Raw Milk Myths
Microbiologist Peter Olsen shares some unpalatable truths about raw milk.
Originally shared by Peter Olsen
I’ve spent a lot time attempting to inform and educate consumers about the hazards of raw milk consumption, particularly those who advocate drinking it. The vast majority of advocates I’ve talked to dismiss my vast mountains of scientific evidence, but still, I feel it is my responsibility as a public health microbiologist to continue to attempt to educate people. It’s not just about your safety, or your children’s safety; raw milk consumption is a problem for everyone you may contact because of the natures of the diseases associated with raw milk, and the relative ease with which these organisms can be spread.
Here is a great article summarizing and debunking a number of myths around raw milk consumption.
Really, it’s not a conspiracy. Public health scientists aren’t shills for factory-produced milk. Nobody buys us off – we don’t have enough voice to matter.
You can be a small, independent farmer and still pasteurize. I like that. I don’t like brucellosis or tuberculosis; those are diseases which can be transmitted to humans through raw milk, and which can also be spread person-to-person.
This post is pretty old (2011), and I don’t have any reason to dispute it. But I’d hope that Peter Olsen could answer a question.
What I’m curious about is that in France, people use raw milk all the time. It’s the norm. I find it hard to believe the French are really getting listeria or other disease spread by unpasteurized milk in any appreciable numbers. The french have their stereotypes, but spreading of disease isn’t one of them.
So what’s different about France? Do they simply not trust milk that’s been left out? Do they keep milk for much shorter periods of time? Do they have higher standards for the milk production to keep it safe?
There simply has to be more to the story here. The US is sort of a germaphobic culture. Our default answer to bacteria is KILL IT DEAD! To the point where we’ve gone too far and our anti-bacterial soaps are probably causing us harm.
Steve Sether I asked a French friend of mine about this. I have been to France lots of times and I though everybody gets milk in plastic bottles from Carrefour!
“In France we drink UHT milk most of the time. Even in country villages.
What we do though is eat cheese made of unpasteurised milk. Much tastier and the process makes it safe for the general population. Pregnant women, sick children and immuno-depressive people may need to abstain and eat pasteurised milk cheese. But other than that, our milk is less tasty than yours in England, probably as it is sterilised rather than pasteurised… But ours is much nicer than any milk I had when I lived in USA.”
Huh. That’s surprising. I don’t like the UHT milk at all, so I’m surprised the French would drink it.
Steve Sether They don’t seem that keen, either!
What always seems to get overlooked is that raw milk is as healthy as the cow it come from. Healthy cow means healthy milk. Humans drank no form, no form of milk other than raw for millennia. If it was inherently deadly then those humans that drank milk would have perished at a faster rate than non-milk drinkers and this evolution would have selected out drinking disease laden milk. If we are going to use science to think about food, then let’s use logic too.
Max Utter One of the things that modern medicine and related processes has done is to take the guesswork out of the ‘healthy cow’ requirement. This is by, largely, sterilisation or pasteurisation. Is is more relevant when a large number of cows are contributing to the pooled milk supply. Yes, if you have one cow then you will know if it makes you unwell or kills people, but it is not a good way to prove the health of the cow.
Raw milk carries a higher risk of pathogenic contaminants. The CDC reports that unpasteurized milk is 150 times more likely to cause foodborne illness and results in 13 times more hospitalizations than illnesses involving pasteurized dairy products (http://goo.gl/rwJCA). Raw milk can carry Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria, and pregnant women can miscarry their fetus if infected with Listeria. The bacteria can come from feces, dirty udders, human handlers, dairy equipment, etc. The process of pasteurization kills all bacteria. Prior to pasteurization, people did sicken and die from milk borne infections. According to Wikipedia, ” between 1912 and 1937 some 65,000 people died of tuberculosis contracted from consuming milk in England and Wales alone”.
Of course, these are finite risks, and many people who consume raw milk will not encounter pathogens. In Europe, raw milk is legal. It’s up to the individual to weigh the risks and benefits. Here is a study by Belgian scientists that does exactly that (http://goo.gl/qBNFqc). Because it is behind I paywall, here is an article that summarizes the findings (http://goo.gl/LY4Zqg).
Max Utter natural selection does not work on non-genetically coded behaviors. “Milk drinking” is not a selectable phenotype driven by genetic make-up. Even if someone dies from drinking contaminated milk before they have a chance to produce offspring, this does not change the prevalence of milk drinkers just as lying on railroad tracks does not result in our population becoming more risk averse over time.
Thanks for the link Science on Google+ . The study (at least the summary) is relatively worthless to a lot of people including me since it assumes the benefit of raw milk is nutrition, and that raw milk is consumed directly, rather than from cheese or butter.
I’ve been told, and have no reason to disbelieve them that cheese made from raw milk is superior in taste to cheese made from pasteurized milk. Now, science can’t make judgements about whether the risk is worth it for the taste, but it could put the risk into perspective. We all take risks every day, like driving a car. So I’d be more interested in the absolute risks from eating unpasteurized cheese, than getting a relative risk of “150 times the risk of non-pasterized milk”.
If the risks were 1 in a billion of getting listeria, 150 times that would be only 1 in 7 million. I have no idea what the real numbers are, but relative risks doesn’t let anyone make any decisions on their own, and only promotes fear rather than knowledge.
Steve Sether the information on nutritional profile may not apply to you, but it does to many proponents of raw milk who assume that it is better for health. Numbers of actual deaths are in the CDC report and are around a few thousand over 10 years. Certainly, they are small (since the vast majority of milk consumed in the US is pasteurized) and the risks are finite as mentioned. Any harmful bacteria in the milk will survive in soft cheeses (Brie, Queso fresco) but the hard cheeses are okay.
Milk flavor turns out to be intensively studied and is influence by a whole range of factors from cow feed, to handling and of course microbial content. Milk readily “picks up flavors” as many of us may have noticed. Raw milk can taste better or worse, depending on whether the flavor profiles changed by the action of lipases, proteases and fermenting. Taste is a personal preference and it is perfectly justifiable to make choices based on taste. From a public health view, however, it is important to get the message of risks out. Make no mistake, there are risks associated with unpasteurized products as you can see from the number of milk associated illnesses prior to pasteurization.
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