UNSAFE OR THE REAL DEAL?: Raw milk has a loyal following, but the unpasteurized product is also linked to illnesses contracted from bacteria that may lurk in milk that comes straight from a cow or goat. Image: IMAGE COURTESY OF CHIOT'S RUN, VIA FLICKR.COM
Milk is well known as a great dietary source of protein and calcium, not to mention an indispensable companion to cookies. But "nature's perfect food," a label given to milk over time by a variety of boosters, including consumer activists, government nutritionists and the American Dairy Council, has become a great source of controversy, too. The long-running dispute over whether milk, both from cows and goats, should be consumed in raw or pasteurized form—an argument more than a century old—has heated up in the last five years, according to Bill Marler, a Washington State lawyer who takes raw milk and other food poisoning cases.
A bumper crop of recent illness related to raw milk accentuates the problem. Last month, at least 30 people, including two children, tested positive for strains of campylobacter and Escherichia coli bacteria traced to raw (nonpasteurized) goat milk. In June five people in Minnesota were diagnosed with E. coli traced to raw cow's milk from a local dairy. One, a toddler, was hospitalized after he developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure that is a potentially deadly E. coli complication.
They are hardly isolated cases. In fact, there have already been more reports of raw milk-related illness outbreaks this year in the U.S. than in any of the past five years.
Such outbreaks are largely preventable if milk is pasteurized, says Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The process (known as high temperature, short time (HTST) pasteurization) was invented more than a century ago and relies on heat at least 72 degrees Celsius for 15 seconds to kill the stew of E. coli, campylobacter, Listeria, salmonella and other microbes that may lurk in milk that comes straight from a cow or goat. Medical experts consider pasteurization as one of the major breakthroughs in public health history. "A triumph," Tauxe adds.
Keeping it real
Raw milk proponents, including The Weston A. Price Foundation, deny its dangers and praise its superior flavor. They believe raw milk obtained from healthy, pasture-fed animals strengthens the immune system in a manner similar to human breast milk and that it cures digestive tract conditions such as Crohn's disease. Sally Fallon Morell, the foundation's president and founder of the Campaign for Real Milk, disputes the claims of raw milk-related illness. "We have analyzed those reports, and 95 percent should go in the trash can because they're biased," she says. "The pasteurization argument is based on 40-year-old science."
Raw milk advocates also claim that pasteurization destroys key nutrients. "Real milk contains a complex system of enzymes, fats, carbohydrates and fragile proteins that are wonders of the microscopic world," Fallon Morell says. "They are destroyed with rapid heating."
That assertion is debatable. As with any cooking process, pasteurization causes some chemical change, says Jennifer Nelson, a nutritionist with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., although she says that nutrition researchers are still testing to see if nutrients, enzymes and other health-related components are significantly altered. Whatever the nutritional change, Nelson cautions, "Raw milk can carry pathogens that can cause illness and death." Certain high risk groups should never drink raw milk: infants, growing children, the elderly and people who are immune compromised because their immune systems may not be strong enough to fight off the pathogens often found in raw milk, she adds.
Given the number of disease outbreaks related to raw milk, one might expect the demand for raw milk to dry up. Not so—in fact, demand for raw milk has risen faster than cream in a milk bottle, commanding prices as high as $10 per gallon. Despite the warnings of public health officials, including the Web site Real Raw Milk Facts, raw milk has become a national cause célèbre, and dairymen who sell it have become local folk heroes.
"It's a political issue," Fallon Morell says. "It's also a health, small farm and economic issue. I'm not advocating that we all go back and live on farms, but the pendulum has gone too far in the direction of industry. What we need [are] small farms with Space Age technology."