Raw Milk: Don’t Underestimate the Health Risks
Serious health risks associated with drinking raw (unpasteurized) milk are gaining media attention. This stems from recent episodes of raw milk-associated foodborne illnesses, such as those in Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as the finding of a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showing a dramatic increase in raw milk-associated outbreaks in recent years.
CDC Study Findings. The CDC study found that the average number of foodborne illnesses due to drinking raw milk more than quadrupled since a previous study – from an average of three outbreaks/year during 1993-2006 to 13/year during 2007-2012. Overall, there were 81 outbreaks in 26 states from 2007 to 2012, which caused illnesses in nearly 1,000 people and sent 73 to the hospital.
Say Yes to Milk Pasteurization. Pasteurization of milk is considered by many government agencies and health professional organizations to be one of the public health triumphs of the 20th century. Routine pasteurization of milk began in the 1920s and became widespread in the United States by 1950. The vast majority of milk sold commercially in the United States is pasteurized, or heated to a high temperature for a short time, commonly 161º F for at least 15 seconds, and then rapidly cooled to 40º F to kill any dangerous bacteria, including Salmonella, E. coli and Campylobacter, that may have been present in raw milk. Michigan was the first state to require pasteurization of all dairy products sold to the public and continues to require milk pasteurization to this day.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned the sale or distribution of raw milk across state lines since 1987, each state sets its own laws regulating the retail sale of raw (unpasteurized) milk. In recent years more states have allowed the sale of raw milk within their state. This increased availability of raw milk has resulted in higher rates of raw milk-associated illnesses. The CDC study found that more than 80 percent of the raw milk outbreaks occurred in states where the retail sale of raw milk is legal. Although drinking raw milk can adversely affect the health of anyone, infants, young children, pregnant women, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems are groups at high risk.
Misperceptions about Raw Milk Benefits Debunked. Raw milk advocates believe that raw milk is a healthier alternative to pasteurized milk. Specifically, they believe that raw milk is more nutritious and better for individuals with lactose intolerance than pasteurized milk. However, these perceived benefits attributed to raw milk consumption have yet to be substantiated by scientific evidence. “Research shows no meaningful difference in the nutritional value of pasteurized and unpasteurized milk,” reports the FDA. Claims that raw milk has unique benefits compared to pasteurized milk for individuals with lactose intolerance are unfounded. The authors of a recent controlled trial examining the effect of raw milk consumption on lactose intolerance concluded, “These results do not support widespread anecdotal claims that raw milk reduces the symptoms of lactose intolerance.” While the perceived nutritional and health benefits of consuming raw milk have not been scientifically substantiated, the health risks of raw milk have been clearly shown.
The Experts Weigh In. Numerous government agencies and health professional organizations such as the FDA, CDC, and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) agree that drinking raw milk is unsafe because of the risk of foodborne illnesses and that only pasteurized milk should be recommended. The AAP, in a policy statement, says that it “strongly supports the position of the FDA and other national and international associations in endorsing the consumption of only pasteurized milk and milk products for pregnant women, infants, and children.” The AAP adds that it “also endorses a ban on the sale of raw or unpasteurized milk and milk products throughout the United States.”
Bottom Line. To protect your health, choose only pasteurized milk and milk products. Raw milk can harbor harmful bacteria that can cause serious or even life-threatening illnesses.
For information on the health risks of consuming raw milk cheeses, check out this blog.
*Originally published on March 3, 2015.