Raw Milk Is Gaining Fans, but the Science Says
of Article: http://health.usnews.com/articles/health/living-well-usn/2009/03/20/raw-milk-is-gaining-fans-but-the-science-says-its-dangerous.html
Dairy farm owners report growing interest in buying shares
in their cows
Posted March 20, 2009
Kitty Hockman-Nicholas's phone is ringing off the hook.
Callers to her dairy farm in Winchester, Va., are so eager to buy a share
in one of her 20 hormone-free, grass-fed Jersey cows that she expects her
150 cow co-owners to double in number this year.
Why buy a cow? For
the unpasteurized raw milk. A growing number of consumers are keen to
drink raw milk, for reasons ranging from a desire to buy locally produced
food to taste to a belief in its purported health benefits. Word of mouth
abounds of how raw milk cleared up asthma and ear
infections in children, improved osteoporosis in seniors, and even made
autistic kids function better. (Pasteurization—subjecting milk to a short
burst of heat to kill bacteria, followed by rapid cooling—has been
standard protocol since the 1920s in this country.) Sally Fallon,
founding president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a Washington,
D.C.-based advocate for consumption of whole, natural foods,
estimates that more than 500,000 consumers regularly consume raw milk and
claims that the number "is growing exponentially."
Accurate sales estimates are hard to come by, though,
since the government is firmly opposed to raw milk and in many
states—like Virginia—the only way to get some legally is to tap right
into the cow. (U.S. News interviewed farmers at more than a dozen dairies from
Virginia to California, and all reported a significant bump in sales of
raw milk or in dairy cow ownership in the past few years.) Scientists
warn that no evidence exists to back up most of the reported health
benefits of raw milk and that there are serious risks of infection from
listeria, salmonella, and E. coli. From 1998 to May 2005, raw milk or
raw-milk products have been implicated in 45 foodborne illness outbreaks
in the United States, accounting for more than 1,000 cases of illness,
according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And that's
probably an understatement, the report notes, since foodborne illnesses
often go unrecognized and unreported.
"It's like playing Russian roulette with your health,"
says John Sheehan, director of the Food and Drug Adminstration's Division
of Dairy and Egg Safety. The dangers, he says, range from mild food
poisoning to life-threatening illness. "One complication that can
arise as a result of infection with E. coli O157:H7 is hemolytic uremic
syndrome, which can cause acute renal failure, especially in the very
young or the elderly," Sheehan says. "There are absolutely no
health benefits from consuming raw milk."
Indeed, it's only in the case of asthma and allergy that
some evidence exists to suggest a possible protective effect. A study
published in the June 2006 issue of the Journal of Allergy
and Clinical Immunology by researchers at the University of London analyzed the diet of 4,767
children in Shropshire, England, and found that those
who lived on farms and drank raw milk had significantly fewer
symptoms of asthma, hay fever, and eczema. Children who drank raw milk
were 40 percent less likely to develop eczema and 10 percent less likely
to get hay fever than their peers who didn't drink raw milk. A second European
study of nearly 15,000 children published in the May 2007 issue of Clinical and
Experimental Allergy found that children who drank raw milk were less likely
to have asthma and hay fever. Still, both reports warned that raw milk
often harbors pathogens, and neither recommended consumption of raw milk
as a preventative measure.
[See more on preventing
food allergies, including peanut
While there are no laws against drinking raw milk straight
from the source, the government banned interstate sales more than two
decades ago, leaving states to decide what to do when consumers within
their borders want to buy raw milk. Twenty-three states ban the sale of
raw milk for human consumption; the rest allow the purchase under certain
conditions. In Maryland, a farmer who is caught selling raw milk runs the
risk of jail. In California, raw dairy products are sold in some grocery
stores. In Illinois, consumers can buy straight from the farm if they
bring their own containers. In Virginia, it's legal to drink raw milk
only from a cow that you own.
Raw-milk advocates like Fallon, who swears by raw milk for
her own family, contend that pasteurization greatly reduces vitamin C
and affects B6 and B-12 and beneficial bacteria such as lactobacillus.
Sheehan does not argue with the fact that pasteurization destroys some vitamins and
enzymes, but he calls the losses insignificant.
One possible alternative for aficionados of the local and
natural: Drink very fresh milk from a well-run local dairy that doesn't
practice homogenization (a process that breaks up and blends in the
fat molecules to prevent cream from rising to the top) and uses a
pasteurization process done at a relatively low temperature for a long
time. "This method eliminates harmful bacteria with minimal
impairment of flavor," says Anne
Mendelson, a culinary historian and author of Milk: The Surprising
Story of Milk Through the Ages.
Hockman-Nicholas, 67, has been drinking raw milk her
entire life and says she has never been sick from it. Nor, she says, has
she had a complaint from any of her customers, who pay about $80 up front
and $28 per month for a cow share that produces 1 gallon of raw milk per
week. Because she runs a grade A dairy, the top level for dairy farmers,
the milk is tested frequently for quality by the state, and the facility
is inspected regularly by the Virginia Department of Agriculture for the
sanitation of the equipment and surroundings. The farm is also
USDA-inspected. Hockman-Nicholas's cows are routinely tested for
tuberculosis and brucellosis (they've never come up positive, she says).
And bacteria levels in the milk are monitored.
Kathryn Boor, chair of the food science department at Cornell University,
calls raw milk "a dangerous choice." Boor grew up on a dairy
farm, drank raw milk as a child, and is willing to grant it some of the
credit for her robust health. "Although my family is still in the
dairy business, there is not a single person who still drinks" raw
milk, she says. "There have been no conclusive studies to show the health benefits.
And the risks of exposure to harmful bacteria very clearly can cause
illness to death."