Is Raw Milk Safe to Drink?

Somehow I got into a debate on raw milk recently. Raw milk is milk that comes straight from the udders of the cow to a jug and then to your kitchen table. Sounds pretty healthy, right?

Well, not so fast there. What about pasteurization? That’s the big step that’s missing. Louis Pasteur developed pasteurization in 1864. Normally, milk is heated to around 161F and held at that temperature for a few seconds. This kills the pathogens that would otherwise make us sick. It also keeps the milk from spoiling as fast. I can already hear you thinking “What pathogens does that protect us from?”

Here’s a short list:

Brucellosis
Camphylobacter bacteria
Escherichia coli (E.coli) bacteria
Diphtheria
Listeria bacteria
Q-Fever
Salmonella bacteria
Scarlet Fever
Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (famous for the staph infection)
Tuberculosis
Yersinia bacteria

How does that get into the milk? 
There are a good number of ways that can happen. The cow could have an udder infection. The cow’s pen may have a vermin infestation. Human workers could contaminate the milk during harvesting and processing. Cow feces could inadvertently come into contact with the milk (Cows poop a lot). The cow may be suffering from a disease that can be passed on to humans. Even in the most sanitary conditions (having grown up in central Georgia, I can say that farms definitely are not), there’s still the chance of the upstream transport piping to have trace pathogens present from a different batch.

How likely are you to get complications from drinking raw milk?

From 1912 to 1937, 65,00 people died from tuberculosis outbreaks in England alone. These were all directly attributable to milk-borne pathogens that would have been prevented by pasteurization.

Maybe that’s just some confusion that’s a result of poor collection techniques. Modern sanitation has taken care of all of that for us, right?

From 2007 to 2012, 979 illnesses from 81 different outbreakers were reported that were directly attributable to the consumption of raw milk and raw milk derived products in America alone. 59% of these outbreaks involved a child under the age of 5.

Children and the elderly are the most at-risk from the dangers associated with consuming food and beverages that may contain pathogens. It’s worth pointing out that the overwhelming majority of these cases occurred in a state where the commercial sale of raw milk was legal.

Isn’t it still healthier to drink raw milk even though we know there’s some risk?

There have been numerous studies on any health benefits of raw milk. The nutritional content has been found to be roughly the same both before and after pasteurization.

Want to argue about beneficial bacteria? Ignoring if that argument even has merit, any beneficial bacteria that may have been killed have already been safely isolated and added to numerous foods like yogurt. You can even buy probiotic tablets if you want. Any vitamins that may have been lost from pasteurization is more than made up for by the fact that raw milk lacks Vitamin D.

Where does Vitamin D come from?

The sun! Specifically, the reaction of UV-B waves with your skin (Thanks to Mike for the correction). Why do we add it to milk? A lot of people (especially children) don’t get enough of it otherwise. Most milk that you buy on the shelf has been fortified with Vitamin D in much the same way that fluoride is added to water and iodine is added to salt. You never notice it and it makes you healthier.

Study results
Stanford study results on comparing the consumption by lactose-intolerant individuals of raw milk to pasteurized milk. The study found that there was no improvement in symptoms associated with lactose-intolerance

Back to business…

What about lactose intolerance? Doesn’t it help with that?
Nope. Stanford did a study that showed that lactose-intolerant people had just as much trouble with raw milk as regular milk.

The only thing left to argue is taste. I can’t really argue one way or the other on that. Raw milk has a somewhat different taste that some people prefer (although it received mediocre marks during a recent taste test).

Consider this parting admonition: If you’re buying it for your children’s benefit, don’t. Children and the elderly are most at risk for contracting one of the above illnesses due to not possessing a strong enough immune system to deal with all of the dangerous pathogens that are often present in raw milk.

In summary: Raw milk is significantly dangerous and carries no health benefit. The only reason to purchase it is for the taste … and if you still purchase it after reading this article, please don’t let your kids get into it. I hate to make the “think of the children” argument but in this case, people ARE thinking of their children when they buy this product because they’ve bought into the hype that they’ve read about on social media. Just say no to the hype.

Disagree? Have something to add? Leave a comment below.