The raw milk debate rages on
Though proponents of unpasteurized milk tout its
health benefits, including boosting immunity, scientific evidence remains
Angeles Times, CA)
By Elena Conis
More and more consumers are forgoing standard milk in favor of
"raw" milk, milk that's unpasteurized and unhomogenized,
essentially straight from the udder of the cow.
Some seek out raw milk for its reportedly creamier, richer taste, but more
choose it because they believe it's more healthful, a "living" food
that can help fend off many illnesses, as varied as allergies and cancer.
"Raw milk consumers are dedicated to building their immune
systems," says Mark McAfee, founder of Organic Pastures, a raw dairy in Fresno.
The claims sound innocent enough, but the sale of raw milk is illegal in
nearly two dozen states, and federal regulations prohibit producers in states
where raw milk is legal, including California,
from shipping it over state lines. The Food and Drug Administration cautions
consumers against raw milk consumption and last year began cracking down on
dairies, including McAfee's, for illegal distribution across state lines.
(Organic Pastures pleaded guilty to the charge but continues to sell raw milk
products -- legally -- throughout California.)
Claims about raw milk's health benefits are scientifically tenuous. Raw milk
and pasteurized milk are equivalent in terms of protein, nutrient, fat and
carbohydrate makeup, says Rusty Bishop, director of the Wisconsin
Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin,
After raw milk has been pasteurized, he says, "there's no difference in
composition, other than that you've killed off a significant number of
bacteria that were in the milk."
Bacteria, however, are at the crux of the controversy over raw milk.
Proponents argue that the milk naturally contains an array of beneficial
bacteria and enzymes that give the immune system a workout and aid with
digestion -- and that are destroyed by pasteurization. Meanwhile, dairy
scientists such as Bishop argue that such beneficial bacteria (such as
acidophilus and bifidobacterium) occur only in
small amounts in raw milk, and that any enzymes the milk contains have no
proven benefit for humans.
Federal officials maintain
that pasteurization is crucial because the risk of contamination with harmful
bacteria outweighs any potential benefits from beneficial, or probiotic, bacteria found in unprocessed milk.
Raw milk advocates point to a small, mostly European body of research to
support their claims. A handful of studies have shown that children who grow
up on farms appear to be less likely than other children to suffer from
allergies such as hay fever and asthma. A separate body of research has begun
to link that effect to unpasteurized milk -- though the evidence is
preliminary, and somewhat mixed.
A study of about 100 children in Crete, published in the journal Clinical and
Experimental Allergy in 2001, found a significantly reduced rate of allergies
among urban (but not rural) children who drank unpasteurized milk. A study of
more than 4,000 children in a rural county in England, published by the Journal
of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in 2006, found that those children who
drank unpasteurized milk were 40% less likely to have symptoms of eczema. A New Zealand
study, published in the journal Allergy in 2002, found a similar effect on
But an analysis of data collected from more than 23,000 adult women in Iowa, published in the
journal Cancer Causes and Control last October, revealed a slightly higher
rate of asthma and eczema among those who said they had ever consumed
unpasteurized milk, compared with those who hadn't.
Meanwhile, a far greater number of studies have linked raw milk and cheese to
outbreaks of E. coli, salmonella, listeria and a
bacterium called campylobacter. The pathogens aren't inherent to raw milk,
but can get into the milk due to unsanitary conditions.
A report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2007
traced 45 outbreaks, causing more than a thousand illnesses and two deaths,
to bacteria in unpasteurized milk or cheese between 1998 and 2005. "Raw
milk could potentially have beneficial bacteria, but there's a higher
likelihood that it has pathogenic organisms as well," says Lloyd
Metzger, director of the Midwest Dairy Foods
at South Dakota State University
in Brookings and a spokesman for the Institute of Food
Technologists, an association of food
In pasteurization, fresh milk is briefly heated to a temperature just high
enough to kill off those pathogenic bacteria; by default, the process also
kills any other bacteria that might be living in the milk. (Homogenization,
meanwhile, keeps the cream, or fat, from separating from the milk.) Without
it, raw milk producers have to take extra care to prevent contamination of
their milk, Bishop says. Sanitary conditions, attention to diet, milk testing
and cattle health screening can help prevent contamination episodes, and
researchers in Europe -- where raw milk is widely used in cheese production
-- have pioneered protocols to help ensure that raw milk is pathogen-free, he
"They can have that [raw] milk coming off the farm with minimal bacteria
-- but it takes a lot more effort," Bishop says.
In the U.S.,
raw milk is regulated differently from one state to the next; in many states,
it's simply illegal. In California,
raw milk producers must meet the same safety standards as producers of
pasteurized milk -- without the aid of pasteurization. (Advocates supported a
bill last fall that would have established separate standards for raw milk,
but it was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.) The extra effort it takes
to meet those standards accounts for the high price of raw milk -- as much as
$10 for half a gallon in California
To the tens of thousands of California
consumers purchasing raw milk, that price is worth it. To others, it's not.
"If you want beneficial bacteria," Metzger says, "you'd be
better off just eating yogurt." 3-02-09