The Dangers of Raw Milk

Some people tout the benefits of drinking raw milk as being easier to digest, richer nutritionally and providing beneficial bacteria that otherwise die during pasteurization. They claim that it tastes better and offers more protection against asthma and lactose intolerance. When animals are raised properly and their milk is treated carefully, say these advocates, raw milk poses little danger to human health.

Still. Milk is pasteurized (heated) for a reason: to destroy harmful microorganisms. Drinking raw milk can be dangerous because the dairy industry is a huge, commercial endeavor, and the days of farm-fresh milk you drink from the cow you raised are, for most people, long gone.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced a study by the Minnesota Department of Health showed that 1 in 6 people who drink draw milk get food poisoning. And the numbers are increasing, according to the Food Poisoning Bulletin.

Researchers examined food-poisoning data collected over a decade in Minnesota, where the retail sale of raw milk is illegal. More than 500, or nearly 4 in 100 of those sickened by food poisoning bacteria such as E.coli, salmonella and campylobacter, reported drinking raw milk before getting sick.

For every lab-confirmed case of food poisoning illness, according to the CDC, there are as many as 100 unconfirmed cases, depending on the bacteria.

Of those 530 people with confirmed food poisoning, 70 required hospitalization for an average of three days. One patient, an 11-month-old infant with and E. coli infection, died.

Children, whose immune systems are not fully developed, were affected disproportionately; 3 in 4 kids younger than 5 had been served raw milk before becoming ill.

It’s not a good idea for anyone to drink raw milk, but the peril is much higher for the young and the pregnant. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned that pregnant women and children should not drink raw milk. That organization supports a nationwide ban on its sale. It also endorses a ban on the sale of other dairy products – primarily cheese – that contain raw or unpasteurized milk.

Before pasteurization was widely used in the U.S., starting in the 1920s, the pediatricians’ statement said, raw dairy products caused hundreds of outbreaks of infection. “Pasteurized milk and milk products are extraordinarily healthy, nutritious and safe for children,” Dr. Mary Glode, a co-author of the policy statement, told The Times. The academy’s position mirrors that of the FDA and the American Medical Assn.

The pediatricians estimate that 1 to 3 in 100 dairy products consumed in the U.S. are not pasteurized. From 1998 to 2009, The Times reports, that caused 1,837 illnesses, two resulting in death.

“We have no scientific evidence that consuming raw milk provides any advantages of pasteurized milk and milk products,” Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, lead author of the policy statement, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine and an infectious-disease expert, said in a statement. “But relative to the amount of raw milk products on the market, we do see a disproportionately large number of disease and illnesses from raw milk.”

Studies on the health benefits of raw milk are lacking, although many are underway. According to Reuters.com, studies suggesting that drinking raw milk is associated with a lower risk of allergies and asthma analyzed children who spend a lot of time outside and worked on farms – different in many ways from those who drink pasteurized milk and live a more urban existence.

Claims that raw milk has nutrients that are killed by pasteurization also haven’t been supported, researchers said. “We can quantify the risks,” said one in the Reuters article. “We cannot quantify the benefits [of raw milk]. And the benefits at this point are vague and not really substantiated scientifically.”

Even many supporters of raw milk believe it should be regulated. Raw milk is illegal in Minnesota, so there’s no infrastructure to ensure it’s processed safely. In California, they say, where it is legal, there have been very few cases of illness. Supporters also accuse processors of opposing raw milk because they’re in the business of pasteurization.

Although many states allow raw milk sales, the FDA prohibits the interstate shipment of raw milk for human consumption. It does permit transport of some clearly labeled raw cheeses.

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