The Battle Over Raw Milk: Let's Ditch the Hysterics and Give People a Choice
Continued from previous page
The question is: Which is more significant, raw milk's health benefits over and above pasteurized milk, or its health risks? And the answer to that question depends on who you ask.
Regulators point to statistics on food-poisoning outbreaks and cases attributed to raw milk compared to the number attributed to pasteurized milk. According to the CDC's numbers, there were 74 outbreaks due to raw milk in the U.S. from 1993 to 2006. These outbreaks led to 1,600 individual food-poisoning cases, including 202 hospitalizations and two deaths. During the same time period, there were 48 outbreaks due to pasteurized milk, leading to 1,223 cases, 30 hospitalizations and one death. These numbers look roughly equivalent until you consider that many more people drink pasteurized milk than the number of those who drink raw milk. Regulators estimate that less than 0.5 percent of U.S. milk is consumed unpasteurized. If that's the case, assuming the above statistics are accurate, then raw milk is much riskier than pasteurized milk.
Raw-milk drinkers question the "official" statistics for a number of reasons. First, raw milk is not legal in all U.S. states, and about one-fifth of the raw-dairy outbreaks (and one-third of cases) are due to raw milk sold illegally, with the higher risks that typically accompany black-market products. Some of this was milk intended for the pasteurized market, where producers presumed that contamination would be addressed by pasteurization and therefore did not take the appropriate management and sanitation measures for milk to be consumed raw.
Second, raw-milk drinkers feel that when regulators learn that a food-poisoning victim consumed raw milk, they stop looking for the cause of the food poisoning -- even if raw milk is actually innocent.
David Gumpert documents two such cases in his book, The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America's Emerging Battle Over Food Rights. In one case, a family of four all drank raw milk, but only the 4-year-old boy became ill from campylobacter. The family suspects the boy became ill by eating snow contaminated with animal droppings a few days before he got sick.
In another case, a family of four bought raw milk but only three family members drank it -- the father did not. The father bought pasteurized milk, and he and the two children drank it. The father and the two children who drank pasteurized milk became sick, and the mother (who had consumed only the raw milk) did not. In both cases, officials investigating the cases attributed them to raw milk. The true risks of raw milk remain a hotly debated topic.
Recognizing the health benefits raw-milk drinkers attribute to raw milk is essential in understanding their ferociousness in working to make raw milk legally accessible. Where the government sees a regulatory nightmare, they see a wholesome, healthy superfood that the government wishes to deny to them. They want to be allowed to choose the risks they take in their own diets, and many feel that the risk of raw milk -- a food -- is outweighed by the benefits of a healthy diet and are far less than the risks of using pharmaceutical drugs.
And that raises another question: Is it the government's job to protect Americans by forbidding them to take risks of their own choosing?
The debate between regulators and raw-milk drinkers has escalated to hysterical levels, often devoid of logic on both sides. A small segment of raw-milk drinkers refuses to admit that raw milk has ever sickened anybody. Some see any attempt to regulate raw milk as a slippery slope to outlawing it entirely (and thus, unacceptable).