To Pasteurize or Not to Pasteurize

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that documentation, which was collected between the years 1998 and 2011 and was associated with negative effects of the consumption of raw milk products, identified 148 outbreaks resulting in 2,384 illnesses, 284 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths. However, a recent report released by the Minnesota Department of Health suggests that the CDC data likely represents only a small portion of the actual number of illnesses caused by raw milk consumption, as the CDC information rests only on identified outbreaks rather than sporadic cases. Just a few days after the Minnesota report was released, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement endorsing a ban on the sale of raw or unpasteurized milk or milk products. Yet, in the face of this backlash against raw milk, states are continuing to pass laws that allow for the sale of raw milk and raw milk products and the advocates of raw milk continue to sing its praises.

Raw Milk Consumption

Raw milk, or milk that has not been pasteurized, and its products, have been prohibited from interstate commerce since 1987, yet states’ laws vary as to the prohibition or regulation of unpasteurized milk or its products. Additionally, according to a survey conducted by the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network, three percent of respondents claimed to have consumed raw milk within the previous week. While most federal agencies, including the CDC and FDA, warn against raw milk consumption, advocates appear undeterred by these warnings. Realmilk.com, a pro-raw milk advocacy group, claims, “although raw milk, like any food can become contaminated and cause illness, the dangers of raw milk are greatly exaggerated.” Currently, the Minnesota report revealed that at least 30 states allow for the sale of raw milk in some form, while realmilk.com reports individuals in 39 states may obtain raw milk through purchase or, for farmers, from their own herds.

Minnesota report

According to the Minnesota Department of Health’s report, “Raw Milk Consumption among Patients with Non-Outbreak-Related Enteric Infections, Minnesota, USA, 2001-2010,” which documented illnesses caused by pathogens found in the intestines reported in Minnesota between 2001 and 2010, 3.7 percent of the affected patients reported drinking raw milk during the possible infection period. Zeroing in on non-outbreak related enteric illnesses, the study’s authors concluded that it  was likely that the number of sporadic raw milk-associated illnesses was much larger than previous data, which was based only on the numbers of cases of recognized raw milk illness outbreaks, suggests. The analysis also revealed that the increasing number of sporadic illnesses appear to correlate to the growing numbers of states that are legalizing raw milk sales. Specifically, the study notes, “the number of cases associated with reported raw milk consumption appears to be increasing, just as the movement to relax the regulation of raw milk sales appears to be gaining momentum in many states.” The study also confirmed that young children are particularly at risk for illness stemming from raw milk consumption, and that the source of raw milk for young children who were affected was often from a family farm.

Pediatricians Policy Statement

In a recent policy statement released by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) on the heels of the new numbers revealed by the Minnesota study, the physician group warns of the dangers associated with raw milk particularly for pregnant women, infants, and young children and advises these groups to completely avoid raw milk products. Despite the growing popularity of such products in the recent years, the pediatric statement also focuses on the public dangers associated with raw milk products such as soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk, again noting that the purported health benefits of these products or of raw milk in general have not been proven. The pediatric statement perhaps presents the case for pasteurization most clearly in its assertion that studies have repeatedly shown that raw milk contains no identified nutrient benefit that pasteurized milk does not contain. Without any recognized benefits the AAP asks why individuals are willing to risk the chance of illness associated with raw milk consumption, including commonly feared infections such as Listeria, Salmonella, and E. Coli. Further, the AAP emphasizes that the consumption of raw milk products have been proven to lead to miscarriages and stillbirths in pregnant woman and meningitis and blood-borne illnesses in pregnant woman and infants.

Why Pasteurize?

As the co-author of the pediatric statement succinctly argues, “Given the progress we have made in prevention there is no reason to risk consuming raw milk in this day and age.” However, even in the face of the strongest warnings regarding raw milk consumption by the most susceptible, children, raw milk advocates continue to insist that the purported benefits to the younger generation who consume raw milk products—including greater resistance to disease, better growth, and stronger teeth—far outweigh the risks. Although the opposition to the raw milk movement would appear strong as government agencies and physicians seem to be presenting a united front against consumption, state laws and regulations indicate that raw milk advocates and its supporters continue to make headway in this debate.