Cindy Burke is the author of To Buy or Not to Buy Organic and recipe writer for The Trans-Fat Solution.

Raw deal

Is raw milk worth the health risks?

April 22, 2008

I’ve always enjoyed breaking rules, especially when it comes to circumventing some of the regulations around food. I try to buy most of my food directly from farmers that I know, either from our local farmers’ market or from my visits to their farms. Lately, that has meant buying “organic” produce from sustainable farmers who use organic methods but choose not to be certified organic. I also buy pork that is not USDA-inspected because my farmer does not want to stress her pigs by trucking them four hours to a large USDA-inspected slaughterhouse.

I think that government regulations and “certified organic” stickers are just a substitute for knowing how your food is farmed. I know my farmers, and I trust that their products are clean.

Since I’m all about minimal processing and the farm-to-table connection, I was excited when one of my favorite local farmers showed up at the market with raw milk. I’m old enough to remember drinking raw milk on my great-grandmother’s farm. I still remember how rich and creamy that milk tasted compared to the pasteurized milk I was used to drinking. Raw milk sounded like the ultimate in farm-fresh goodness and, even though I knew there were risks, I started to drink it on occasion.

I did my due diligence — visiting the farm on many occasions, watching the milking process, talking with the farmer about his methods. Well, actually on that last one, I guess I could have done a little more discussing. I never asked exactly what the process was to prepare the cows for milking, or who did the milking, or how they sterilized the containers. My farmer is a really nice guy, very sincere about making good-quality products, so I figured that he knew what he was doing.

And for more than a year, I had no problems. Until I did. Last week I bought raw milk on Sunday, drank a glass on Sunday night, and by Tuesday morning, was starting to have some intestinal grumblings. By Wednesday, I was so sick I could barely get out of bed — fever, sweats, chills. And when I did get out of bed, it was inevitably to go to the bathroom. I was sick for five days.

A test revealed a crew of campylobacter bacteria having a blowout party inside my body. There are two typical routes for campylobacter transmission to humans in North America: eating raw poultry, or drinking raw milk. My only source of exposure was raw milk, so even though I wasn’t able to have the milk tested for bacteria, I’m pretty sure that the raw milk made me sick.

Given that I’ve been a bit of an anti-regulation food purchaser, maybe I was heading for a fall. Many times, I’ve thought, I’ve gotten what I deserve when I make food choices that defy common sense. When I am dumb enough to buy strawberries in December, I pay a premium price for hard, tasteless strawberries. When I ordered a lobster dinner last summer in northern Idaho, I got a rubbery, flavorless lobster tail and paid $45 for it. Usually, I already know that I’m making a foolish choice. But sometimes I want something out of the ordinary, so I take a gamble — and lose, almost every time. The raw milk was a gamble. Eventually, it caught up with me.

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After my experience with campylobacter, I understand why the process of milk pasteurization changed the dairy business. Pasteurizing milk (or other liquids) with heat destroys bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens that cause food-borne illnesses.

Raw-milk drinkers believe that pasteurization destroys beneficial proteins and enzymes in milk that strengthen the immune system and help digestion. Many raw-milk drinkers claim that unpasteurized milk offers significant health benefits; fewer allergies, resistance to colds, and weight loss are common benefits cited. But when I drank raw milk, I never noticed any of those health benefits.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website calls raw milk “a continuing vehicle for the transmission of infectious disease agents in the United States.” The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website warns that “raw milk can harbor dangerous microorganisms that can pose serious health risks to you and your family.”

Given the well-documented risks of food poisoning from raw milk, I was shocked to read that some raw-milk aficionados even suggest giving raw milk to babies and young children.

Even though you can find many websites passionately touting the safety of unpasteurized milk, the CDC has documented thousands of illnesses related to raw milk during the last decade. Many thousands more illnesses (like mine) go unreported.

I have no problem with farmers selling raw milk to informed consumers, but I think that the risks of raw milk outweigh the benefits. As a person who likes to bend the rules, I can understand why consumers want to have the choice to buy raw milk. I just won’t be one of those consumers any more.

There are 25 comments on this item
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1. by Heather Duchscher on Apr 22, 2008 at 4:57 PM PDT

Yikes! I’m so sorry you got sick! I’ve started drinking raw milk in the last 5 weeks. So far so good. My biggest problem is that the only organic milk that was available in my grocery store (and that was in a recyclable container) was Horizon and I know they’ve had some controversy after a bad review a few years ago. What brand do you use now? Thanks for posting this. Certainly will keep in mind.

2. by anonymous on Apr 23, 2008 at 5:07 AM PDT

I think there is more to this debate about access to raw milk. Far more eloquent than I is Nina Planck of Her Excerpt: The Milk Papers makes good reading about the benefits and safety of raw milk.

3. by Cynthia Lair on Apr 23, 2008 at 2:13 PM PDT

There is also an excellent article on the topic in the latest issue of Harper’s Bizarre. Worth reading.
Cynthia Lair

4. by Ann Marie on Apr 23, 2008 at 10:01 PM PDT

How can you be sure it was the raw milk? What else did you eat during that time period? Did you consume any beef, eggs, or pork? What kind of water were you exposed to?

“Also implicated, as vectors for Campylobacter are undercooked hamburger, pork and eggs; unpasteurized milk; and municipal water with inadequate chlorination.”

It could have also been hamburger, eggs, pork, or municipal water with inadequate chlorination.

“Salmonella, campylobacter, and E. coli O157:H7 live in the intestinal tract of animals, and consequently, they tend to get on meat or chicken during the slaughter process.”

More from that site:

“The problem is, if a resistant microorganism is something like salmonella or campylobacter, when we humans contract the illness from eating chicken that’s not properly cooked or from a variety of other reasons, we may not respond to antibiotic treatment. One of the things that’s worried us most recently has been the increase in the percentage of campylobacter isolate that are susceptible to Ciprofloxacin, which is the drug we use or have used in the past for treating campylobacter of gastroenteritis.

Even if a chicken’s carrying campylobacter, if you handle it chicken properly and use appropriate techniques, you won’t acquire it. But if there is a breakdown somewhere in the system and you do end up consuming some campylobacter and get sick, there’s basically about a 20 percent chance that the campylobacter that you have just consumed is not going to be killed by Ciprofloxacin. That’s a problem. This is in comparison, say, to the early 1990s, when probably only 1-3 percent of campylobacter were resistant to something like Ciprofloxacin.

Microorganisms tend to develop resistance to Ciprofloxacin fairly easily. We become concerned about our ability to use Ciprofloxacin as a means of treating campylobacter infections because of the rapidly increasing rates of resistance. are because of the large amounts of antibiotics we’re using, we are developing increasingly resistant microorganisms and we are reducing our ability as physicians to treat patients who come into us with infections. No longer can you assume that whatever the person is infected with you can treat it. Frequently we’re beginning to encounter these microorganisms that in some cases are not susceptible to the first line or second line or even third line treatment. There are strains of salmonella which are resistant to a large number of antibiotics. And while they are still potentially treatable, most of our standard drugs will not work against some of these strains.”

What they are saying is that the animals are developing resistance to the antibiotics they are fed. Most animals in confinement are very sick -- and fed a constant supply of antibiotics. But that does not help if they develop a resistance.

Ann Marie

5. by Cindy Burke on Apr 24, 2008 at 11:12 AM PDT

No I didn’t eat any hamburger, pork, chicken or eggs in the days before I became sick. I drink Seattle water right out of the tap. No one else in my family was sick, and no one else in the family drank the milk. I’m pretty sure it was the milk.

6. by Ann Marie on Apr 24, 2008 at 11:32 AM PDT

Not everyone will have symptoms. So they could have also gotten it but had no symptoms.

You ate no meat, chicken or eggs during that 5 days that you contracted it? Are you a vegetarian?

Who did you buy the milk from? Did you talk to the farmer?

7. by Fasenfest on Apr 24, 2008 at 12:37 PM PDT

As a recent convert to the raw milk movement I have to admit I have the occasional risky-business feeling when I drink a glass. Actually, I tend to use the milk more for cheese or butter making then anything else which doesn’t really change the risk factor except after 60 days when raw milk cheeses are deemed safe by the FDA. That has something to do with continuing enzyme and bacteria action that overpowers anything “bad”. But, there is a political position attached to raw milk enthusiasts that includes the frustration with the way the food industry has stripped the natural world and its systems of the stuff that belongs to it. Some of it was for our good and some of it was for their convenience or profit margins. So yes, there is a risk but there are benefits as well. Some of them are health, some of them are the ability to utilize (as it has been the case for centuries of cheese making) the unique qualities of the animal breed, diet and season which are all stripped in collective dairy farms and pasteurization. I am one of those natural source food enthusiasts that love the quality of place or “terroir” and would love to believe that I can have some of it safely with out the risk of infections. But I guess I can’t. So, that is the dilemma. I want the unique qualities of milk that add to the craft of cheese making but am still a bit fearful of the risk. I suppose I will quit when I get sick even though I know that is a little bit like closing the barn door after the horse gets out.

8. by Cindy Burke on Apr 24, 2008 at 2:02 PM PDT

Ann Marie:
I’m not a vegetarian, but I keep a daily food diary because I see a nutritionist (see my previous post about Ellen, my nutritionist). In the three days prior to getting camphylobacter, I didn’t eat chicken, eggs, hamburger or pork. I was on a peanut butter, english muffin, cheese and olive binge with a few veggies tossed in.

9. by Ann Marie on Apr 24, 2008 at 2:33 PM PDT

I see... acc. to the CDC, it can take 5 days from exposure to become ill.

“Most people who become ill with campylobacteriosis get diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, and fever within 2 to 5 days after exposure to the organism.”

What did you eat the 2 days prior to that? Any meat or eggs? Any produce?

I’m curious because from what I have read (and I’ve researched this quite extensively), camphylobacter is very rarely in raw milk. In fact, in the US, only 1% of food borne illnesses are caused by dairy products (pasteurized and raw).

“While all dairy (pasteurized and raw) constitutes less than 1 percent of all reported food borne illnesses, the FDA along with the CDC, continue to misuse, manipulate, and suppress data to frighten the public. Their recent ‘reminder’ against drinking raw milk is no exception,” reports Ruth Ann Foster, a North Carolina volunteer chapter leader for the Foundation. “In the majority of cases it is only a coincidence that the individual(s) happened to consume raw milk. For many foodborne outbreaks associated with raw milk, there are frequently a large number of sick individuals who did not consume any raw milk. Still, health officials disregard this important fact and blame the milk. When the FDA, CDC, and state health officials target raw milk, they distract themselves from isolating the true source of illness. The risk of foodborne illness is far greater for many other foods.

Between 1990 and 2004, a CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest) report shows a much greater risk from consuming the following foods:

31,496 illnesses, 639 outbreaks from produce (38%)
16,280 illnesses, 541 outbreaks from poultry (20%)
13,220 illnesses, 467 outbreaks from beef (16%)
11,027 illnesses, 341 outbreaks from eggs (13%)
9,969 illnesses, 984 outbreaks from seafood (12%)”

So, what that means is for a period of 14 years, over 38% of outbreaks of food borne illnesses in the US actually came from vegetables -- and less than 1% from dairy, including all pasteurized dairy.

I also think this powerpoint is a must-read:

I am curious... did you talk to the farmer? Do you know if any of the other people he sold it to had problems? Have they tested their milk?

10. by Cindy Burke on Apr 24, 2008 at 8:33 PM PDT

Yes, my doctor said it is unusual to be tested for it (most people just suffer through it), but campylobacter is not unusual in people. She said she has seen it before from raw milks, both cow and goat milk.
In my case, I was tested because my spouse is a medical professional who brought a sterile culture kit home and took it to the lab that day because she was worried that I might have e-Coli or salmonella. Fortunately, I did not.
I did email my farmer. He said he was not aware of other customers experiencing problems. This farmer DOES have his milk tested, but they do not test for campylobacter and he said he does not know how to have his milk tested for this specific bacteria.
My farmer follows the Joel Salatin method of rotating his chickens through the pastures where his cows graze so the chickens can eat the grubs. Because of that, I know that the cows are around chicken droppings, which is where campylobacter is frequently found. I am sure it was an anomoly, because I know he’s very careful, but bacteria are very small and crafty, so a little goes a long way.
I have read both of the materials you referenced already. I know that many people are passionate about eating food that is in a near natural state, particularly raw milk.
I’m still all for unprocessed food and farmer’s markets. But to state that raw milk is a “healthy” and “safe food” for babies and children as The Weston A. Price Foundation web site does, worries me. Even though I drank raw milk occasionally, I never gave it to my young daughter. On the other hand, if adults want to accept the potential risks from raw milk, I think they should have that right.

11. by Ann Marie on Apr 25, 2008 at 8:15 AM PDT

Thanks for responding. I am sorry you got sick!

“According to Robert Tauxe, CDC Chief of the Foodborne and Diarrhreal Diseases Branch, foodborne pathogens such as Campylobacter, E. Coli O157:H7, Y. enterocolitica, Cryptosporidium, and Listeria, have only emerged with in the past twenty-five years.

Overuse and misuse of antibiotics, crowded feedlots, low-quality and low-cost feed are common elements of industrial agriculture. New foodborne pathogens have emerged from this model and according to Robert Tauxe, more are expected.”

I suppose it is possible that your farmer got his chickens from a factory farm, or were bred from chickens from a factory farm... that is a possibility. You might want to ask him where he got his chickens. However, it’s not likely that the chickens were sickly since he is following Joel Satatin methods...

Although if nobody else got sick, it makes me question if it really was the milk that made you sick.

What else did you eat during those 5 days? You never answered that question.

I disagree with you about the safety of raw milk for babies and children. I think the key is healthy milk from healthy animals. And most animals in today’s modern food production system are in confinement. The pathogens are coming from the factory farms -- not the small farmers raising animals on pasture.

You don’t know what it was you ate that made you sick since you were not eating just the milk from the dairy. So, to assume that it was the milk that made you sick is simply not logical. I guess it is your opinion, but it is not based on logic.

The fact is, people have been feeding raw milk to babies and children for centuries. They only started getting sick and dying when the methods of production changed during the 1800s. I.e., whiskey distilleries started keeping cows and feeding them swill (the leftovers from the whiskey production process). This made the cows sick and they produced milk full of pathogens. Which made the babies sick and many died (50% mortality rate in New York City). This was what spurred the drive for pasteurization. However, there were two solutions at the time to save the babies -- one was pasteurization (promoted by a pro-big business type) and one was healthy milk from healthy cows (promoted by a doctor). Pasteurization was backed by big business, which was why it won. But was it the healthier choice? Definitely not! This was a way that the swill milk producers could continue to make their pathogen-laden milk -- and just kill off the bad bugs by heating the milk. Doesn’t make it good milk.

This is still going on today.

This story is told in great detail in “The Untold Story of Milk” by Dr. Ron Schmid. You might want to read that if you haven’t already. It wasn’t until I read that book that I understood the truth about pasteurization and the history of drinking milk. I think if you are going to write about this and make assertions, you really should educate yourself.

I think supporting small farmers is absolutely critical to the future of healthy food. I’m sure you agree with me on that. Blaming a small farmer for your illness based on an assumption is really not fair. It could easily have been something else you ate that came from a factory farm.

Many foods that come from the industrial food chain are contaminated. Even cereal. Just a few weeks ago in fact, MaltOMeal recalled two of their cereals due to salmonella.

12. by Kim on May 1, 2008 at 12:14 PM PDT

There’s an excellent piece on raw milk in Harper’s magazine this month.

13. by ellekasey on May 7, 2008 at 8:09 PM PDT

Thanks for your informative first-hand experience. I was curious about raw milk too.

14. by anonymous on May 25, 2008 at 7:54 PM PDT

My family has a dairy farm, and for the first 20 years of my life I drank raw milk. I still get a jug of the milk whenever I go back to visit.

We never thought twice about drinking the milk, nor did we ever get sick. I think at least part of that might have to do with the fact that we were drinking it day after day and perhaps our bodies were used to it.

I think it’s possible that some people have problems with the raw milk because it is a big adjustment for their bodies to handle...even a few weeks isn’t enough.

15. by anonymous on Jul 7, 2009 at 1:53 PM PDT

I know this is over a year ago but I thought I should mention something. I think there has been too much talk about food here, that the “two typical routes” of catching campylobacter is from milk and poultry, when in fact it can be caught from fecal or sexual contact and from contaminated water as well as food.

You said (I think) that you go to the farm or at least have contact with the farmer; well, in that case you could easily have picked it up from anything that has had contact with the cows or other animals, and the milk, if indeed it was infected, could still have gotten contaminated AFTER pasteurization if it got contact from any other part of the farm -- except that after pasteurization, it won’t contain any healthy bacteria that would improve your immunity.

You didn’t mention what type of campylobacter you got. There are some types that cannot survive in raw milk, so that would definitely rule it out.

There are other foods that can carry the disease -- yes, the veggies and other stuff you mention could have carried it. So really, raw milk was definitely not your only source of contamination.

People have this fear of any bacteria (most of which are benign) so the idea of anything being “raw” or uncooked immediately implicates it despite the fact that your raw milk hasn’t even been tested therefore you can’t be certain despite other possibilities, and even if it has and it did have the campylobacter, you cannot say that pasteurization would have helped if the contamination happened after (due often to less than sanitary conditions, which is frequently the case).

Milk nowadays usually HAS to be pasteurized simply because the cows don’t live in very good conditions, they are fed grain which their stomachs are not equipped to handle (they need grass), and their surroundings are unclean, so of course their milk isn’t too good and of course it has to be cooked out.

So I think the issue isn’t whether to drink pasteurized or raw milk, but whether we should have sanitary conditions and good care of cows and goats so that we don’t NEED pasteurization to begin with, in which case we won’t have to destroy the good enzymes and bacteria in the milk that helps us digest it in order to destroy the very few bad bacteria that might be present in it.

16. by anonymous on Jan 6, 2010 at 5:34 AM PST

Cindy, I really appreciate you posting your experience and I’m sorry you’re getting grilled over it. I have been considering giving my baby raw milk to supplement my supply of breast milk.

17. by anonymous on Jul 20, 2010 at 4:37 AM PDT

Rules banning raw mile were back in the day when people did not know about bacteria and general cleanliness in handling food in the early 1900’s ...i milked goats for years and followed stringent cleanliness regime and always had safe milk. So I say yes, let people make their own decision on what they eat. The USDA wants to put too many regs/rules on people and their animals. Check out a program called NAIS-national animal id system-where people will have to tell the govt where they go with their animals, microchip each one, register their premises and face those animals being killed if disease is suspected in an areaa just to benefit corporate ag(who does not have to follow these rules) can say the hormone injected meat raised on factory farms is safe!

18. by anonymous on Jul 20, 2010 at 7:13 AM PDT

#17 (Anonymous)... Sort of reading between the lines here, but I am not sure you can have it both ways, demand rules and regs for “corporate ag” and then in the same breath say others don’t have to follow the rules. Whether or not the big farmers follow rules or not, food is just too important not to have some kind of oversight when you sell a food item to a third party. I know it is frustrating, but the health issues should trump the hardship for the small raw milk producer.

19. by Dean Cozzens on Jul 20, 2010 at 8:16 AM PDT

I once met a brilliant scientist who recommended mixing just a little as in maybe 1/2 tsp food grade H2O2 (Hydroben Peroxide) into an egg before using it, to kill any pathogens in it. It does change the flavor. I have heard that in Europe they sterilize milk and fruit juices by adding a bit of peroxide to those products. We too use raw milk but I mix in about 1 tsp of H2O2 to each gallon when I first bring it home to kill pathogens. I don’t know what if anything this does to beneficial enzymes, etc.

20. by Dean Cozzens on Jul 20, 2010 at 8:23 AM PDT

I should add that I grew up on a farm where from my childhood is was my responsiblity to hand milk three cows twice a day and bring that milk into our home where we separated the cream and made butter in our electric mixer. (By the way, I have since found that I can make good butter in a blender in a lot less time.) So I grew up drinking raw milk along with the rest of the family, and never once as far as any of us ever knew, did any of us ever get sick from it. And that goes back generations. And things we’re always the most sanitary and we never had our cows tested. Probably not the best, but hey, we all lived.

21. by anonymous on Jul 20, 2010 at 11:59 AM PDT

TO #18--The main thing about NAIS is that
ALL the regs/rules are put on the little guy but big ag does NOT have to do those rules/reg...and those rules/regs affect animals that are NOT food animals such as my horses, parakeets, pet potbelly does my telling the govt everywhere I go with my horse insure that YOU are eating safe beef?!?!? Besides most food safety issues happen after the animal is slaugtered, during processing. Rules need to make sense, not just appearance sake.

22. by Victoire Aurore on Jul 20, 2010 at 12:54 PM PDT

I absolutley agree that raw milk should be allowed for sale and human consumption. While it is possible to for the milk to contain salmonella and E coli, these harmful bacteria can also be found in things that are regulated and sold everywhere such as eggs, sushi, spinach, even…pasteurized milk. Just as many people get sick from pasteurized milk as they do raw milk.

23. by Dean Cozzens on Jul 20, 2010 at 1:22 PM PDT

I’ve not studied this as much as I would have liked, but from what I remember homogenization is also a serious problem. From what I can remember of what I read years ago, the issue with homogenization is that it breaks fat globuals into unnaturally small fat particles which then get places and do things in the body that cause problems. For example, they get into the bloodstream in unnatural ways and that is the real culprit behind hardening of the arteries and brain issues. I also remember reading that when homogenization was first developed, it was found in test animals such as chickens and rabbits that in the third generation of consuming this milk the males start to go sterile. Why? The tiny fat particles plug up the tiny tubes in the testicles. Or so I remember reading. Is this true? Now we are into the third and fourth generations of humans and low and behold human men are becoming sterile. Want something shocking, google for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting) special from 2008 or 9 THE DISAPPEARING MALE.

24. by anonymous on May 31, 2011 at 4:45 PM PDT

Isn’t it the handling of the raw milk that is the problem - not the raw milk itself.

25. by anonymous on Jul 22, 2012 at 11:12 AM PDT

No, there are not “just as many people getting sick from raw milk as pasteurized milk”. Raw milk caused 82% of all dairy-related outbreaks in the last 40 years. Campylobacter is commonly found in raw milk. To put actual numbers to statistics, 1% of foodborne illness outbreaks is 480,000 sick people every year, Anne Marie. Anyone who drinks raw milk is playing Russian roulette with their health. And they will be the first people to go running to public health officials when they get sick.

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