Raw milk. Raw deal?

This is the sixth of 16 student posts, guest-authored by Anna Lyons-Nace. 

Natural…unprocessed…raw.  These terms are often used by consumers, nutritionists and health experts to denote the most healthful, high-quality food options available for consumption. However, when pertaining to the recent increasing trend in raw milk consumption, can consumers be confident that they are choosing the safest and most healthful option?  Statistical data and health studies would suggest otherwise.

Before we delve into the discussion any further, we should first establish what is considered raw milk and what is not raw.  Raw milk is considered any animal milk, most often from cows, sheep and goats, which is not pasteurized, but still utilized for human consumption. Keep in mind that raw milk can also be used for producing other dairy products such as cheese and yogurt. Raw milk may also undergo a straining process, but it is otherwise unprocessed.  Sources of raw milk are typically local farming operations.  In fact, the interstate sale of raw milk for direct consumption has been prohibited in the U.S. by federal law since 1987, due to safety concerns regarding shelf life and disease risks.  However, there are many states that allow the intrastate sale of raw milk, while a few states prohibit it completely.  This means that the vast majority of what we see in our local grocery stores will have undergone the process of pasteurization, which will be clearly stated on the label.  Pasteurization involves heating the milk to very specific temperatures for short time frames in order to kill potentially harmful germs. Pasteurization was introduced in the U.S. during the first part of the 20th century, at a time when millions of people were contracting life-threatening illnesses such as typhoid, diphtheria and tuberculosis, often through milk consumption. Applying the simple process of pasteurization, along with other health advances, led to a dramatic decline in such diseases, and is considered a major public health triumph.  Decreasing or eliminating potentially harmful microbes through pasteurization, not only makes the product safer for consumers, it also increases shelf life.

So why is raw milk becoming a sought after commodity for many consumers?  This can probably be attributed to such things as a general increase in societal demand for whole, natural and sustainable food products; as well as the perceived benefits of the milk itself. Raw milk drinkers claim that the unpasteurized product is higher in nutrients, protective enzymes and immune boosting probiotics, and can help treat a variety of ailments from asthma to gastrointestinal disorders. Supporters also claim that pasteurization is the cause of milk allergies and lactose intolerance.  It is important to note that these claims remain largely unsubstantiated by published scientific studies.  In many cases these claims have been categorically refuted by direct scientific evidence.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) frankly states that “research shows no meaningful difference between the nutrient content of pasteurized and unpasteurized milk”.  Science has also shown that most enzymes of concern by advocates are not altered by pasteurization. For those with allergy concerns, medical experts and research agrees that it is the proteins naturally present in milk (both raw and pasteurized) that are the cause of allergic reactions to milk and have no relationship to the pasteurization process.  In regards to lactose intolerance, it needs to be understood that lactose intolerance is a genetic error of metabolism that some people are born with, and there is lactose present in both raw and pasteurized milk.  So unfortunately for the lactose intolerant, raw milk is not the solution. As for probiotics, milk does not naturally contain probiotics; so if they are detected in the raw milk they are likely from another source such as air exposure or fecal contamination.  But the good news is that we as consumers have many, safer options for experiencing the benefits of probiotics, including yogurt with active cultures and over the counter supplements.

Now that we have explored some of the common myths surrounding raw and pasteurized milk, it is most important to discuss the reality of the risks involved with raw milk consumption. Real world case studies, as well as research by such reputable organizations as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the FDA, consistently show that the risks of raw milk consumption far outweigh any real or perceived benefit. A 13 year study by the CDC showed raw milk and raw milk products are 150 times more likely to cause a disease outbreak than are pasteurized dairy products. These risks come in the form of a long list of disease causing germs that can contaminate dairy products, and are the reason that pasteurization was instituted in the first place. Some of the more significant contaminants that can be present in raw milk include such pathogens as Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, and Campylobacter.  These pathogens can cause a variety of symptoms, but most commonly produce gastrointestinal illness such as vomiting and diarrhea that can range from mild forms to fatal illnesses. The most vulnerable to becoming sick from drinking raw milk include babies, young children, those with weakened immune systems and pregnant women. But “healthy” people can become ill as well, and there are many documented cases. Data collected by the CDC from 1998-2009 documented 93 disease outbreaks due to raw milk and raw milk product consumption.  These outbreaks caused 1,837 illnesses, 195 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths.  It is important to note that for every case that is reported and diagnosed, there are many illnesses that go unreported, which means these case numbers in reality are certain to be much higher.  The most recently reported outbreak occurred in Oregon this past April.  The outbreak involved 19 people, 15 of which were children, with 4 of the children ending up in the hospital undergoing treatment for kidney failure.  Eleven of the cases were confirmed to have been caused by a very dangerous strain of E. coli that was traced back to a dairy farm that supplied the families with raw milk. In reflecting on outbreaks such as these, it is important to remember that these illnesses are preventable.   But hopefully, these sad cases will also serve to educate us as consumers, so that we can make informed and healthy choices for ourselves and our families.


  1. Langer AJ, Ayers T, Grass J, Lynch M, Angulo FJ, Mahon BE. Nonpasteurized dairy products, disease outbreaks, and state laws-United States, 1993-2006. Emerg Infect Dis. 2012 Mar;18(3):385-91.
  2. Oliver SP, Boor KJ, Murphy SC, Murinda SE. Food safety hazards associated with consumption of raw milk. Foodborne Pathog Dis. 2009 Sep;6(7):793-806. Review.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Trying to Decide about Raw Milk? Last Updated March 7, 2011, http://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/rawmilk/decide-raw-milk.html (Accessed June 5, 2012)
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Raw Milk Questions and Answers, Last Updated March 22, 2012, http://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/rawmilk/raw-milk-questions-and-answers.html (Accessed June 5, 2012)
  5. Milk Facts, Heat Treatment and Pasteurization, http://milkfacts.info/Milk%20Processing/Heat%20Treatments%20and%20Paste… (Accessed June 8, 2012)
  6. Food and Drug Administration, Raw Milk Misconceptions and the Danger of Raw Milk Consumption, Last Updated November 1, 2011, http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodSafety/Product- SpecificInformation/MilkSafety/ConsumerInformationAboutMilkSafety/ucm247991.htm (Accessed June 5, 2012)
  7. Food and Drug Administration, Questions & Answers: Raw Milk, Last Updated November 1, 2011 http://www.fda.gov/food/foodsafety/product-specificinformation/milksafe… (Accessed June 5, 2012)
  8. Food Safety News, 19 Ill with E. Coli in Oregon Raw Milk Outbreak, Last Updated April 21, 2012, http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/04/post-5/ (Accessed June 5, 2012)
  9. International Association for Food Protection, Raw Milk Consumption: An Emerging Public Health Threat? Last updated 2012 http://www.foodprotection.org/events/other-meetings/3/iafp-timely-topic… (Accessed June 6, 2012)
  10. International Association for Food Protection, Nutritional Straight Talk on Raw and Pasteurized Milk, last updated 2012 http://www.foodprotection.org/files/timely-topics/TT_02.pdf (Accessed June 6, 2012)



More like this

I've never understood food fads. Michael Pollan's maxim, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants," has always seemed like reasonable, practical advice. Maybe it's a disease of plenty---we have so much food, we have to find new ways to conceptualize it. Unless you live in an inner city, you can go…
Student guest post by Molly Stafne Nothing could be worse than watching your seven-year-old lying in a hospital bed fighting for his life after being diagnosed with hemolytic uremic syndrome. Unfortunately, Mary McGonigle-Martin experienced it first hand as her son, Chris, fought for his life after…
Nina Plank, the author of the NY Times article I commented on in this post, stopped by to comment. Rather than just having this lost in the comments to a week-old post, I wanted to take a moment and quickly address two of her points (with potentially a follow-up post next week when I have a bit…
This is the first of 16 student posts, guest-authored by Riva Ben-Ezra. Acai fruit comes from the Brazilian Amazon forests and is one of the main dietary staples of the native population.  It has been touted as having potent antioxidant properties 1,2 as well as being a stimulant for weight loss3,…

I know someone who, on the advice of her chiropractor (I know!), took her young baby off formula and put him on raw milk. Ever since he "vomits less!!!!"* but has almost constantly had ear and chest infections. Could it be the raw milk?

*The chiropractor said that babies should never vomit, and that if they are it's always because of formula, and it's a sign of the formula being rejected by the body.

This doesn't mean anything unless you know the absolute risk, or at least the risk relative to a fair sampling of other foods we eat all the time: Dairy as a category accounts for a tiny tiny percentage of all food illnesses, meaning that even if raw milk is more likely to cause illness, that doesn't mean its worse than other foods we constantly consume.

Seafood, for example, accounts for many times more illnesses than regular dairy. Does this mean seafood is unsafe and we shouldn't be allowed to buy it?

" lactose intolerance, it needs to be understood that lactose intolerance is a genetic error of metabolism that some people are born with" . That is not the case, the mutation(s) that allow some people fully digest lactose emerged in some population and others not.
I suggest that you change this phase so that it get more accurate in relation do genetic epidemiology and evolution

Thanks for the post

By Rafael Science (not verified) on 18 Jun 2012 #permalink

I'm a Marine with 2nd Battalion 5th Marines. I was diagnosed with asthma two years ago after the long grueling hike on the "Microwave." I spent almost a whole year on an inhaler until I went to Frazier's Farmers Market to look for an alternative to help me cope with my nasty asthma symptoms. I was guided by the vitamin vendor told me that he was not able to assure me for fact but many people swore to raw milk as an actual cure. I am now asthma free and have not needed an inhaler since. May this writer do more research and quit regurgitating what "government" studies have found. May this writer also look into corn fed cows which become sick and full of illnesses and our government still allows us to drink their milk, hence E Coli.

A thoughtful, well researched writing.

Missouri also suffered a recent E.Coli outbreak that is most likely due to raw milk (the only food commonly consumed by the sufferers.)

To Andres: there is no connection between drinking raw milk and asthma, other than perhaps in your own mind. The mind is a powerful influence: you believed the raw milk would help, and therefore it did help. But your anecdotal experience is not sufficient as proof.

You also equate all pasteurized milk with CAFO milk, yet there is a great deal of pasteurized organic milk available.

Elliot, she isn't talking about spinach or shellfish, and your use of these food categories amounts to little more than false equivalency.

The author is talking about milk: raw and pasteurized. There are significantly more foodborne illness outbreaks with raw milk than pasteurized milk. When you consider how few people consume raw milk, compared to pasteurized, it should give everyone pause to think about increasing the number of raw milk drinkers.

@Shelley: I think you were sort of missing the point with Elliot's comment. He was rather making the point that "150x the risk of infection" isn't necessarily that big a deal - it is necessary to know what the baseline risk is first. e.g. perhaps the odds of illness are 1 in 1 billion from pasteurized milk and 1 in 10 million from raw milk, in which case it would technically be 100x but not really matter regardless.

Anyway, great post regardless.

Why don't we look a little further into the CDC data, as they shouldn't always be taken at face value. In short, their conclusions ate misleading. Here is an article that actually digs into the issue.
I'm not sure the government can be trusted here. The cases of E.Coli in the meat/beef industry are consistently high and nothing is done to fix it.
The bottom line is that everyone needs to make their own informed decision.

I think everybody is actually missing the point here. The main reason why milk is pasteurized is to prevent Bovine Tb to spill over to humans. That is the historic reason why pasteurization was instituted in early 20th century. Tuberculosis in late 19th century accounted for about 1/4 of all deaths in Europe, Bovine TB accounted for about 10 to 30% of all TB cases in Humans.
Even if for nothing else, this justifies classifying pasteurization of milk as one of the most public health achievements of Mankind.
And pre-empting some responses, no, state programmes to eradicate bovine TB in cattle are not sufficient to guarantee a safe supply of milk.
Additionally, you are forgetting Brucellosis as a major foodborne zoonotic agent.
Discussion about E.Coli in milk, compared with these 2 pathogens are quite frankly lateral and little more than statistical noise.

By Lowlander (not verified) on 30 Aug 2012 #permalink

"Data collected by the CDC from 1998-2009 documented 93 disease outbreaks due to raw milk and raw milk product consumption. These outbreaks caused 1,837 illnesses, 195 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths." This statement seems to be used by a number of authors touting the dangers of raw milk. It's always put in without any link to the source, and after searching through the CDC's website I cannot find this statement. However I can find estimates for food borne illnesses for 2011. Of 31 known pathogens and numerous unknown ones there will be an estimated 47.8 million illnesses caused by food. Of these about 127,839 will go to the hospital, and about 3,037 deaths will occur. These are estimates for just one year. (http://www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/2011-foodborne-estimates.html) These figures put a very different picture on the danger of raw milk compared to the quoted statement of "1,837 illnesses, 195 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths" attributed to raw milk over a 13 year period.

By Philip Robert (not verified) on 12 Feb 2013 #permalink