raw milk

The raw milk debate: the pros and cons

Is raw milk a wonder food? Or a health risk? What are the benefits and what are the dangers? Dr Heidi Kassenborg, a veterinarian and the Director of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Dairy & Food Inspection Division debates the issue with Doug Stephan, radio host of Good Day and a dairy farmer who sells raw milk from his East Leigh Farm in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Here’s what they had to say about what the debate over raw milk actually means for farmers – and consumers.

The debate over raw milk is heating up. A study released by CDC (Centers for Disease Control) in February 2012 examined the number of dairy outbreaks in the United States during a 13-year period. Between 1993 and 2006, 60% of dairy-related outbreaks reported to CDC were linked to raw milk products. But according to the Weston A Price Foundation, the CDC has manipulated this data to make raw milk look dangerous, simultaneously dismissing similar dangers associated with pasteurized milk.

In the US, only 10 states can currently sell raw milk for purchase, and in 15 others, only on-farm sales are allowed. Meanwhile, in France, raw milk is sold in vending machines on the side of the road. As the House continues to debate bill 1830 (a bill that would expand raw milk availability to all states), we talked to

Kassenborg: I think there is a basic misunderstanding of food safety advocates’ position on this issue. We aren’t against milk that hasn’t been pasteurized (i.e. raw milk). We are against the pathogens that can and often do get into milk during the milking and collection process.

We live in a time of unprecedented public health and food safety. Unlike the experience of our great-grandparents, today it is uncommon for anyone to know someone who has contracted a serious foodborne illness.

This is not some accidental fluke of history. It’s due to decades of work by scientists and public health experts. These food safety steps have been largely invisible to the average consumer, but I hope this incredible success hasn’t bred complacency or lack of appreciation for the science behind these advances.

Various health benefits are attributed to raw milk, but many of the studies used to support these claims are very old and outdated. While the question of raw milk benefits is open for discussion, there can be no reasonable doubt about the risks. State after state has reported outbreaks of serious illness clearly associated with raw milk, and statistical analyses show an alarming rate of illness relative to the number of people consuming the product. These are the facts, plain and simple.

Stephan: Human civilization wouldn’t be here at all if raw milk were inherently dangerous – all of the milk that any of our ancestors drank before the past 80 years was unpasteurized. It’s even safer now, with refrigeration, stainless steel equipment, and better sanitation at dairy farms.

No food is 100% safe – any product can cause illness if processed improperly, as we have learned from foodborne illness outbreaks from peanut butter, spinach, eggs, and other products in recent years. Raw milk has a very short supply chain, though – it goes through very few steps in getting from the cow to the consumer. Fewer processes means fewer opportunities for the milk to become contaminated.

All raw milk is source-identified, meaning the consumer knows what farm it came from. This means that, should a problem arise, it can easily be traced back to the farm and the cause of the problem can be addressed. On the other hand, conventional milk mixes together milk from hundreds of farms and is shipped thousands of miles to consumers. A problem with one farm could contaminate milk from hundreds of others, the problem could quickly become widespread, and the source of the issue might never be identified.

Kassenborg: Raw milk advocates need to prove that they can produce a product that is free of dangerous pathogens, and on-farm precautions simply aren’t sufficient to prevent pathogens from getting in the milk.

A dairy cow produces more than 125 pounds of manure every day and that manure is produced on the same end of the cow from which the milk comes. Healthy cows can shed pathogens that sicken humans. That’s why pasteurization was such a big step forward for public health when it was introduced years ago.

Pasteurization controls harmful bacteria, parasites and other pathogens by heat-treating milk to a certain temperature and pressure for a particular time period.

If raw milk advocates believe heat treatment is a concern, why aren’t they exploring other ways of pathogen control that don’t involve heat treatment? For example, potential non-heat treatment methods of removing pathogens from milk include ultraviolet light, microfiltration, pulsed electric fields, ultrasound, cold plasma, and high hydrostatic pressure.

Pursuing those alternatives could be a more productive strategy than the anti-science approach some seem to take now.

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