Is Raw Milk As Dangerous As the FDA Claims?

ByNicole Brownstein

Raw milk certainly has a bad rap. It’s been villainized by the FDA who claim that raw milk is 150 times more likely to cause food-borne illnesses than pasteurized milk.

Recently, Montana’s Senate Agriculture Committee passed House Bill 574 — the raw milk bill. Now, Montanans will be able to purchase raw milk in the grocery store, joining ten other states which allow retail sales of the highly controversial good. Despite the vocal villainization by the FDA and other pasteurization activists, is raw milk actually safe to drink? The short answer is yes.

Pasteurization, which uses heat to destroy dangerous bacteria and microorganisms like E.coli, listeria, and salmonella, does pick and choose which organisms to kill and which to save. As a result, pasteurized milk loses up to 66% of key vitamins and nutrients, including vitamins A and C, which promote healthy vision and growth, respectively. Additionally, pasteurization completely removes lipase, used for breaking down fat and allowing the body to absorb fat soluble vitamins. There are on-going debates about whether or not lactose intolerant folks can handle raw milk, but the general consensus is that those who are lactose intolerant that can drink raw milk have probably been misdiagnosed. 

So, if pasteurization is so bad for milk, why the debate? Because drinking raw milk can be really dangerous if you don't know where it's coming from! In 2008, milk production rose to 190 pounds per year while the number of dairy cows shrank by about ten million cows. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are a form of commercial livestock farming that attempts to mimic the factory line using animals, usually relying on hormones to increase production. 

Once the milk is harvested, it travels in refrigerated vats to a lab for testing, then goes to a processing plant to be homogenized, pasteurized, and separated. This process is done away from the farm where the milk originated and, more often than not, milk becomes mixed with milk from other farms and other cows. This is why large scale raw milk is considered dangerous.

On a small farm with only 50 to 100 cows, the farmer and his staff are in much closer, more personal contact with each of the animals. If one gets sick, it can be identified and treated right away.To ensure this close connection, the Montana bill stipulates that raw milk can only be purchased from small-herds of less than 15 cows, 30 goats, or 30 sheep.

In a CAFO with thousands of animals in very close quarters, cows get sick easily, despite being pumped full of preventative antibiotics, and their diseases can be quickly spread. Pasteurization, in this case, is good because it more or less ensures that the milk from an ill cow is rid of toxins.

So, the answer to the raw milk question is mixed. On a larger scale, there are too many players, human and animal, with the potential to transmit diseases and contaminate the milk. But, if the farm is small, chances are, it's perfectly safe to drink.