Raw Milk Risks and Benefits Explained

Raw milk dispensed at Mendler Milk Farm photo
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Raw Milk is Dispensed at a Dairy in Berlin ()

The debate over raw milk is growing according to USA Today. People connected with environmental causes, in particular, are drawn to products like raw milk due to the connection with natural processes and as part of a local or animal-friendly diets. So we thought it worth exploring the facts: is raw milk better for you? Is it better for the animals? And what are the risks of drinking raw milk?Our quest to learn more starts at a dairy on the outskirts of Berlin, near where a wall once separated East from West. A piece of that wall now greets visitors to the Milchhof Mendler (Mendler Milk Farm), where a line of people snakes out of the small shop. Visitors can look into the stalls and visit cows ranging freely on the field behind the barn before joining the queue to wait for a portion of raw milk, filled directly to the customer's container. Each swing of the silver-chromed pump arm delivers a half a liter of creamy milk (4.2% milkfat).

A framed sign behind the countertop, almost lost among the many framed awards received by the Mendler's milk and cows, advises consumers that the raw milk must be cooked before drinking. The law requires the warning, but the cartoon of the happy cow above the text almost winks at you while you read it.

The Taste Test
Mmmmm. I usually drink organic milk, but raw milk tops it. The cool, smooth nectar coats my mouth; an image of the milk moustache ad campaign springs to mind. This milk is about 0.4% higher in milkfat, which could explain partly why the taste blossoms so on the tongue. But there is something else: more texture, and a richness, a robust spectrum of flavors foreign to my heat-treated ken.

An interesting result in the next test though: the raw milk is not as good in coffee where the symphony of flavors native to each somehow fails to harmonize. Now I see where the habit of using only the cream in coffee arose!

Cows providing raw milk at the Mendler Milk Farm photo

Cows at the Mendler Milk Farm ()

Is Raw Milk Better for You?
It should be mentioned that the greatest benefits from drinking milk derive from calcium, protein, vitamins and other minerals it contains. None of these nutrients is harmed by pasteurization.

One benefit of the raw milk is that producers willing to supply raw milk usually take a great deal of care with their animals. The use of hormones and chemicals is rare in this niche. But that benefit can be equally achieved by seeking out organic milk from a trusted supplier which pasteurizes their milk. So this must be considered more of a benefit of informed purchasing than of the untreated milk.

Actually, the only health benefit scientifically substantiated for raw milk is reduced susceptibility to allergies and asthma. The fact that farm children suffer less allergies and asthma has long been anecdotally observed, However, it could not be ruled out that other factors such as exposure to animals, dust and dirt in everyday life on a farm somehow exerts a protective effect, or that farm kids just complain less. That is, not until a study on raw milk and allergies conducted in Shropshire, England, and published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in June 2006.

After controlling for effects from household pets, breastfeeding history, frequency of barn visits and hereditary influences, Michael R. Perkin, MSc, and David P. Strachan, MD, found that drinking raw milk specifically correlated with reduced positive responses to skin-prick tests for allergies. The finding is consistent with growing evidence that the immune system needs to be challenged by a wide variety of foreign agents -- such as the natural community of (mostly harmless) bacteria in raw milk -- or it will simply pick everyday agents to attack, resulting in the symptoms we classify as allergies or asthma. However, the effect requires consumption of raw milk as a child, and no one is going so far as to recommend this for young children who are at far higher risk for complications from the illnesses associated with raw milk. Concerned parents should first consider other "pro-biotic" products if they subscribe to this hypothesis for allergy prevention.

Will Raw Milk Make Me Sick?
The population of harmless organisms in raw milk usually suffices to competitively suppress growth of harmful strains. (Note: to say that the good fauna in raw milk "kill" the bad bugs is a misinterpretation. They merely complete to multiply more successfully, so the bad bugs do not succeed to reach harmful levels.)

Nonetheless, a number of pathogens are associated with raw milk. Cases of disease attributed to raw milk can and do occur every year. Because the population drinking raw milk is small, the number of cases remains also below the health-scare radar. The most common ones are described in detail here.

  • Staphylcoccus aureus: Most species of Staphylcoccus aureus are harmless. But some produce toxins which are the source of many cases of food poisoning after staph bugs multiply while infected foods are in storage. According to Medicinenet.com, victims suffer nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and dehydration, usually within one to six hours of consuming contaminated food. The illness is not contagious and usually resolves within three days without any treatment.
  • Campylobacter: this bacterium is regarded as the most common source of food poisoning. According to the World Health Organization, campylobacter infections are on the rise in developed countries, for reasons unknown. The bacteria are widespread in livestock, and rarely cause illness in animals. But humans will suffer diarrhoea, abdominal pain, fever, headache, nausea, and/or vomiting for three to six days with onset between one and ten days after consuming the contaminated food. Like Staph poisoning, the symptoms will usually go away without treatment.
  • Salmonella: a common cause of food poisoning, Salmonella symptoms and outcomes are much like those of Staphylcoccus aureus and Campylobacter.
  • Escherichia coli: The risk of infection by e coli O157:H7, is one of the main reason raw milk sales are banned or drinking raw milk discouraged. E. coli naturally inhabits everyone's intestines. But the particularly harmful O157:H7 strain of e coli is behind most of the headlines surrounding outbreaks of e coli related disease from infected lettuce, peanut butter or beaches. Victims take ill three to eight days after exposure, and suffer cramps and diarrhea for up to ten days. Most recover just fine, but according to WHO: "It is estimated that up to 10% of patients with EHEC infection may develop HUS, with a case-fatality rate ranging from 3% to 5%. Overall, HUS is the most common cause of acute renal failure in young children. It can cause neurological complications (such as seizure, stroke and coma) in 25% of HUS patients and chronic renal sequelae, usually mild, in around 50% of survivors."
  • Listeria: causes miscarriage, premature birth and stillbirth. A terrible case occured in 2000-2001 in North Carolina, when five stillbirths, three premature deliveries and two infected infants resulted from consumption of fresh, soft-style cheese made from locally produced raw milk. In this case, the rule seems clear: pregnant women should not take risks with raw milk or raw milk products.
  • Yersinia: this relatively rare source of standard food poisoning symptoms can occasionally cause joint pain that lasts for months or years after onset of illness.
  • Brucella: only a couple hundred cases occur in the U.S. each year. Characterized by a so-called 'undulating fever,' Brucellosis can lead to serious consequences and must be treated.
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis: can triggering serious lung disease, although the illness is hard to catch. For example, of 42 people identified as drinking raw milk from a tuberculosis infected herd in Pennsylvania, none were found to be TB positive. On the other hand, it can happen: raw milk cheese was found to be the source of a tuberculosis outbreak in New York.

Advocates for Raw Milk see their battle as a fundamental freedom of choice fight. It is hard to find grounds to disagree with that logic. Allowing the sale of raw milk does not force anyone to drink it. Quite the contrary, legalizing the sale of raw milk enables better control of animal health and testing for milk contamination in unpasteurized dairy products offered for human consumption. But like all slippery slopes, it could open the door to unsavory operators, pushing disease-ridden milk on the poorest consumers in the name of saving a few pennies on heat treatment.

The health risks are rare but real. The health benefits are unproven, with the only somewhat substantiated advantage requiring that the raw milk be consumed at young ages, when the offsetting health risks are higher. Risk-based analysis supports the continuation of strong warnings from responsible agencies to continue the practice of pasteurization. For populations that are pregnant, or likely to suffer more severely from the dehydration and depletion caused by even an ordinary food poisoning (especially young children or elderly or immune suppressed people), raw milk is a risk not worth taking.

The environmental benefits of raw milk can all be achieved by animal-friendly practices and minimized drug and chemical use. Pasteurization is certainly preferrable to the use of drugs to suppress disease causing bacteria in livestock populations sufficiently to equate to the protection pasteurization provides.

But raw milk does taste better. And many believe that there are as-yet unproven health benefits. The existence of a population willing to accept the risks is the only source of data if such benefits are ever to be proven. So viva the raw milk underground. May its heroes and martyrs long protect the freedom to choose.