While there are plenty of reasons to support the local and raw food movements, which are founded on the idea of turning away from heavily-processed foods and large-scale industrialized food systems for nutritional and ecological reasons, strict adherence to them isn’t as wholesome or safe as it may seem. Case in point: raw milk. The idea of drinking milk straight from the cow sounds delightfully quaint, but this all-natural approach is actually incredibly risky.
Unlike much industrial processing that can be considered superfluous, pasteurization was developed because it was necessary to keep people safe from foodborne pathogens. It was developed by Louis Pasteur in the mid-1800s and embraced in commercial dairy production around the turn of the century to combat prevalent milk-borne illnesses like scarlet and typhoid fevers. Much like cooking meat, the process entails sufficiently heating milk (or wine) to kill harmful microorganisms and prolong the product’s shelf life. The enzymes destroyed in pasteurization are considered negligible in terms of overall nutritional value, and the process has never been connected to adverse health effects. If anything, previous disease outbreaks associated with processed milk have mostly been due to post-pasteurization contamination via mishandling or improper storage.
By contrast, consuming raw milk products typically causes ‘standard’ foodborne illness – vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain – but can also have more severe consequences, including kidney failure, paralysis, chronic disorders, and death. The Center for Disease Control greatly discourages raw dairy consumption, emphasizing that “healthy people of any age can get very sick or even die if they drink raw milk contaminated with harmful germs.” Milk can become contaminated with disease-causing bacteria, parasites, and viruses (such as E Coli, Giardia, and norovirus) through contact with manure or other unclean environment or sickness of the milk-producing animal. The severity of a person’s reaction can depend on his/her immune system and the germ type and level of contamination in the milk. For this reason, one person may drink raw milk for years without getting sick, while another may become seriously ill from their first time trying it. Raw milk was identified as the source of 81 disease outbreaks 2007-2012, averaging 13 outbreaks per year as compared to the 3 per year of 1993-2006.
So, given that raw milk has never been found to yield health benefits and has undeniable adverse effects, why do 3% of Americans drink at least one glass a week? For some, the reason is as simple as taste; but others prefer raw milk for its purity, meaning the absence of growth hormones. Others still believe it to be a good source of healthy bacteria – but, really, it is safer to look for probiotic dairy products, which have been pasteurized and then had beneficial bacteria added to them.
Nonetheless, the growing popularity of raw foodism has seen raw milk sales rise throughout the US. Less than 1% of milk sold in the US is unpasteurized, and there is a federal prohibition of sale across state lines, but the legality of raw milk sale is a state issue. The most recent survey, from 2011, concluded that the sale of unpasteurized milk was legal in 30 states with varying levels of restriction. Colorado, for instance, requires consumers to buy a share of a cow in exchange for its raw milk. In light of the surge in popularity, however, some states in the Midwest are seeking to legalize raw milk sale so that they can better regulate it. On a legal, rather than black, market, states propose to mandate warning labels, sales records, routine testing, and increased sanitary standards for farms selling unpasteurized products. Though some oppose them as attacks on small businesses and personal freedom, the proposed regulations could do great good by decelerating the annual milk-borne disease outbreak rate.
If you’re on the raw food bandwagon, I caution you to reconsider fully committing to the diet. Many small farms offer organic, pasteurized milk, which is a (presumably) more-sustainable yet still safe alternative to mass-produced dairy products. I’d always been jealous of my dad’s stories of working on a farm and drinking fresh milk, but, now that I’ve read up on the risks, I think I’ll stick with pasteurization.
Drink up and stay healthy,
Heat Treatments and Pasteurization
Wendle, Abby (NPR) – Why Some States Want to Legalize Raw Milk Sales