Raw dairy consumption is a divisive topic, with science battling myths, social media potentially eclipsing legitimate internet sources, and food safety rubbing shoulders with politics. Some consumers now believe raw milk is better than pasteurized milk, despite testimonials about serious, life-threatening illnesses in young victims whose parents believed in dubious health and nutrition claims. This is despite the “buy local” trend, general distrust of technology and food processing, and misinformation posted on websites and blogs.
“Raw milk is one of the most deadly foods in the world, causing nearly three times the number of hospitalizations as any other foodborne disease source.”
Health claims about drinking raw milk have either not been proven or are of minor importance in terms of vitamin loss. Raw milk, on the other hand, is well-documented as a known public health hazard. Raw milk is, in fact, one of the world’s most dangerous foods, causing nearly three times the number of hospitalizations as any other foodborne disease source (Alegbeleye et al. 2018). Diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, fever, and stomach cramps are common symptoms of raw milk pathogen intake, as can severe disorders including Guillain-Barré, hemolytic uremic syndrome, septicemia, meningitis, and intrauterine infections in pregnant women (Alegbeleye et al. 2018). It’s possible that you’ll have an unplanned abortion or perhaps die.
Between 1993 and 2012, outbreaks linked to unpasteurized milk consumption resulted in at least 1,909 illnesses and 144 hospitalizations in the United States (CDC 2017). Children were implicated in a large proportion of these raw milk outbreaks: 59 percent of the outbreaks between 2007 and 2012 involved at least one child under the age of five. Children aged one to four years old were responsible for 38% of Salmonella illnesses and 28% of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli illnesses, which can result in kidney failure, long-term health problems, and death (CDC 2017).
Raw cheeses like chevre and Mexican-style queso fresco have been blamed for some of the outbreaks. Pathogens could also be found in fermented foods like kefir. Raw milk can also be a source of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, which can horizontally transmit resistance to commensal gut bacteria and obstruct human infection therapy (Zastempowska et al. 2016).
Raw Milk Regulation
Raw milk intake must be regulated since milk is an important aspect of nutrition for infants, children, and older persons who may not have a choice in what goods they consume. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the interstate sale and distribution of raw dairy in 1987, although the legality of intrastate sales and distribution is still up to the states.
Twenty states have laws prohibiting the selling of raw milk. Thirty states allow it in various scenarios, with some allowing retail sales and others allowing direct farm-to-consumer sales or “cow share” agreements, in which purchasers pay farmers a fee to care for the animals in exchange for a percentage of the milk produced.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has prepared a map depicting state regulations, emphasizing raw milk outbreaks and demonstrating that outbreaks can cross state lines into areas where raw milk sales are prohibited (Figure 1). Between 2004 and 2016, the FDA issued seven warning letters and two court injunctions against producers that sold raw dairy across state lines (FDA 2017). However, the FDA’s raw milk website has not been updated since November 17, 2017, raising questions about the agency’s ability to police and prosecute interstate raw milk sales and distribution.
Hawaii recently enacted an embargo on the selling of raw milk, making it one of the states with prohibitions. The Hawaii State Department of Health determined that raw goat’s milk was being sold as “pet food” in about 20 pet retailers, but the commodity was being diverted for human use. Hawaiian merchants and restaurants are only allowed to buy pasteurized Grade A milk and dairy products, according to state legislation. Retailers who have raw milk in their hands face fines of up to $10,000 per day unless they remove and destroy the goods, according to the embargo established on July 1, 2021.
Raw goat milk was recalled and quarantined in 2021 in California, where the retail sale of raw milk for human consumption is authorized. This was due to Campylobacter contamination. In 2019 and 2020, the same producer had to issue recalls due to Campylobacter contamination in its raw milk.
Consumer and State Legislator Education
The FDA and the CDC both provide educational, data- and fact-based websites that outline the risks of drinking raw milk. The website RealRawMilkFacts.com is also sponsored by a working group of scientists, consumers, and attorneys (RRMF). The site provides information on the dangers of drinking raw milk, as well as riveting video interviews with families and individuals who have had medical problems as a result of drinking raw milk. The RRMF working group lobbyists state legislators to oppose measures that would legalize the sale and distribution of raw dairy within the state.
“State lawmakers are conservative, and one of the things they really, really, really enjoy are small farmers who come in and howl against government involvement and regulation,” says RRMF supporter Marler. “As a result, persuading politicians not to press through with raw milk measures can be a difficult task.”
Milk Pasteurization Alternatives
Pasteurization is still indisputable protection for dairy processing, according to scientific research (Alegbeleye et al. 2018). However, in response to the raw milk trend, food scientists are developing novel processing processes or dusting off existing ones that reduce the biological load of milk and dairy products while avoiding pasteurized heat treatment. High-pressure processing, ultra high-pressure processing, supercritical fluid technology, pulsed electric fields, microfiltration, electron beam technology, and a hurdle approach combining many processes are among the new or revisited processing technologies (Alegbeleye et al. 2018). In an ideal world, customers will find these alternatives to pasteurization more acceptable and stop eating raw dairy.
Government alone, based on the history of raw milk legislation, cannot protect our food supply. Food scientists, consumer groups, litigators, food producers, growers, and educators, as well as federal and state legislators, are all responsible for food safety. “Things may go right when people work together,” Marler says.
THE MYTHS DEBUNKED
Many of the misconceptions about raw milk health benefits have been proven inaccurate by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA 2018):
- Raw milk does not cure lactose intolerance.
- Raw milk does not cure or treat asthma and allergy.
- Raw milk is not more effective in treating osteoporosis than pasteurized milk.
- There are no beneficial bacteria (probiotics) in raw milk for gastrointestinal health.
- Raw milk is not an immune system–building food and is especially unsafe for children.
- There are no immunoglobulins in raw milk that enhance the human immune system.
- There are no additional proteases or lipases in raw milk that facilitate milk digestion.
- Raw milk is not nutritionally superior to pasteurized milk.
- Raw milk does not contain natural antimicrobial components that make it safe to drink.
- Raw milk does not contain nisin for pathogen inhibition.
- Folate-binding protein is not denatured during pasteurization, and folate (vitamin B9) utilization is not reduced in pasteurized milk.