Home > skepticism > cavorting about the raw milk debacle

cavorting about the raw milk debacle

I’m a member of a cow share and receive a quart of raw milk per week, at a rate of about $3.19 / quart. Moreover, i’m a proud but insufficiently-informed foodie, and given that this community seems exceptionally susceptible to woo i feel obliged as much to the movement as to myself to understand the issues as best i can. In this first flirt with the raw milk debacle i’m attempting only to clear a space for the relevant evidence i hope to find in the future. (I can’t quite call this ongoing exchange a “debate” while keeping a straight face, but that has more to do with its similarity to other so-called debates than with any certainty on my part.)

There seems to be no contemporary statistical study suggesting that raw milk is healthier than pasteurized milk, with the exception of an inverse correlation between farm milk and asthma and allergies. The loss in nutrients during the pasteurization process maxes out at around 10%, for biotin. The more sophisticated claim that the enzymes destroyed in the pasteurization process are necessary for humans to process milk, and the related claim that these enzymes allow lactose-intolerant people to digest raw milk, appear to be unsubstantiated. (Self-misdiagnosis for lactose intolerance, on the other hand, may be common, and a means by which the latter myth is perpetuated.)

The still more sophisticated claim that the “good” bacteria (probiotics) naturally occurring in raw milk protect it from “bad” bacteria (pathogens) is essentially without merit; some probiotics may kill some pathogens at varying rates, while trace amounts of said pathogens (like e. coli) are enough to cause illness. (This sounds to me a lot like offsetting sex from ovulation as a means of birth control, given the availability of an effective and harmless, though less natural, alternative.) In itself, that’s not to say that raw milk is necessarily riskier than pasteurized milk, but rather that we must take the threat of pathogens in raw milk seriously.

There is a lot of hullabaloo in spiritualist circles, of course, rarely accompanied by citations. Interestingly, the Weston A. Price Foundation, perhaps the flagship of raw milk advocacy, hosts a page full of rather terrifying conclusions on the inefficacy of pasteurized milk drawn from scientific studies . . . from the 1930s and 40s, when the push for pasteurization was still underway. (It would be interesting to see these studies in context, in particular contemporary methods of pasteurization and the affiliations of the authors.) There’s also a lot of authoritative back-and-forth, which gets tiring and often misses the point.

It also seems obvious that the proper policy should imitate that of other widely desired and potentially but infrequently harmful products including alcohol, marijuana, and (as demonstrated in Portugal) most other non-prescription drugs: legalization or decriminalization coupled with basic regulations and education, in the form of a labeling system at least.

To interject an opinion: The more dissuasive the labels, the better, provided they’re honest. If there’s to be free consumer choice then consumer protection agencies warrant no more restrictions on their messages than the profit-driven merchants and finely-tuned advertisements that compel them. This characterization is not exclusive to corporations or big business: Of the three raw milk suppliers (cow share handlers) i’ve dealt with, not one has so much as hinted at any risk of consuming milk raw, even to refute it, and one has made the spurious “good” bacteria–”bad” bacteria claim above.

There are some other important reasons people opt for raw milk over pasteurized milk, including mine: environmentalism and community. The merits of fuel reduction by local shopping notwithstanding, i find much to be said for sustainable models for small farms, community vitality, and local economies. This makes indisputable sense for those like myself who use raw milk for cooking and baking, toward which purposes pasteurization is redundant. (When baking, i use weeks-old raw milk in place of buttermilk.) More to the point, pasteurized milk does not have to come from CAFOs, travel great distances, or waste packaging.

Looking back, there seem to be no reasons to assume that pasteurization reduces health benefits, that raw milk is safer, that lactose intolerance is due to pasteurization, that raw milk can’t be legitimately regulated, that raw milk is more sustainable, or that raw milk sales require that people drink it straight. The remaining question, then, is how serious a threat is posed by ingesting raw milk (relative to pasteurized milk). Without even considering the threat, having brushed aside the preceding obfuscation leads me to posit that an informed personal decision to consume raw milk involves taste and risk. That seems to be it.

And raw milk smells like cow.

Sites with cites:
Real Raw Milk Facts: Scientific References
Bill Marler: Raw Milk Cons: Review of the Peer-Reviewed Literature (28 June 2008)
The Weston A. Price Foundation’s response: Raw Milk: What the Scientific Literature Really Says
Amanda Rose at the Ethicurean: Memo to raw-milk advocates: Improve information, or get sued (20 July 2009)
Ted Beals at WAPF in response: Does Raw Milk Kill Pathogens? (fall 2009)
Amanda Rose: Does Raw Milk Kill Pathogens? A Response To Beals (1 October 2009)

  1. MR
    July 10, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    This post comparing recent outbreak and illness reports due to raw and pasteurized milk and dairy products may be of interest:


    • July 10, 2011 at 5:22 pm

      Thanks! That’s exemplary of the kind of data i want to examine for next time.

  2. APhotoWizard
    July 10, 2011 at 8:17 am

    As a proper disclosure, I drink raw milk, 3+ gallons per week. As a child I drank raw milk from a cow from the time I was born because my doctor, like all doctors at the time, said formula from a bottle was better for a baby than mothers milk. For that reason, my dad got a cow and mother made formula. So far I am almost 70 years old and still going strong for whatever that is worth.

    I find this an interesting article because between the time I went to college and the time I retired, I believed our government was telling the truth and raw milk had somehow become unfit to drink while I was not looking. This did not bother me because I was too busy living my life that I had no time for such trivial matters. I ate the food in the restaurant and at the grocery store and went on with my life.

    About the time I retired I came across the studies of Weston A Price and others and began to wonder about the very problem addressed in this article. I asked the same questions and searched for the same answers, but I came to a slightly different conclusion.

    First I discovered that there are indeed no current studies on raw milk. I searched for why and discovered that there was no one willing to pay for such studies. The milk processors did not want raw milk to be exonerated because it would cut into their profit if people discovered that drinking milk direct from the farmers cow without processing was as safe as the processed kind. Apparently that was the real sticking point when raw milk sales were made illegal.

    With that bit of knowledge I looked for studies on other kinds of milk and found that are several current studies on human milk. These studies show that there is considerable loss of nutrition if you pasteurize human milk. This is the reason doctors now say breast feeding is better than formula. The enzymes and bacteria in human milk are destroyed in pasteurization. I therefore concluded there is no basis to believe the proclamations of the FDA and the food processors that there is no difference between pasteurized and raw milk.

    As to safety studies – A recent report by the CDC notes there are millions of people in the US drinking raw milk as of 2009. If they were problems with that many people drinking the stuff there would be daily news headlines. Therefore I conclude the risk is minimal or non-existent. Please note that according to the CDC records, the largest food problem ever, as measured by the number sick and dead, was caused by pasteurized milk.

    Then I learned that as citizens we have a right to contract. The farmer produces the milk and the the consumer contracts with the farmer to purchase the milk. At least in my state, the state is prohibited by the state constitution from interfering with the right to contract. So the government has no place in prohibiting a contract for raw milk. I can legally purchase all the rest of the cow from horn to tail. I can purchase all other excretions and I do for use on my garden, so what is wrong with me purchasing the milk?

    After looking at all this and other evidence then visiting a dairy where I met the farmer and the cows, I found there still dairymen that produce milk the way they did when I was a child. Using the same care and the same process only now they can cool it much quicker with less danger of contamination. As a result I am once again an avid milk drinker and I advocate that others give it a try. You might just find that the taste will win you over.

    • July 10, 2011 at 4:34 pm

      Thank you for commenting! Your perspective is valuable.

      I admit that i’m far less trusting of the FDA and the USDA than i am of, say, the CDC. There does appear to be some influence by large-scale pharmaceutical and food industries in the type of research pursued, and it would be much more sinister but not entirely surprising to learn that this influence extended to the conclusions drawn from the research. My fellow students in the College of Agriculture, for instance, complain that their research is also disproportionately geared toward large-scale assembly line–style agricultural practices.

      I’ll be looking up safety studies later; they seem to constitute the crux of the issue. Raw milk may be more nutritious (i hesitate to use the reductionist term, as though nutrient levels were the only metric of health benefit) than pasteurized milk, but would that be due to pasteurization itself or to the living conditions of the cows? (I buy Homestead Creamery milk to drink, for instance, rather than Kroger or Mayfield.) Raw milk seems unable to sufficiently fight pathogens, but, as you say, the risk to personal health seems to be moderate (as with pasteurized milk, remembering that many more people drink it). That the risk from one is orders of magnitude greater than from the other, though, would be reason enough for the FDA to regulate the one more severely than the other.

      As i mentioned above, i agree that customers should be able to buy what they want; i’d like to be able to buy raw milk as i need it, rather than join a cow share and end up with much more than i would otherwise use. I’ll also be visiting my cow for the first time soon! Hopefully a companion will take pictures.

      By the way, the studies (i’ve found) that indicate high nutrient loss from pasteurization date back to the same decade as those from the WAPF website, before pasteurization was legally enforced and, i suspect, when methods were much different than today’s. Having been born around that time, i’d be glad to know if you recall any difference in the methods of pasteurization, or in the government position on pasteurization, during your youth versus more recently.

  3. aed939
    July 9, 2011 at 1:12 am

    I don’t know if you need to defend proper milk, nor do you need to prove that it is better than processed, CAFO, GM-grainfed milk. Consumers should have access to unadulterated milk so they can do whatever they want with it–whether it is to clabber or make good cheese. Consumers should not be required to buy milk that has been denatured.

    • July 9, 2011 at 6:21 pm

      As far as the rôle of government is concerned, i agree! But if any product poses a serious health risk then people should be made aware of it, and currently there doesn’t seem to be a strong push for informed consumer choice: Advocates tend to want raw milk deregulated and detractors tend to want it criminalized. The most visible exception may be Amanda Rose, who advocates for raw milk but treats consumer safety as seriously as consumer choice. I seem to share her attitude: We’ll be better able to get raw milk more widely available with more reliable information about its safety, and for the time being it’s up to individuals (consumers, dairies, and scholars) to do so.

  1. July 10, 2011 at 3:10 pm
  2. July 9, 2011 at 7:48 pm

Enlighten me.

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