-old boy became ill from campylobacter. The family suspects the boy became ill by eating snow contaminated with animal droppings a few days before he got sick.

In another case, a family of four bought raw milk but only three family members drank it -- the father did not. The father bought pasteurized milk, and he and the two children drank it. The father and the two children who drank pasteurized milk became sick, and the mother (who had consumed only the raw milk) did not. In both cases, officials investigating the cases attributed them to raw milk. The true risks of raw milk remain a hotly debated topic.

Recognizing the health benefits raw-milk drinkers attribute to raw milk is essential in understanding their ferociousness in working to make raw milk legally accessible. Where the government sees a regulatory nightmare, they see a wholesome, healthy superfood that the government wishes to deny to them. They want to be allowed to choose the risks they take in their own diets, and many feel that the risk of raw milk -- a food -- is outweighed by the benefits of a healthy diet and are far less than the risks of using pharmaceutical drugs.

And that raises another question: Is it the government's job to protect Americans by forbidding them to take risks of their own choosing?

The debate between regulators and raw-milk drinkers has escalated to hysterical levels, often devoid of logic on both sides. A small segment of raw-milk drinkers refuses to admit that raw milk has ever sickened anybody. Some see any attempt to regulate raw milk as a slippery slope to outlawing it entirely (and thus, unacceptable).

Regulators, on the other hand, see only the risks and dismiss the alleged benefits. Unfortunately, the escalation of the fight (particularly by the fringier elements on either side) harms all involved, as it moves everyone further away from a safe and healthy compromise.

Individuals such as Mark McAfee, owner of the largest raw dairy in America, have the ability to single-handedly alter the debate for the worse. McAfee engages in several practices making him unique among raw-dairy farmers. He sells his products in retail locations like Whole Foods (within California only), and he outsources some of his production as his demand outstrips his supply. However, that means that he does not have direct control over all of the dairy products sold under his label, and it also means that his customers have relatively little information about where their raw dairy products come from.

McAfee's herd is the largest of all U.S. raw dairies -- 300 cows -- which means he lacks the ability to pay as much attention to each cow as a raw dairy farmer who has, say, 30 cows. McAfee wields a significant amount of political power within California due to his colorful personality and his many high-profile Hollywood clients. McAfee's unique practices (like outsourcing), combined with his combative nature, tend to inflame regulators and bring the debate over the larger issue of raw milk one step further away from calm, rational negotiation.

In a California State Senate hearing on raw milk, Dr. Michael Allen Payne made several recommendations to make raw milk safer, targeting McAfee specifically. He called for criminal penalties for outsourcing from nonlicensed dairies, regulating colostrums as a dairy product (not a nutritional supplement with no sanitary standards, as it is now), and ending the interstate shipping of raw-milk products labeled as pet food to avoid the laws against interstate shipment.

He also particularly objected to the marketing of raw milk as a drug (which is not allowed for any food) and marketing it to mothers with small children. An adult can make an educated decision to take a risk, he and other regulators say, whereas a child cannot. Payne recommends requiring point-of-sale warnings for at-risk populations and making warnings for at-risk populations on product containers more visible and understandable.

He also calls for raw-milk manufacturers to be held to the same standard of review and approval of health-and-safety claims made in promotional materials as applied to other foods, nutritional supplements and pharmaceuticals. That would require that all health claims for raw milk promotional materials be pre-approved by the government.

On the other hand, parents are always in the position of making decisions about their children's diets. And many adults make poor choices for their children: one study found that on any given day, one-third of the nation's children eat fast food and that fast food was the main food source for 29 to 38 percent of all children studied.

Feeding children fast food -- particularly as their main food source -- is more than just a risk. It's 100 percent guaranteed to harm a child's health even though it is perfectly legal. And unlike milk, no one has provided even anecdotal reports of health benefits from fast food. Rather than interfere with family decisions, regulators' best strategy may be to set high standards for farmers producing raw milk so that parents have the option to choose raw milk that is as safe as possible.

Last, Payne calls for several safety standards to ensure that raw milk is as safe as possible. He wants to require recording devices for equipment cleaning of raw dairies, require the development of an HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) plan for each raw dairy (this is a common food-safety strategy, first developed to ensure the safety of food given to astronauts in space) and increase regulatory pathogen testing of raw-milk products.

While raw-milk advocates might not agree with all aspects of Payne's plan, he is coming to the table with reason instead of rhetoric. He provides a starting point from which the raw milk advocates and regulators could begin negotiating. In contrast, regulators in some other states have sought to ban raw milk or to impose extremely burdensome requirements on consumers, such as having to drive out to the farm each and every time they want to buy raw milk.

Food-safety laws are put in place to prevent those who grow, process and sell the food from poisoning their customers, not to limit consumers' choice in foods. Other risky foods are legal, even though they sicken many people. The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently found that oysters are the fourth leading cause of food poisoning of all of the foods regulated by the FDA. Fluid milk -- raw or pasteurized -- did not even rank in the top 10.

If consumers can take their chances eating raw oysters, then why shouldn't they be allowed to drink raw milk?

Both foods should be regulated to ensure that producers sell the safest possible product and that consumers are aware of the risk. In that way, the government could do its job to protect consumers from harm while allowing them to take risks of their choosing.

Whatever the outcome of the raw milk fight may be, ditching the hysterics and working toward compromise is the best path forward.

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and is a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.

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