If you’re city-dweller like me, you may have thought that raw (unpasteurized) milk was put out to pasture (or, better yet, “Pasteur”) in the 19th century. This old-fashioned food safety faux pas has made a comeback in recent years, with a small but outspoken audience that hypes raw milk as a cure-all. The dangers of raw milk have been gaining more media attention, thanks to a new CDC report that shows a drastic increase in disease outbreaks from raw milk in recent years. The number of outbreaks1 per year attributed to raw milk quadrupled from the 1993-2006 time period to the 2007-2012 time period. With that type of drastic increase in outbreaks, it’s no wonder why public health and food safety professionals are “having a cow” over raw milk.
A “Raw” Deal
Raw (or unpasteurized) milk may be contaminated with dangerous pathogens that you can’t smell, see, or taste. Raw milk is illegal in most states because it is deemed unsafe by both local and national health authorities like the FDA and the CDC. The vast majority of milk sold in the U.S. undergoes a process called High Temperature Short Time (HTST) pasteurization, during which milk is heated to a high temperature (161° f) for a short period of time (~15 seconds) to kill bacteria that can cause illness.
|Ann Arbor News Photo of Milk Pasteurization, October 1937.|
So why are people putting their health at risk by drinking raw milk in the first place? Raw milk has become a sacred cow (the cow idioms just keep coming) for the natural food community. The crux of the pro-raw milk campaigners’ message is that, despite the potential dangers, raw milk is the more healthful alternative. This argument is based on many myths regarding health benefits of drinking raw milk.
Night of the ‘Living Food’
Natural food advocates tout raw-milk as a “living food”, containing beneficial bacteria that are typically killed in the pasteurization process. Unfortunately, “living” (as it refers to raw milk) also means that it may be harboring harmful pathogens (including campylobacter, salmonella, e coli and listeria) which can cause serious, even life-threatening illnesses. The potential harm of pathogens in raw milk far outweighs the potential benefit from “good” bacteria, and there are many safer alternatives for adding probiotics to your diet.
Leave the past… in the past
Sometimes I wonder if a fascination with the centuries-old methods of food preparation is just a gateway to bringing back hoop-skirts, fainting rooms, and diagnoses of hysteria. I’m exaggerating, but raw milk advocates do tend to look at the past through rose-colored glasses. Many people who choose raw milk may say that they are trying to return to an older, simpler way of growing and preparing foods. We shouldn’t forget, however, that the pre-pasteurization world wasn’t as idyllic as some may believe. Deadly illnesses including typhoid fever, scarlet fever, and diphtheria were frequently transmitted through milk before the days of routine pasteurization . Before the process of pasteurization was invented, it was common for mothers to boil milk before feeding it to their children to decrease the chances of their children dying of foodborne illness. Pasteurization has saved millions of lives since its inception, and it is a technology that is just too critical to overlook in favor of antiquated methods.
Making a Safe, Informed Choice
Raw milk is not safe to drink, period. But despite all of the food safety risks and microbiological arguments against drinking raw milk, the choice is personal and emotional. Some people will choose to drink raw milk even after becoming fully aware of the risks. Keep in mind, however, that your choice to buy raw milk may put other people’s lives at risk, and is even against the law in some places. Raw milk is especially unsafe for children, pregnant women, older adults, or immunosuppressed individuals. There is no credible organization that recommends serving raw milk to these populations.
(Food) Safety First
Food safety is sometimes pushed aside in conversations about nutrition. That can be a huge mistake: without taking proper food safety precautions, you can’t reap the foods nutritional benefits. As for “raw milk vs. pasteurized milk,” the debate will likely go on until the cows come home (last cow idiom, I promise). The proponents of raw-milk may continue to tout its supposed health benefits, but they will be missing a crucial point: no food or drink can be healthful if it’s not safe to consume.
For more info, check out our milk production infographic.
1. Defined as “the occurrence of >2 cases of a similar illness resulting from ingestion of a common food”