News Flash: Raw Milk is Dangerous

One of the prevailing "healthy eating" trends today is the shift away from processed foods toward foods that are more "organic", more "natural"--in a word: RAW.  One needs look no further than the popular Paleo diet, which purports that the ideal diet for humans is that which cavemen would have been able to eat thousands of years ago.  Part of this food fanaticism movement has included backlash on state municipalities for laws which currently limit or outlaw the sale or distribution of raw milk.  So, let this be a Public Service Announcement: raw milk is dangerous.

Let's be clear: raw milk is milk which has not undergone pasteurization-- the process which is specifically intended to eliminate pathogenic microbes in the milk.  Those pathogens include bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria, as well as parasites and viruses.  Here is a recent news article detailing a deadly listeria outbreak linked to raw milk.  You may remember Listeria from other news stories in the past (here and here).  The effects of exposure to these pathogens is not always as simple as 'stomach bug' type illness.  The pathogens that pasteurization eliminates are those which can cause Typhoid Fever, Tuberculosis, and Norovirus.  Here are the facts:

Listeria alone: 1600 illnesses, 260 deaths every year

Illnesses specifically tied to raw milk: Between 1998 and 2011, 2,384 illnesses, 284 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths

How risky is raw milk, really?  Here is a fantastic research paper on the topic-- rather than summarizing, I will simply quote a portion of the paper:

Total milk production in the United States in 2010 was estimated at 193 billion pounds, suggesting that ≈2.7 trillion pounds of milk were consumed during the 14 years from 1993 through 2006 (27). If 1% of dairy products were consumed nonpasteurized, then during these 14 years, 73 outbreaks were caused by the 27 billion pounds of nonpasteurized dairy products that were consumed and 48 by the 2,673 billion pounds of pasteurized products that were consumed. Therefore, the incidence of reported outbreaks 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. (emphasis added)

Raw dairy consumption is 150 times more likely to make you sick than pasteurized dairy products.  Let's put that in perspective: if drinking raw milk made you 150 times more likely to get in a car accident, you'd get in a car accident once every month on average, and would most likely die in one within 15 years. 150 times greater is the difference between running a marathon and running from LA to New York, and then back to Denver

So why would anyone consume food which is clearly related to an elevated risk of illness and death?  For the purported health benefits, of course!  The only trouble is that those health benefits-- 
have largely been scientifically debunked.  Another reason may simply be the misunderstanding of what pasteurization is.  With a scary word like that, it must involve antibiotics, hormones, or some other non-natural chemical treatment (hint: it doesn't).  

If you're a fan of tragic irony and anecdotal evidence, here's an article about lawmakers falling ill by consuming raw milk after celebrating the legalization of raw milk.

So, I leave it to the informed consumer to decide how the risk-benefit scales are tipped: a heightened risk of illness, hospitalization, and death for anecdotal and scientifically unproven health benefits.  It's not uncommon for some among our species to choose a much more dangerous way of living without any tangible benefit.


  1. Not to mention the satisfaction of drinking milk straight from the udder.