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The Raw Milk Debate: Don't Have a Cow, Man

How safe is raw milk? Depends on who you ask (and what state you're in).

A week or so ago I drank a cold, refreshing glass of a liquid the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says is "inherently dangerous" and "should not be consumed by anyone at any time for any purpose." We're not talking about kerosene, or even the hard cider I brew in the basement, but milk. More precisely, raw milk.

I obtained my raw milk in return for a few dozen seeds I'd saved from last summer's ultra-hot Scotch bonnet pepper crop. (Talk about something that should come with a FDA warning.) I gave them to a neighbor who tends a small herd of Jersey cows, and she filled a clean quart Ball jar for me from the cooling tank in her milking barn.

It seemed like a pretty good deal. I survived the experience and came away reminded that, safety issues aside, you've never tasted real milk in all of its rich, creamy, complex glory until you've tasted raw milk. I was also left wondering why the mere mention of raw milk sparks such fierce controversy.

Raw is the term applied to milk that has not been pasteurized, a process that involves heating it to a specific temperature and holding it there long enough to kill potentially harmful bacteria (typically 161 degrees F for 15 seconds). The process destroys a virtual rogues gallery of bugs that can sicken or, in rare cases, kill people, particularly the young, the old, the pregnant, and those with weak immune systems. The list of germs includes Enterotoxigenic Staphylococcus aureus, Campylobacter jejuni, Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Mycobacterium bovis, Brucella, Coxiella Burneti, and Yersinia enterocolitica. Government agencies are fond of quoting the statistic that since pasteurization became common in the 1930s, the share of food-borne illnesses attributed to milk has dropped from 25 percent to less than 1 percent.

The FDA requires that all milk for human consumption to be pasteurized if it is to be sold across state lines. However, 28 states permit raw milk to be sold within their borders, though often under strict and even Byzantine regulatory guidelines that typically limit the amount a farmer can sell, prohibit advertising, and require that customers purchase directly from the farm. (Click here to see your state's policy.)

Proponents of raw milk contend that the government's restrictions and dire warnings are exaggerated, misguided, and in some cases blatantly wrong. Among the most outspoken and controversial of the advocates for raw milk is Sally Fallon, founder and president of the Westin A. Price Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that promotes the consumption of nutrient-dense, non-processed foods such as animal fats, organ meat, eggs, butter, and other dairy products, preferably raw.

The government's position, she says, is based on the premise that pasteurization is the best public health initiative we've ever had. "I believe is that pasteurization is the most disastrous public health initiative we've ever had," she said in a telephone interview.

Fallon claims pasteurization compromises the nutritional value of milk, destroying vitamins and enzymes necessary for good health. Drinking raw milk, in her view, prevents allergies and promotes a healthy immune system. And furthermore, raw milk contains beneficial bacteria and other components such as lactoferrin that kill harmful microbes. The FDA and other health agencies and academic groups say such assertions are flatly untrue.

Fallon also points out that the percentage of illnesses caused by raw milk compared to other foods is small. The Price Foundation's website cites statistics showing that between 1990 and 2004, bacteria-contaminated produce caused 639 disease outbreaks in the United States, poultry 541, beef 467, and seafood 984. Between 1994 and 2008 there were only 85 disease outbreaks associated with raw milk, according to the FDA. Most recently, campylobacter-tainted raw milk sickened 13 people in Michigan late last month and sparked a barrage of dire warnings from the FDA.

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