I don’t understand how some segments of the population believe that “natural” always equates to “better.” I certainly get the appeal of being close to nature; the romanticism of living simply and from the earth. I grew up and live currently in a rural area where people are close to animals and the land. But I also know that some of the most deadly poisons in the world are “natural.” I know that, while most microbes out there are harmless, and many are even helpful, there are many that can make you violently ill as well. After all, tetanus, anthrax, and Ebola are all “natural.” Especially in cases where potentially pathogenic organisms like the latter can be fairly easily avoided, it seems like a no-brainer to do so, even if it removes something from “nature” by a step.
However sensible it may seem to me, though, others are willing to put their health at risk to keep that “close to nature” feel–including buying raw milk, despite the fact that it may be contaminated with a host of pathogens. More after the jump.
When I wrote about outbreaks related to unpasteurized milkpreviously, author Nina Planck (“Real Food: What to Eat and Why”) stopped by to comment. She claimed both that “raw milk is sterile when it leaves the cow” and also that it “contains healthy bacteria.” While it is possible that cow’s milk may contain some “healthy bacteria,” I find it highly unlikely that you’ll find any that’s completely sterile.
Indeed, last year at a conference I attended, I also heard reports from Wisconsin noting that Coxiella burnetti–the causative agent of Q fever, was found in 76% of tested samples. Listeria monocytogenes, a more common food-borne pathogen, was found in 5% of samples. Previous outbreaks have been due to E. coli contamination as well, and at least 1000 cases of illnesses and two deaths linked to consumption of raw milk were reported between 1998 and 2005 in the U.S. (and keep in mind that food-borne diseases are frequently under-reported).
Despite this, demand is rising for raw milk:
“Raw milk is like a magic food for children,” said Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates consumption of whole, natural foods.
Advocates dispute reports from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health agencies. They claim raw milk relieves allergies, asthma, autism and digestive disorders.
Big. Red. Flag. Milk’s great and all, but it’s not some kind of silver bullet–raw or pasteurized.
Is it legal to sell raw milk? Isn’t this regulated? Well, yes and no:
Wisconsin has banned the sale and distribution of unpasteurized milk, although it allows “incidental sales” by farmers. It also permits farm owners to consume their own milk.
That prompted Wisconsin farmers, like those in a number of other states, to make a variety of arrangements to sell raw milk legally. Farmers have sold shares in their cows, herds and milk licenses.
As the article notes, these types of arrangements are only increasing. There are also groups that promote raw milk consumption, and cite published literature (such as this study and this editorial) suggesting that “the more raw milk consumed, the less risk of asthma and allergies.” And indeed, some studies have found this correlation (however, others haven’t been able to replicate such a finding). Additionally, in this study (which should have been cited instead of the editorial which accompanied it), it was noted that a protective effect was still found even in families who boiled their milk–suggesting it could be something other than the live bacteria in the milk that’s responsible for the protective effect. Other research has suggested that whole milk, even pasteurized, can also be protective against the development of allergies and asthma. Clearly there’s something going on here, but as the linked editorial lays out, no one is sure just what in the milk may be protective–and if pasteurization destroys it or not. In the meantime, we know that drinking raw milk can lead to disease, and that even if it may help protect against some conditions, it’s no panacea.
PERKIN, M., STRACHAN, D. (2006). Which aspects of the farming lifestyle explain the inverse association with childhood allergy?. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 117(6), 1374-1381. DOI: 10.1016/j.jaci.2006.03.008
Perkin MR. Unpasteurized milk: health or hazard? Clinical & Experimental Allergy Volume 37 Issue 5 Page 627-630, May
Waser et al. Inverse association of farm milk consumption with asthma and allergy in rural and suburban populations across Europe. Clinical & Experimental Allergy Volume 37 Issue 5 Page 661-70, May
Image from http://www.moograssfarms.com/images/Raw%20milk.jpg