"Safer" raw milk is not safe raw milk

"Safer" raw milk is not safe raw milk

Afficionados of raw milk, including sellers, have banded together to form the Raw Milk Institute ("RAWMI"), which aims to make raw milk safer. RAWMI is frustrated that regulation of raw milk sales varies a great deal from state to state.  It wants to institute a voluntary safety compliance program to reduce the risk of getting ill from consuming raw milk.  That is both good and bad news.  Good if it reduces the incidence of illness.  Bad in that it may give consumers a false illusion of safety.

Raw milk is unpasterized milk, which means it can be chock full of all sorts of infectious organisms, such as  Salmonella, Escherichia coli O157 and Campylobacter.  As you may have noticed, the milk production facility of the cow is located quite close to the endpoint of the cow's digestive system.  This is not an ideal food production setup unless you are a calf. 

Consumers and sellers of raw milk claim that it is more healthful because pasteurization, which involves heating the milk, destroys some of its benefits, like good bacteria.  The risks, on the other hand, are great.  Per the CDC:

the incidence of reported outbreaks [1993-2006] involving nonpasteurized dairy products was ≈150× greater, per unit of dairy product consumed, than the incidence involving pasteurized products. If, as is probably more likely, <1% of dairy products are consumed nonpasteurized, then the relative risk per unit of nonpasteurized dairy product consumed would be even higher.

And:

  • The hospitalization rate for patients in outbreaks caused by raw milk was 13 times higher (13% vs. 1%) than the rate for people in outbreaks caused by pasteurized milk.
  • This difference is probably partly because the outbreaks caused by raw milk were all caused by bacterial infections that tend to be more severe. For example, E. coli O157:H7, a bacterium that can cause kidney failure and death, was a common cause of outbreaks due to raw milk. For outbreaks caused by pasteurized milk, relatively mild viral infections and foodborne toxins were more common causes.

The only way to get rid of the really bad actors is pasteurize the milk.  So safety efforts can't reduce the risk very much. Normally, if science were applied to this situation, a risk-benefit analysis would be employed. Great risk, including illness and death.  No proven benefit. Ergo, don't drink raw milk or eat products made from raw milk. Seems simple enough.  

How does the RAWMI handle the risk versus benefit equation? With that tried and true method of CAM proponents everywhere: testimonials.  On its website, we find testimonials touting raw milk consumption as a cure for high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, sinus pressure caused by flying and, of all things, lactose intolerance.  Interestingly, one person credits raw milk in helping resolve a myriad of health problems, including acne, caused by a vegan diet. 

The only research RAWMI has on its website is this:

Download our brief presentation showing that raw milk and blood share remarkably similar complex “living” structures, while pasteurized and homogenized milk shows a uniform, “dead” appearance. Raw milk is just like blood. See for yourself!

And, indeed, you can see slides of blood and slides of raw milk magnified by a microscope. What that means, I have no idea.

RAWMI wants regulatory agencies to be a part of their effort but the CDC is having none of it.  The CDC's Robert Tauxe points out, in a story run by NPR on the subject, a cow can be clean one day and infected the next.  (With TB, for example.) While Dr. Tauxe understands the desire to have beneficial bacteria in the gut, the problem is you're taking in the good with the bad when you ingest the milk.  But what does he know?  He's only an MD with an MPH and deputy director of the CDC division overseeing foodborne illness.

As the media is wont to do, for the opposing view in the safety debate, NPR quotes a food writer who is "concerned with healthful choices" although she has no actual scientific credentials. She consumes raw milk and apparently gives it to her children too. Her expert opinion is that all food choices have risk. 

True enough.  But what about benefit?  Is there any good evidence that drinking raw milk confers a health benefit?  Not that I know of. But never let science interfere with your ideology.  Even if it kills you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Points of Interest 7/11/2014
That's so Oz