The Raw Milk Debate

By Keshia Pendigrast

According to a study released in the February edition of Emerging Infectious Diseases journal, published by the Center for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC), raw milk and its products are a 150 times more likely than its pasteurized milk counter products, to sicken its consumers. Yet according to Food Safety News, over 10 million Americans demand access and the choice to consume unpasteurized, raw milk.

The legal status of raw milk around the country. (Photo credit: Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund)

In 1948 Michigan was the first state in the United States to mandate that milk be pasteurized and raw milk consumption was restricted to farm owners only. John Partridge, a Dairy Food Extension Specialist at Michigan State University, explains that “Pasteurized milk is when we cool milk down and then run it through a heat treatment system…. to destroy the most heat-resistant pathogen.” These include pathogens like E. coli and salmonella, which can cause extreme sickness and, in some cases, death.

But processes such as pasteurization and sterilization of milk also reduce milk’s nutritional value. For instance, sterilization significantly impairs the bioactivity of vitamin B6, while pasteurization reduces milk’s Vitamin C content and also destroys Beta-lacto globulin, a heat-sensitive protein that increases intestinal absorption of vitamin A. “Raw Milk didn’t make people sick, campylobacter did,” said co-owner of ‘Your Family Cow Farms,’ Edwin Shank, in a recent interview for Bloomberg. “That’s an important distinction. Whenever it’s raw milk, people want to vilify raw milk and say don’t drink it. They don’t say the same thing about cantaloupe of spinach or peanut butter.”

However, many state health officials maintain that relaxed regulations around raw milk would cause a lot more cases of E. coli, salmonella and other diseases. Twenty states in the US still ban raw milk in some form. According to a study conducted between 1993 and 2006 by the CDC, dairy caused 4,413 illnesses, 239 hospitalizations, and three deaths. State health officials determined that 60 percent of these incidents were linked to raw milk products. “Restricting the sale of raw milk products is likely to reduce the number of outbreaks and can help keep people healthier,” said Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, in a recent statement.

So what convinced over 10 million Americans to actively seek out raw milk?

Tolerance: In an informal survey of over 700 American families, the Weston A. Price Foundation determined that over 80 percent of those diagnosed with lactose intolerance no longer suffer from symptoms after switching to raw milk. Stanford University is also currently conducting more extensive research to determine if lactose intolerant adults can enjoy raw milk with minimal or no symptoms.

Health: The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology investigated the effects of continued raw milk consumption from a young age. Their study suggested that children who are exposed to raw milk at early stages in their life were less likely to suffer from asthma or hay fever.  Raw milk drinkers like retired University of Michigan pathologist, Ted Beals, said, “I absolutely, fundamentally believe that one reason why my wife and I drink fresh unprocessed milk is it’s nutritionally better for us.”

Flavor: Mark Bittman, chef and contributor for the New York Times, noted, “The milk—oh man, the milk!—was creamy and full of flavors, not white like supermarket milk, but yellow-tinged. It was milk with a taste that wasn’t just defined by its texture — it was distinct, satisfying, and delicious. All food should be like this, I thought, so natural it seems to redefine the word.”

Community and Environment: Raw Milk is almost exclusively produced and sold by small local farmers. The growing trend of supporting small local producers in favor of large food conglomerates is a phenomenon that reconnects consumers with their supply of food. Farmers are also held directly accountable for their food products. Products that are supported by grass fed cows are also far less likely to spread zoonotic diseases; such farms also protect biodiversity and produce fewer green house gases.

“Our personal feeling is that it’s a choice thing,” Beals says. “If people believe the food is better or tastes better, or want to get it from the farmer, they should be allowed to do that. The government shouldn’t restrict their access.”

Keshia Pendigrast is a Research Intern with Nourishing the Planet.

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