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Communications > Sustainability Plus > Posts > The Seamy Underside of Fresh and Locally Grown: Raw Milk

Can't we all just get along? Can't the supporters and detractors of local, freshly grown, unprocessed foods manage to work out some kind of lasting truce?

Not when this product is raw milk or another unpasteurized product.

Advocates describe raw milk as the ultimate health food, rich in nutrients and enzymes, while public health authorities characterize it as a menace to our health.

Amid renewed outbreaks of illnesses stemming from consumption of raw milk and other unpasteurized dairy products, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration are stepping up efforts to warn consumers about these risks and to encourage state health authorities to tighten existing safeguards, writes The Wall Street Journal's Laura Landro.

At least 12 confirmed outbreaks of campylobacteriosis associated with the consumption of raw milk have been recently reported in Michigan, according to a release published on the FDA's Web site. Symptoms of campylobacteriosis include diarrhea, abdominal pain and fever.

While federal law prohibits the interstate sale of raw milk for human consumption, the product can be sold legally in 28 states, Landro reports.

Since 1987, the FDA has required that all milk packaged for human consumption be pasteurized before being delivered for introduction into interstate commerce. Pasteurization, a process that heats milk to a specific temperature for a set period of time, kills bacteria responsible for diseases, such as listeriosis, salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria and brucellosis. FDA's pasteurization requirement also applies to other milk products, with the exception of a few aged cheeses.

Pasteurization's proven effectiveness is safeguarding consumers from exposure to such bacteria is the reason why one expert admits having a hard time understanding why informed people would deliberately place themselves and their families at risk from consuming unpasteurized products.

"We recommend that you don't consume any kind of milk product that is not pasteurized," says Dr. Jean Weese an Alabama Cooperative Extension System food safety specialist and Auburn University professor of nutrition and food science. "That includes milk, cream and cheese."

In fact, she says all commercial cheeses are made from pasteurized milk partly because of the threat of listeria to pregnant women and individuals with compromised immune systems.

Nevertheless, there is a growing demand among thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of U.S. consumers for raw milk products — products that the majority of the nation's health authorities consider unsafe — on the basis that they are somehow healthier than unpasteurized products.

For her part, Weese considers pasteurized milk one of the noteworthy scientific advances of the 20th century.

She says the effects of pasteurization speak for themselves: In 1938, milk was the source of 25 percent of all outbreaks of food- and water-related illnesses. Following the wholesale adoption of pasteurization, that number dropped to 1 percent in 1993.