The Raw Milk Movement: Healthy or Hazardous?

Safety-TheRawMilkMove-600x626More and More People See Advantages in Drinking Untreated, Unprocessed and Unpasteurized Milk

By Gigi Stone and Arash Ghadishah

REALMILK.COM NOTE: We have included this story written by ABC News as the basis for their broadcast on “Nightline” and “World News Tonight.” However, we have included our rebuttal to some of the statements that they make, and our links to more information to fill in what they leave out of the story. rebuttals and additions are indented and colored blue.

Added 09 JUN 07: See the ABC News segments, interspersed with our comments. Windows Media Player files for download, abc-comments-small (18MB) or medium (35MB)

Once a week on a suburban driveway outside of Tampa, a society of Floridians gathers to defy health warnings and purchase a product they have been repeatedly warned could kill them.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to get the milk,” said Steve Moreau, who said he drives three hours to get his hands on the product. But he’s not searching for regular, grocery store milk.

Moreau and many others, ranging from parents to professionals, are buying raw milk — untreated, unprocessed, unpasteurized, straight from the cow.

Watch the full story tonight on “Nightline” at 11:35 p.m. EDT

And raw milk drinkers say that it’s not just a few people who are drinking it. They say it’s a movement of people who want to feel healthier.

Drinking unpasteurized milk for good health might sound peculiar, especially in the age of deadly spinach. The process of pasteurization kills germs that cause salmonella and E. coli.

And according to the FDA Web site, “Raw milk can harbor dangerous micro-organisms that can pose serious health risks to you and your family.” rebuttal: It is POSSIBLE for raw milk to harbor dangerous micro-organisms, but it is possible for ANY food, raw or pasteurized, to harbor dangerous micro-organisms. We do not advocate drinking unpasteurized milk from modern Holsteins, bred to produce high volumes of milk, injected with recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), and raised in commercial feedlots where they are crowded and stressed and given antibiotics to keep them from being sick. That milk DOES need to be pasteurized to lessen (not eliminate) the possibility of food-borne illness. We advocate the drinking of raw milk from old-fashioned breeds of cows raised on pasture, with plenty of green grass, sunshine, and room to move. Properly raised and milked in clean conditions, this milk is extremely unlikely to harbor dangerous micro-organisms…in fact, less likely than commercial, pasteurized milk. See our page Two Raw Milks for comparison. Also note the second comment below regarding the relative safety of ALL dairy compared to other foods.

In the last decade the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has documented more than a thousand cases of food-borne illness and two deaths, all caused by unpasteurized dairy products. This statement is incorrect. The CDC’s reminder that the ABC reporters are quoting cites a single reference, the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report for the week of March 2, 2007 (MMWR for 03-02-07), provides no such information; nor is any such information found in any other FDA or CDC document. Numerous requests to the FDA for clarification have not been answered.

Even assuming they eventually provide evidence for their statement, the CDC is stating only that raw milk was IMPLICATED in these cases of food-borne illness. An association with raw milk is not the same as saying that raw milk CAUSED the food-borne illness, as the ABC reporters have stated. It means that in each of the outbreaks leading to the cases of foodborne illness, one of the foods that many–not necessarily all–had eaten in common is raw milk. The FDA and the CDC have a double-standard when it comes to raw milk, and they may stop looking for a cause as soon as they can claim an “association” with raw milk. See our press release “FDA and CDC Bias Against Raw Milk–No Facts Provided in Recent Reminder about Raw Milk Consumption” for more information about this.

Meanwhile, this ABC story also leaves out the fact that the CDC has data showing that ALL dairy, raw or pasteurized, is actually far less likely to be a source of food-borne illness than nearly any other food. Dairy accounts for only 1% of all food-borne illnesses. The number one source of food-borne illness, accounting for 38% of all cases according to the CDC’s data, is produce--think of the recent spinach outbreak. From 1990 to 2004 the CDC documented 31,496 illnesses from 639 outbreaks due to produce. Examples of the much higher risks of illness from other foods are also listed in the Press Release cited above. See also our PowerPoint presentation.

But raw milk devotees say the benefits outweigh the risks.

Christine Tyrell has been feeding her family raw milk for three years. “I really do feel we’ve seen medical benefits from this. My children are not as sick as they used to be.”

Some people argue the changes felt by drinking raw milk might be psychosomatic.

“I don’t deny that. They might be. All I know is I feel better,” said Alan Petrillo, another raw milk drinker, who says raw milk cured his digestive problems. We get letters regularly from people attesting to the health benefits that they are seeing from switching to raw milk. Read our raw milk testimonials as well as additional testimonials in ourJune 2006 Campaign for Real Milk appeal. The Foundation’s membership includes many medical doctors, dentists, chiropractors, naturopaths, acupuncturists, and other health professionals who drink raw milk and recommend it to their patients.

The Law Behind the Raw

Though most doctors say there is no good science to back up these claims, raw milk drinkers believe pasteurization destroys beneficial proteins and enzymes that help with digestion and strengthen the immune system. There are many valid scientific studies on the health benefits of raw milk. For a very small sample, see our Abstracts on the Effect of Pasteurization on the Nutritional Value of Milk. These studies date to the 1940s and earlier. When all farmers were encouraged to switch to modern Holsteins bred to produce great volumes of milk, take their cows off pasture, raise them in barns, and give them inappropriate feed (all as a matter of obtaining the greatest volume of milk at the lowest cost, regardless of the quality of the milk or health of the animal), later studies did NOT show a significant nutritional difference between raw and pasteurized milk and the government stopped studying the issue. However, animal and human studies carried out in the early part of the century–when most cows were grass-fed–showed that raw milk was superior to pasteurized in building strong bones and teeth, promoting optimal growth and development, and protecting against disease. In addition, newer research is beginning to emerge that validates these older studies.

To cite just one example, a 2006 study published the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology reported that childhood consumption of unpasteurized milk resulted in large reductions in the incidence of asthma, eczema and hay fever. Blood tests revealed that drinking raw milk cuts levels of histamine, a chemical produced by the cells in response to an allergen, by more than 50 percent. This study corroborates numerous reports of asthma in children–a life-threatening condition that is increasing in frequency–clearing up after the introduction of raw milk into the diet.

But the problem for devoted milk drinkers is that it is illegal to sell raw milk for human consumption in 23 states. Laws vary from state to state so raw milk drinkers around the country use loopholes to legally get their milk.

In Ohio the law only allows people to drink unpasteurized milk from a cow they own.

“We can’t all own a cow much as we maybe would like to,” said Maria Rethman, a cow herdshare owner, “so we see this as a perfect opportunity for a family like ours.”

Rethman is one of the 150 owners of a well-cared for herd of dairy cows in Versailles, Ohio. “The kids enjoy it. We always laugh, there’s our cows. We call ’em our cows.”

None of these owners are actually farmers, but as members of a “herdshare” program they each own a percentage of these cows, which means they can legally drink the raw milk produced here. While in recent years more and more herdshares (also known as farm shares or cow shares) have been established as a way for people to legally drink raw milk, it is a serious mischaracterization to call this a “loophole” in the law. It is actually a very long-standing arrangement called an agistment, in which one person pays another person to keep and tend his or her livestock. This has long been recognized as a valid contractual arrangement. The fact that it has not been commonly known and that more people are discovering it in no way makes it a “loophole” to get around milk pasteurization laws and regulations that apply to milk intended for retail sale. The fact is simply this: if you own a cow or part of a cow, you can drink the milk from that cow legally. Period. In fact, courts in Ohio recently reaffirmed the legality of herdshares. Read more about that on our What’s Happening–Ohio, March 2007 page.

Still the state warns unpasteurized milk is rarely safe. “Milk can be contaminated at the cleanest farm and in the cleanest sanitary conditions prior to pasteurization,” said Louis Jones, chief of the Dairy Division at the Ohio Department of Agriculture. Milk can be–and HAS BEEN–contaminated after pasteurization. Many other foods have also become contaminated during or after processing. Organic Pastures of California has sold 40 million servings of raw milk without a single reported illness over a period when thousands were sickened by properly pasteurized milk and other foods. See this table Reported Outbreaks of Food Borne Illness for comparisons.

In Florida raw milk drinkers don’t have to buy the cow to get the milk. The law there permits raw milk to only be sold for animal consumption, so consumers say they are buying it as pet food.

An Absolute Demand

While consumers have certainly jumped through hoops to get their raw milk, most of the legal burden has fallen to the relatively few farmers who produce it. Dennis Stoltzfoos’ quiet life as a Florida dairy farmer was interrupted two years ago when armed state agents raided his farm.

“I felt violated. It was awful. I didn’t know if I was going to lose my livelihood,” he said. “We had two girls, my wife was pregnant with number three and I didn’t know if I was going to lose everything.” Dennis Stoltzfoos is not the only raw milk farmer being harassed by the authorities in an age where tons of food with dangerous additives is processed either here or abroad (think Chinese pet food imports!) and then sold to unwitting consumers with little government scrutiny. Read about the undercover sting and police raid that happened to farmers in Kentucky and Ohio. Even IF–and it’s a big if–patrons of an individual raw milk farmer became ill from his or her milk, the people affected would include a small group of people who are educated about raw milk and have freely chosen to drink it. Meanwhile, when consumers become ill from pasteurized commercial milk, hundreds or thousands are often sickened. The largest outbreak of food-borne illness from pasteurized milk occurred in March of 1985 when there were 19,660 confirmed cases of Salmonella typhimurium illness FROM CONSUMING PROPERLY PASTEURIZED MILK. Pasteurization is no guarantee of milk safety, and in fact, raw milk destined for pasteurization is allowed to have more bacteria in it both before and after pasteurization than raw milk that is destined to be consumed raw. See this comparison of the health regulations for raw vs. pasteurized milk in California.

Despite government pressure, Stotzfoos pressed forward. “We did not stop. Customers would not allow us to stop. There’s an absolute demand for raw milk. They will not allow us to stop.”

Dennis now sells his milk as pet food, but he also feeds it to his own family. He said his milk is safe because he treats his 21 dairy cows with such care. They eat fresh grass, not processed grain and are free to roam pastures instead of being confined to pens. But health officials maintain milk can be contaminated in the cleanest sanitary conditions.

“I know there’s a risk. It’s a very small risk. We know our farmers,” said Michelle Ruchener, a raw milk drinker.

The raw milk movement is an outgrowth of an exploding national preference for organic versus processed foods. But these “lacto-fermentation scofflaws” as they’ve been called, say that at the heart of this controversy, there is a more important issue at stake.

“As an informed consumer I feel it should be my right to have access to the product,” said Petrillo. “To that extent I don’t feel I need their protection.”

That sentiment has helped propel raw milk drinkers into a national movement, one that extends from the farm to the occasional clandestine gathering in a suburban driveway. Reader Robert Kissel of Hamden, Connecticut saw the ABC news report and read our comments above when first posted. He had this to say, “The ABC program portrayed milk-drinkers as a sort of lunatic fringe who choose to drink milk because of some Bermuda-Triangle superstitions about phantom health benefits. Well, there are plenty of us who drink it because we like the flavor of real milk–rich, creamy, and above all, FRESH. I started drinking raw milk because I got so annoyed, one day, at bringing home a carton of milk from the store, and detecting that unpleasant intrusion of stale, metallic ‘stored-in-a-refrigerator’ taste that commercial milk often picks up, somehow, in its long travels before getting to me. That day, I said to myself, ‘this is stupid: there’s a dairy farm within easy driving distance–why do I bother with supermarket milk?’–and like they say, once you start, you never go back.”

Mr. Kissel continues, “I think it’s FAR cleaner to get milk that has had less ‘done’ to it. Connecticut is one of three states where you can purchase raw milk in the grocery store. Once, a woman who saw me picking up a bottle asked me whether I didn’t find it disgusting to drink milk straight from the udder–shouldn’t milk come from a machine? I asked her if, when breast-feeding an infant, she would even consider placing her milk into a ‘machine’ first, and THEN giving it to the child.”

Mr. Kiseel is right about milk that is destined to be drunk raw being cleaner than pasteurized milk–precisely because of the pasteurization machines themselves. In addition to pasteurized milk being allowed more bacteria both before and after pasteurizing than raw milk, modern commercial milk is shipped in tanker trucks and processed in large factories where miles of pipes ship the milk through the various high-temperature processes. These pipes must be cleaned out by various solvents and industrial cleaners—and residues invariably end up in the milk. Lowfat and fat-free milk also typically has nonfat milk powder added to give it more body. High-temperature drying of milk into powder oxidizes the otherwise beneficial cholesterol (see for more on the benefits of saturated fat and cholesterol) and overdenatures the milk proteins. This unhealthy additive does not have to be declared on the label.

Freelance cameraman for ABC News enjoys a glass of raw milk.

ABC hired freelancers to tape hours of footage for their short Nightline segment and even shorter World News Tonight segment. The producers selected quotes from consumers that fit the narrowly focused piece they wanted to portray. No doubt many of those consumers spoke of the freshness and flavor of raw milk (or would have if asked) but those statements were not aired. Jim Roberts, a Weston A. Price Foundation member who attended the eight-hour taping at the Ohio farm, said that by the end of the day there were two new raw milk drinkers–the freelance cameraman and producer sent by ABC news to gather the footage.

Copyright © 2007 ABC News Internet Ventures

3 thoughts on “The Raw Milk Movement: Healthy or Hazardous?

  1. We raised our children on raw milk especially in their latter years but my first two children were raised on the corn syrup evaporated milk recipe that they had back then and it was before we raised our own meat etc. Those two had health issues like all the time but our two young children that were raised from the raw cows milk from almost day one were the healthiest children in our family and hardly every got sick. To this day we live on a dairy farm and drink raw milk and one day we ran out and truck had already picked it up so I went to store bought small container just to do what I had to and ended up throwing the rest away for no one would drink it. The grandchildren head for the milk as soon as they get to my house for they say it taste so much better and drink it while here and take some home with them. I think it is all in how you run your farm and if you keep it clean and the cows well there is no reason to worry.

  2. I bought Angel, a miniature Jersey a couple of months ago. My dry skin is now silky and I use NO lotions… just sun screen. My husband hasn’t been able to drink milk for many years… he’s fine with Angel’s.. and all the cream and sour cream, yogurt, butter, ice cream and home made cheese. No reactions at all. Even with a milking machine, keeping and milking a cow is hard work… although she’s a love…so anyone contemplating getting their own cow… RESEARCH and find someone who will let you take care of their cow for a few days. I love Jersey cows.. those big brown eyes are gorgeous and their loving temperament is wonderful. I don’t even tie her up when I milk.

    I thought I was going to have to have surgery on both rotator cuffs. Couldn’t lie flat in bed..spent most nights in my recliner. I just realized the other day that I can raise both arms over my head….no pain. How that happened I don’t know…but before Angel …I hurt.

    The work is worth it… giving up the health benefits of raw milk is just unthinkable. I could never drink that white stuff they pass off as milk in the store again.

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