The public’s growing appetite for fresh, locally grown foods has given rise to an illegal underground industry seeking to sell unpasteurized milk as a means to capitalize on the local foods movement. Purveyors of “raw” milk often make bold health claims (with questionable or no scientific evidence) and downplay or ignore the significant and demonstrated public health risks. Public health experts, however, are unified in their advice about raw milk.
“There are simply no proven health benefits and some really worrisome health risks associated with raw milk,” said Matt Kelley MPH, director of the Gallatin City-County Health Department. “Selling the stuff in Montana is illegal for a reason.”
According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), between 1993 and 2006 more than 1500 people in the United States became sick from drinking raw milk or eating cheese made from raw milk. In addition, the CDC reports that unpasteurized milk is 150 times more likely to cause foodborne illness and results in 13 times more hospitalizations than illnesses involving pasteurized dairy products.1
Raw milk, in fact, is one of the riskiest for foodborne illnesses from bacteria such as Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, E. coli, Listeria, and Salmonella. Pasteurization is the only way to kill many of the bacteria in milk that can make people very sick. In fact, most public health professionals and health care providers consider pasteurization one of public health’s most effective food safety intervention ever.
Dr. Greg Holzman, State Medical Officer encourages “that everyone does their homework by carefully reviewing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website to learn more about the risks associated with drinking raw milk, especially before serving this product to a young child. You could change that child’s life forever.”
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that unpasteurized dairy products cause 840 times more illnesses and 45 times more hospitalizations than pasteurized products do.2 The greatest risk lies with infants, young children, older adults, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems such as cancer, organ transplants or HIV.
Even so, some sellers of raw milk seek to sell the product, claiming raw milk is healthier and more nutritious. Peer-reviewed science tell us, though, that pasteurized milk offers the same nutritional benefits without the risk of disease. The CDC Specifically states, “There are no health benefits from drinking raw milk that cannot be obtained from drinking pasteurized milk that is free of disease-causing bacteria. The process of pasteurization of milk has never been found to be the cause of chronic diseases, allergies or developmental or behavioral problems.” 3
Proponents of raw milk believe it’s important for enzymes and nutrients in milk to remain intact. While the heating process in pasteurization inactivates some enzymes, scientists don’t believe these specific enzymes are important in human health. There are some nutrients which are somewhat reduced during pasteurization, but in the U.S. we generally get enough nutrients from other sources. For example, Vitamin C can be reduced during pasteurization, but milk is not generally a major source of Vitamin C. 4
Other products, such as soft cheese, ice cream and yogurt made with raw milk are still not safe.
There is often confusion about organically raised cows and the need for pasteurization. The reality is that even healthy cows, raised organically, can contain bacteria and a wide variety of germs. According to the CDC, milk contamination may occur in these ways:
- Animal feces coming into direct contact with the milk
- Infection of the udder (mastitis)
- Cow diseases (for example, bovine tuberculosis)
- Bacteria that live on the skin of animals
- Environment (for example, feces, dirt, and processing equipment)
- Insects, rodents, and other animal vectors
- Unsanitary conditions in milk processing plant
- Cross-contamination from dairy workers, such as contact with dirty clothing or boots
“It is critical to know that sellers of raw milk in Montana are doing so against state law and are not subject to any testing or health regulations,” said Kelley.
While human health is the foremost concern, there is also an economic cost to foodborne illness outbreaks. According to an article in the Journal of Clinical Infectious Diseases, a 2008 E-coli outbreak in Connecticut resulting from raw milk resulted in the following costs:
- More than $364,000 in medical costs for five people who were ill. (This amounts to an average cost of $72,000 per patient in this outbreak.)
- $31,000 for staff time to investigate the outbreak
- Over $17,000 for laboratory testing of milk specimens
In a study published by the CDC, foodborne outbreaks involving dairy products continue to be a public health problem in the United States and is disproportionately attributable to non-pasteurized dairy products.5
Therefore, given the health risks, and the lack of proven benefits of raw milk, public health officials and physicians urge people not to drink or consume products made from unpasteurized milk.
For more information:
- Read these real stories from people who gave gotten sick drinking raw milk
- The CDC web page on raw milk
- Recent studies on raw milk disease outbreaks.
1 Source: Emerging Infectious Diseases, Vol. 18, No. 3, March 2012. Nonpasteurized Dairy Products, Disease Outbreaks, and State Laws—United States, 1993–2006 Adam J. Langer, Tracy Ayers, Julian Grass, Michael Lynch, Frederick J. Angulo, and Barbara E. Mahon
3Raw Milk Questions & Answers; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/rawmilk/raw-milk-questions-and-answers.html
5(Non-pasteurized Dairy Products, Disease Outbreaks, and State Laws, United States, 1993-2006)