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Health & Wellness

Raw Milk Gets Hot

Weighing pros and cons of nonpasteurized milk


In the slide show above, visit the Raw Milk Drink-In held on Boston Common May 10. Photos courtesy of Annabelle Ho (SAR11) of Slow Food BU

After oil, the most controversial liquid in the media lately may be milk — raw milk.

Advocates of raw milk argue that it’s healthier than pasteurized milk; detractors say it comes with bacterial health risks. Advocates say the production of raw milk reinvigorates small farm dairies and that sales offer consumers a healthy choice other than factory-farmed produce.

Yet worries about bacteria in raw milk have persuaded 10 states to ban all raw milk sales, while some allow retail sales, and others, like Massachusetts, permit only farm sales.

The commonwealth’s position was made clear in January, when the Department of Agricultural Resources issued a cease-and-desist order for raw milk buying clubs, groups of consumers who pool resources and pick up the milk from farms for later distribution among members. The clubs, the department declared, are not licensed milk dealers.

Raw milk supporters, along with Suzanne the cow, responded in May with a “drink-in” on Boston Common. Dozens later testified at a Department of Agricultural Resources hearing on the practices of the raw milk industry. Officials promise more hearings in coming weeks, but they are sticking to their support of farms sales only and a moratorium on milk buying clubs.

“The right to drink and the right to buy raw milk are two different things,” says Richard Lerner (SPH’08), a public health veterinarian and a part-time contractor for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. “No one in the Massachusetts government would say that you don’t have the right to drink raw milk.”

But Lerner isn’t likely to recommend the beverage. “Pasteurized milk is a product that has been shown over a long period of time to reduce the incidence of food-borne illness,” he says. “I cannot see why we would turn our back on that history.”

While the state considers its next move, one local municipal government, Framingham, has come out in favor of raw milk sales. But Framingham’s Board of Health also placed stricter regulations on the process than the state had done. The Framingham law requires warning labels on containers about the potential for harmful bacteria, and similar signs in farm stands, as well as weekly (compared with state-mandated monthly) testing.

Ethan Mascoop (SPH’89, MET’89), Framingham’s public health director, says at least one raw milk farmer hired a food safety consultant to meet the new requirements and now sells his product without problems.

Mascoop doubts the state has sufficient funds and time to follow his town’s lead, especially when the number of raw milk drinkers is far outweighed by those who prefer pasteurized. He says 27 Massachusetts dairies, or about 20 percent of all dairies in the commonwealth, produce raw milk.

Raw milk aficionados claim that they don’t see what all the fuss is about. They argue that no club members have been sickened, and they point to pasteurized milk and other government-regulated foods as a source of multiple bacterial outbreaks. Some say drinking raw milk has actually improved their health, curing asthma, autism, and even blindness.

The club members may have a point, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has some different numbers. The center reports 69 outbreaks of human infections resulting from raw milk consumption from 1993 to 2006, resulting in 1,505 reported illnesses, 185 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths.

Michele DeBiasse, a Sargent College clinical assistant professor, says raw milk lovers’ claims are at least partially true. Pasteurized milk does contain less vitamin B and C and fewer probiotics, a good bacteria that can aid digestion.

But DeBiasse points out that the body naturally has probiotics, and she suggests that among “safer ways to get them” is eating certain yogurt brands. As for the claims of raw milk curing asthma or autism, she says there’s no scientific evidence of that.

Wendy Heiger-Bernays, a School of Public Health associate professor of environmental health, says that regardless of what the state decides, the raw milk movement should at least serve as a wake-up call to consumers about how dairy cows are raised.

“Our factory farms are not producing the healthy product that we expect,” says Heiger-Bernays. “Most of our milk is coming from factory farms, where we know that the animal husbandry processes are not clean, are not pristine, are not done in the interests of the health of the animal or of the human.

“It’s about making money.”

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.


6 Comments on Raw Milk Gets Hot

  • HJS on 06.03.2010 at 9:36 am

    If you are going to list statistics against raw milk from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, please consider looking at the other side of the coin. There are several sites with statistics in favor of raw milk. http://www.realmilk.com/ and http://www.raw-milk-facts.com/ are two popular ones. Thank you.

  • Georgia Riepe Smith on 06.03.2010 at 11:37 am

    MDAR [hearts] agribusiness

    Current MA raw milk standards were established in 1993; under these regulations, no illnesses (due to raw milk consumption) have been reported from dairies inspected by MDAR — clearly, these standards and inspection protocols have been effective. Pasteurized milk, on the other hand, has been responsible for two outbreaks of illness in MA, resulting in 17+ deaths.

    Large dairies’ processing plants combine milk from hundreds of farms, then distribute that milk to hundreds of stores. Because pasteurized milk is much more widely consumed and largely sold to retailers by major distributors, tracing outbreaks of illness is far more difficult and the impact can be far wider than that of potential illnesses due to raw milk consumption.

    Buying raw or pasteurized milk directly from a local farm not only ensures transparency in the food chain, but also directly supports small, single-source dairies (which are widely on the brink of ruin). Moreover, in the case of an outbreak, offending products are quickly and easily identified and the impact is far more contained — traceability is key in this case.

    MDAR move demonstrates a loyalty to agribusiness, not a dedication to public health.

  • Anonymous on 06.03.2010 at 11:43 am

    Pick Your Poison

    Most of the research I’ve seen suggests that milk in any form is neither healthy nor natural for adult humans. The hype about vitamins and minerals (including the industry’s beloved calcium) is just that – hype. Sure, calcium can be shown to reduce rates of osteoporosis – in mice that are being injected with hundreds or thousands of times as much as they would be able to acquire from milk. Rates of osteoporosis and certain other chronic diseases (including diabetes and cancer) tend to be lowest in areas with the least milk consumption, possibly because of the many other things in milk that aren’t as rigorously tested by the companies trying to sell the product. For more reading, consider “The China Study” by T. Colin Campbell.

    It seems to me that, pasteurized or unpasteurized, milk drinkers are not doing anything good for their bodies. Raw milk may offer some benefits ethically – if you can see the cows that made the milk, hopefully that means that they aren’t being raised in the poor conditions found in most factory farms – and maybe environmentally, even though a cow is still a cow and will always be taxing on the environment (cow flatulence alone produces some of the nastiest greenhouse gases that can be blamed on humanity).

    Despite my doubts about raw milk, I worry that government restrictions have more to do with pressure from the traditional milk industry (probably one of the most powerful domestic forces in the US) than they do concern for public health. The ban on larger groups purchasing milk for members seems to suggest this, as the groups could probably be relied on to supply to more people (cutting into pasteurized milk sales) and provide an opponent, however meager, against what is now an industry monopoly.

    I personally would never drink “raw” milk, and I wonder about how much research that isn’t conducted by their own is considered by its drinkers, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s probable that neither is much better or worse than the other.

  • Anonymous on 06.03.2010 at 12:43 pm

    we are adults

    Baby cows drink cow milk. Baby humans drink human milk. When the cow grows up, or any other animal for that matter, it stops drinking the milk because its body neither needs it nor can digest it. Adult humans are not designed to drink milk, let alone from another species. While I do support the idea of eating raw and organically, I think that the healthiest (and safest) thing would be to leave milk out of our adult diets.

  • jemack on 06.04.2010 at 4:21 pm

    Which reminds me...


    This is a kind of riot I can get behind!

  • Raw milk on 07.14.2010 at 7:17 pm

    raw milk

    Another interesting discussion on risks and benefits is here:

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