Something to Think About

"I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love."
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Is It Safe To Consume Raw Milk?

A local news story caught my attention a couple of weeks ago. It concerned a dairy that sells raw milk. Customers of the dairy were being advised to discard any raw milk recently purchased from that dairy because of an outbreak of Campylobacter infections associated with the milk sold there.  The same farm had an outbreak of the same bacteria last year.

Raw milk is simply milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized. The pasteurization process involves heating the milk to kill off harmful bacteria.

Raw milk is a controversial product. The CDC and other health agencies do not recommend consuming it for health reasons. The sale of raw milk is illegal in 22 states of the United States.  Pennsylvania is one of the states where it is legal. Many countries have outlawed the sale of raw milk entirely.

I know people who purchase raw milk because they say it tastes better.  I also know people who purchase it because they think it is healthier. I won't address taste as that is subjective but we can take a look at nutritional claims and whether they seem to be accurate.

Raw milk advocates claim that the pasteurization process destroys nutrients contained in the milk.  Studies show that heat-sensitive vitamins - vitamin C and thiamine - are affected by pasteurization.  10% to 30% of these vitamins are destroyed when the milk is processed in this manner.  The thing is, milk is not a significant source of either of these nutrients so that doesn't seem to be a great issue.

The main nutrients found in milk are calcium and protein.  These are not affected by the pasteurization process nor are other vitamins in milk besides vitamin C and thiamine.  In addition, pasteurized milk is usually fortified with vitamin D which helps our bodies absorb calcium. Raw milk doesn't contain this addition.

Raw milk contains 4.2% butter fat. By comparison, pasteurized whole milk contains 3.25% butter fat. (3.5% in the UK) So, there is more fat in raw milk - which would be a consideration if you are watching your diet. As a side note, I imagine that the higher fat content might contribute to the better taste people mention when talking about raw milk.

Now let's look at some of the bacteria that could be found in raw milk.  E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella and the aforementioned Campylobacter can all be found in raw milk and can make you sick.  E. coli can cause diarrhea and some strains could cause kidney failure or even death. Listeria can cause a fever, muscle aches, nausea and diarrhea and miscarriage in pregnant women. If it goes untreated, it could become dangerous and affect the nervous system. Salmonella can also cause nausea, vomiting, cramping, and diarrhea. Campylobacter can cause infectious diarrhea.  As with any food poisoning, the very old and very young are at the greatest risk of having a serious complications and even dying.

There are other possible bacteria contained in raw milk but I'm not going to mention them as they are less likely to be found or difficult to catch.

In my opinion any possible health benefits of raw milk are minimal and it is not a reason to consume it. The health risks are rather rare but still a possibility. I will not drink it myself as I don't want to take the risk of developing food poisoning.  A healthy adult might consider this a risk they are willing to take for the sake of flavor but this isn't a good reason for me.  I would not ever consider serving raw milk to children, pregnant women or to the elderly because of the possible risks involved.

You might disagree with me and that's fine but make sure that your reasons for drinking it aren't based on misconceptions and be aware of the risks.

The following websites were used as some of the sources for the facts in this post:

Image of Bernardus Johannes Blommer's The Milk Maid found here


  1. I have no interest in drinking it myself, and most of the arguments for it I've seen aren't grounded in reality, but I also have something of a problem with the government banning it for health reasons while they allow so many other unhealthy things. If they're going to ban raw milk, why not ban many other unhealthy things?

    1. I guess that depends on the government in question. I imagine some people would argue that it is the job of the government to protect its citizens and that they should ban certain products. Of course, in this case, part of the problem is logistics. How would you prevent a family who owns dairy cows from using some of that milk for their own consumption and bypassing the pasteurization process? What would prevent them from selling it to the neighbors down the lane or to others who live close by? It'd be difficult to control and could create a black market for raw milk which I understand is an issue in some states. I think that is why some states in the US do not ban it. They do, however, require that each batch of milk be tested and I suppose that is better than nothing. The issue is that there is a lapse of time for the test results to come in during which individuals could have already consumed the product and gotten sick.

  2. If cows' milk should be pasteurized, why not human mothers' breastmilk? This raw milk is given to even the youngest infants without question. It's the health and cleanliness of the animals and processing facilities that are key.

    1. Bacteria is sometimes found in breast milk, actually. E. coli, for example. (though not always the dangerous strain!) The difference is that it generally isn't a high enough count to be a problem and if it is that high, the mother would be sick and know something was wrong. Also, breast milk is generally fed directly to the infant so there is no time for any bacteria to grow and cause a problem.
      If a mother pumps her milk, she will have to refrigerate it to use within 5 days or so. Otherwise, it needs to be frozen to prevent the growth of dangerous bacteria.