Raw Milk: Not a Threat to My Health, Certainly Not a Threat to the PUBLIC Health (And My KID LOVES it Too!!)

(Photos are from the Rally for Food and Farm Freedom,  Washington, DC, May 16, 2011).

Raw milk is in the news again today. This time, five people are ill in California and the finger is pointing at Organic Pastures Dairy. (Incidentally, third party testing found no contaminant in their milk.) I have no problem with recalls if milk (or any other food) causes an outbreak. But, I do have a problem with the demonizing of an entire food group when the statistics and history of its consumption don’t warrant it. That’s why I was royally ticked off when I read this article from the San Francisco Chronicle. The article starts by painting a portrait (with words) of a Mom who feeds her kid local, even homegrown food and who–unphased by the recent Organic Pastures recall–continued to give her kids raw milk . I was dismayed by the inflamatory and biased reporting, but I was horrified when I read the comments. Clearly, there are a lot of sheeple out there who think I (if  I apply their comments to myself instead of the mother featured in the story)  should lose my happy, well adjusted, healthy, child—the one I stay home with each day, hold when she’s sick, have breastfed since she was born (she’s almost three), have sung to and read to, and have an excellent parent-child bond with—simply because I feed her raw milk instead of taking her to McDonalds or feeding her a high-soy, a high sugar, or a vegan diet. (And perhaps because I don’t get my nutrition information from the China Study).

I tried to leave my comment in the comments section, but (as my regular readers know), I go on a bit. A 2,500 character limit is just too small, in my opinion. Or, perhaps, for my opinion.

This is my response:

As a professional journalist and editor of over a decade, I am appalled by the bias and misinformation contained in this article.

Let’s start with the title. “Organic Pastures raw milk sickens five.” Let’s be perfectly honest here. Five people are sick. The health department is pointing the finger at raw milk. However, the finger pointing is based on coincidence (they all consumed raw milk). It is not based on a lab result, because no lab results have been returned. A more correct statement in your headline would be that all five drank raw milk. What’s the difference? The difference is that the evidence, as stated, does not rule out the possibility that they all got sick from another common source (or different sources). Sound unlikely? It’s not. Really.

According to the CDC, E. coli 0157-H7 is not exclusive to raw milk. Also, according to the CDC, there were 350 outbreaks of E. coli 0157-H7 from 1982 to 2002. (For those of you who are counting, that’s just over 17 outbreaks per year. Here is what the CDC has to say about about the locations and sources of those outbreaks:

Foodborne outbreaks most frequently occurred in communities (53 [29%] of 183), restaurants/food facilities (51 [28%]), and schools (16 [9%]). Median size of foodborne outbreaks varied by setting: the smallest occurred in individual residences (3 cases), and the largest outbreaks in residential facilities (44 cases), followed by camps (36 cases). Among 51 restaurant and food facility outbreaks, 22 were from chain establishments (including 12 fast-food establishments) and 29 from single establishments. The median number of cases per restaurant/food facility outbreak was larger in chain than single establishments (21 vs. 8, p < 0.001). Among the 183 foodborne outbreaks, the food vehicle for 75 (41%) was ground beef, 42 (23%) unknown, 38 (21%) produce, 11 (6%) other beef, 10 (5%) other foods, and 7 (4%) dairy products.

Read that again, more carefully. That’s the CDC website folks—not some raw/real food freak site. (I say freak lovingly, as I consider myself one of the real food, raw milk freaks.) Yes, it says 4% were caused by dairy products—note they CANNOT say unpasteurized dairy products. This is because pasteurized products can be contaminated and were also implicated. Look further and you will also see that in the ten year period, only 7 outbreaks were related to milk. Only six had any connection to a raw milk product. That means of all the raw milk and milk products consumed in this country, in twenty years there were only six outbreaks of e. coli 0157-H7 illness. Do the math. This is NOT a threat to public health. And, by and large, the raw milk produced to be consumed raw simply CANNOT be the vehicle of poison the FDA says it is.

Look even more closely. Group dining facilities, like restaurants and school cafeterias are the most frequent locations of e. coli 0157-H7 contamination and the most frequent food vehicles are GROUND BEEF, UNKNOWN, and PRODUCE. Now, THAT sounds like a threat to the public health to me. (Chew on that, all you commentators who say that those of us who give our children clean raw milk—often from farmers we know and cows we’ve seen milked—should have our kids taken away.) Curious about the number of total illnesses (categorized as outbreaks or not) associated with pasteurized milk? Check out this site, which lists thousands of recorded illnesses in California over a several year period– http://www.realmilk.com/foodborne.html. Clearly, pasteurizing is not the be all and end all in protection from any of these bacteria.

It would be hard to create such a sensational spin as the one used to open this article by showing the mother who continues to let her kid eat school lunch, go out for fast food, or chew on an apple for a snack. Or, the mother who continues to give her kid pasteurized milk in the face of the THOUSANDS of illnesses recorded and associated with pasteurized milk products. I just can’t see the momementum gathering to shut down restaurants and pull all pasteurized milk from the shelves for good.

What we don’t know in the current situation is whether or not any of the afflicted were exposed to any other common source, or separate sources of infection. We simply haven’t been given the data, in this article or anywhere else. What we do know is that of the hundreds (or is it thousands) of people who drank OP milk in the past week, only five people are sick. Clearly, this is not a case of filthy food or widespread contamination. It would be heartless not to sympathize with the victims of illness, but let’s put it in perspective. This is not a widespread outbreak, even among Organic Pastures customers. And, it is nothing compared to outbreaks we’ve seen in other food industries or food sources.  Are we going to outlaw ground beef? How about vegetables, fruit, and peanuts? What about closing down all restaurants and school cafeterias? What about all those people who are still dying of the tainted canteaoupe. Surely we should confiscate all children whose parents feed them melon and put them in the foster care system. (Can you feel the seething sarcasm?)

Second, without presenting an opposing opinion the article sites claims that raw milk is particularly dangerous because it isn’t cooked and can’t be washed. It further claims that the risks from other food sources that have been subject to contamination (and the cause of massive outbreaks) are different from those associated with raw milk because the foods involved are ones that are usually cooked or washed. Maybe that sounds reasonable, but is it true? Well, for starters, let’s just examine the obvious. Those foods aren’t safer, because outbreaks from those foods occur more frequently than dairy outbreaks. Not convinced? Well, ground beef, the number one contaminant is often cooked and (if Food Inc is a good source) the meat (if from a commercial factory source) is often ammonia washed. And yet, washed and cooked though it is, it has been the vehicle of considerablely more illness. Do you eat it? Do you feed it to your kids? (Maybe not if you are a vegetarian, so let’s continue.)

How about eggs? You can wash the outside (or “pasteurize” it, as the article states, though I think they mean a chemical wash) but what no one tells us is that the insides are also potentially contaminated. That’s right. Epidemiologists know that contaminants are now penetrating the shell of the egg, which is porous! OK, so most eggs are cooked, right? Yes and no. Many people consume soft-yolked eggs. And, eggs cooked at high temps get rather rubbery—many people, even those who don’t consider themselves food freedom activists–find them unappetizing. The idea that a blanket statement about risks of undercooked eggs actually protects us from outbreak–in a way that a warning about raw milk cannot–is ludicris.

The truth is that the shell of an egg, the peel of a fruit, the washable surface of a vegetable is no assurance that the vegetable has not been and is not contaminated with e coli or any other bacteria–either on its surface or inside of it. In fact, we’ve seen outbreaks from washed and bagged salads and spinaches as well as bagless tomatoes, and cantaloupes. Let me say it again: The bacteria penetrate the surface. (SFC staff, after finding out this intensely interesting bit of common knowledge–which can be investgated through a simple Google search and some reading of scientific journals and reports, I can’t wait to see your article on the negligent mothers who don’t boil their kid’s salad before serving it.)

So, all these foods (from beef to veggies to eggs) can be washed on the outside, and all have been the source of outbreaks. It is simply bad journalism to publish an article that is biased in face of the statistical record, the epidemiology, of food borne illness.

And third, what about that claim that before pasteurization milk was full of “nasty bugs that could make humans ill, from the E. coli and salmonella occasionally found today, to diseases like tuberculosis and diphtheria”? While it’s true that SOME raw milk carried those pathogens, it was far from all of it. In fact, for most of human history, raw milk has been consumed safely—at least as safely as most of our other valued and cherished food sources. It wasn’t until milk producers in large cities started feeding dairy cattle a diet of leftover swill from whisky production that the dairy cows became SICK and produced contaminated milk. Milk produced in traditional, clean, open fields, from cattle that eat a diet of 100% grass (preferred) or at least a high forage diet is very unlikely to get you sick. (Check out this resource, including the citations at the bottom of the page. http://www.raw-milk-facts.com/raw_milk_safety.html).

As to the claim that there are no beneficial bacteria in raw milk and that pasteurization does not change the nutritional value of milk—well, that’s subject to some debate. In all honesty, it’s not a case where there is “little evidence” on either side of the claim. In fact. There is a lot of evidence on both sides. What there is, in addition to a lot of scientific literature, is a difference of opinion on what the science means and how to interpret the tests and results. A difference that goes as deep as the perspective on germs and our relationship with bacteria and our environment. For example, this page (Milk and Human Health from the Cornell University website) is by no means pro-raw milk. It discusses the differences in raw milk and pasteurized milk, downplaying them because much of the probiotic activity in raw milk is not directly from the milk itself. That is, according to this article, if you could remove the raw milk directly from the udder, it would be sterile and would not have live, active probiotic bacteria. This is enough for the authors to claim that milk doesn’t have these properties. (This idea that milk is sterile is debated elsewhere, but let’s assume for argument it’s true.)

But, of course, the alternative perspective is that humans have never consumed milk in a vacuum. (Not even breast milk—which is traditionally drunk at a breast which is (hopefully) clean, but hardly sanitized.) Humans milked cows into containers, the milk was exposed to air, food prep surfaces (like the pail surface) and a whole host of other things. This exposure caused it to host probiotics like Lactobacilli bacteria, which aids in lactose digestion. Those natural probiotics do the same things for humans that the probiotics we now PAY to have added back into our yogurt do. They do the same thing as lactose intolerance medications. Only they do it better.

And, for the most part, until the swill milk making machines gave us SICK milk, people enjoyed milk from the family cow or neighboring dairy without getting sick. Raw milk, in fact, was valued as a traditional medicine.

No matter your scientific perspective on germs (or probiotics) and their desirability, it’s hard to argue with this: Pasteurization (especially ultra pasteurization) does change milk. It super heats it and blasts molecules apart. It destroys Lactobacilli bacteria, which is the bacteria that aids in the digestion of lactose. This is why many people who formerly thought they were lactose intolerant (me included) can consume raw milk products with no health problems. According to the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund:

“In addition to killing off beneficial bacteria and enzymes, pasteurization also destroys other nutritional aspects of milk. Pasteurized milk often contains less than half the vitamin A, C, D and E compared to raw milk (the vitamin D content in commercial milk is synthetic). Valuable B6 and B12 vitamins are completely obliterated when exposed to heat. In addition, the minerals in pasteurized milk are not bioavailable like those in raw milk. Amino acids like tyrosine and lysine are also altered during pasteurization.” (Please see this article, including the journals cited at the bottom. http://www.ftcldf.org/news/news-28Oct2009.html )

Bottom line is this. There is a risk in consuming raw milk. But, it is no more of a risk than that assumed in consuming many other foods. In fact, commonly accepted practices such as visiting a restaurant or a school cafeteria for a meal, are by far more likely to get you sick. (But I bet most people are going to keep doing it anyway.)

My family, including my kid, consumes raw milk. We eat a 99% local diet—getting our milk, eggs, and dairy from a small local farmer. We avoid restaurants. We raise a good amount of our own food (in our suburban lot). My daughter is NEVER exposed to corn syrup, added sugar or artificial sweetener, commercially processed flour, hydrogenated oil, trans fat, chemical additives, or artificial coloring, all of which have been increasingly linked to serious health problems in both children and adults.

We’ve put a lot of research and thought into our food choices and have assessed the risks—and been shocked to find facts such as that deli meats are a much bigger threat for serious, life threatening food born illness than raw milk (even when you adjust figures to account for the wider consumption of lunch meat)—and it is disheartening and thoroughly disappointing to see media coverage that is so biased and unresearched.

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One Response to Raw Milk: Not a Threat to My Health, Certainly Not a Threat to the PUBLIC Health (And My KID LOVES it Too!!)

  1. Susan says:

    BRAVA, Sarah, BRAVA! Absolutely perfectly spoken! Thank you for summing up what so many Californians have been trying to express to others since this attack on OPD occurred. The inane comments from the sheeple have been almost as frustrating as not having our delicious milk these past few days. If you had written this on HuffPo I would have fanned and favorited you!! It was perfect.

    Please continue to bless others with your amazing usage of words. And thanks again for blessing us with this commentary on the wonder that is raw milk!

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