Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Guest Blog: The Raw Milk Debate

The following Guest Blog first appeared on the ePerspective, a feature of the IFT newsletter, the weekly, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of its author, Dr. Catherine Donnelly.

The Raw Milk Debate: Economic Opportunity or Legal Liability?

Despite claims of health benefits associated with raw milk consumption, raw milk is a well documented source of bacterial pathogens which can cause human illness, and in some instances, death. Consumers who choose to purchase and consume raw milk should understand that raw milk may contain dangerous bacterial pathogens. Consumers should also understand whether they are in a risk group, which increases their chances of adverse health impacts from exposure to bacterial pathogens.

The dangers posed to public health by bacterial pathogens associated with raw milk consumption are numerous. Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella Typhimurium, Escherichia coli O157:H7, and Campylobacter are just four of the pathogens of concern in raw milk. The bacterial pathogens posing a risk to consumer health have become more dangerous in the past two decades. During this same period, the percentage of our population at risk for foodborne illness has increased significantly. It is critically important to understand risks posed by raw milk consumption, why the pathogens have become so dangerous, who is at greatest risk for severe illness and death, and why we need public health policies that limit exposure and warn susceptible consumers about dangers posed by raw milk consumption.

Of all of the food commodity sectors in the U.S., no sector is more committed to public health than the dairy industry. The reason for the absolute commitment to public health stems from early in the 1900s when raw milk was a major source of human disease, including tuberculosis and scarlet fever. Numerous deaths were linked to raw milk consumption. The public health response to this crisis was the crafting in 1924 of the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO), a comprehensive document which governs all aspects of production, processing, and marketing of milk and dairy products. Pasteurized milk is not a safe product simply due to the heat treatment which milk receives; milk safety is achieved because the PMO outlines a comprehensive system to assure milk safety.

The PMO is constantly updated, guided by scientific experts, farmers, and dairy industry personnel working through the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments (NCIMS) which works to “assure the safest possible milk supply for all the people” through enforcement of Grade A milk sanitation laws. The PMO has made pasteurized milk one of the safest food products available to consumers, and this ordinance has had a profound positive impact on public health. The PMO is the accepted operating guideline for the handling and production of milk and dairy products in most states. Adherence to the PMO importantly protects the U.S. milk market by enhancing consumer confidence in dairy product safety and reducing liability costs of this economically significant sector of the U.S. agricultural economy.

Many states have recently passed legislation to expand the sale of unpasteurized milk, allowing farmers to sell larger quantities of unpasteurized milk and thereby enhance economic opportunities in these times of severe economic challenges for so many dairy farmers. However, should economic opportunity be met at the expense of public health? Does pursuit of economic opportunity for some create the right to jeopardize the image of an entire industry that has built its reputation on the safety and wholesomeness of its products? Has this legislation created two standards for milk production in the U.S. and if so, what does this pose for the future of the U.S. dairy industry? There are important liability issues faced by individuals producing products causing harm to consumers, so the key question remains: Has raw milk legislation created economic opportunity or legal liability for farmers engaged in the sale of unpasteurized milk?

About Cathy Donnelly: Dr. Catherine Donnelly is Professor, Dept. of Nutrition and Food Science, University of Vermont and Co-director, Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese.


  1. unpasteurized milk from **conventionally raised, factory cows fed on a diet of corn and soy** contains pathogens. but farmers who offer raw milk will raise free-range, grass-fed, *healthy* cows that have never shown a proven cause of serious illness or death.

    but besides all that, it's a matter of a consumers right to choose. all raw milk contains a warning label. and all consumers should be allowed to purchase what they feel is best for their health.

    i myself can't consume pasteurized milk without getting sick, even "organic" pasteurized milk. but since i started consuming only raw dairy, i feel amazing.

    i should be allowed to choose without the government mandating my diet. if it were up to them, my diet would be mostly corn-based and lacking any good fats. sad.

  2. When I read Dr. Catherine Donnelly's statement above she asks the question, are consumers more likely to be exposed to pathogens than they would be if the consumed only pasteurized milk. The answer is yes. She also asked if consumers would know if they were in a risk group, it is likely that many will not.

    Since the intervention of regulations requiring pasteurization there is evidence to suggest that many aspects of the production of milk are suspect with respect to cleaning on the farm and with milk transportation. Milking Practices, Parlor Cleaning Practices, Installations Standards are ambiguous, contradictory and seldom fully enforced. Add to this that the levels of training on the part of those who produce milk is minimal, no qualification is required to be a farmer.

    Raw Milk done well may be wonderful but by what measure to we grade the performance of those who produce it, and by what standard should we test it. In many states Missouri for one the only testing required is Total Plate Count and Somatic Cell Count, they same requirement for milk destined for pasteurization. This does not offer any protection to the consumer who is not qualified to know what good raw milk should be.

    A note to Anonymous above, conventional milk was always from animals on pasture and will remain so.

  3. I choose not to eat deli meat, do not drink pop or go to "fast food" restaurants. I have done extensive research on RAW milk and heat treated milk.

    Testing for pathogens associated with Raw Milk can and are available see: organic pastures dairy on the net, they even post their results on their web-page.

    No food or pharm products are 100% safe. I will take my chances with whole and raw foods.

    Thanks for giving others a chance to choose a more natural lifestyle than the one we are "force fed" from the "food industry"

  4. @Anonymous. Thank you for sharing your perspective.



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