Defending Raw Milk in the Policy Arena

By Judith McGeary, Esq.

“Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status,” said Laurence Peter, author of The Peter Principle.

The raw milk movement continues to gain momentum due to increasing consumer demand and a growing body of scientific literature supporting the theory that gut health is one of the keys to human health. Yet the entrenched bureaucracy appears intent on trying to stem the tide. In late February, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published a study purporting to prove that raw milk is significantly more dangerous than pasteurized milk, and that legalizing sales of raw milk leads to more illnesses (http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/18/3/11-1370_article.htm).

The study had significant political ramifications. Bills to expand legal access to raw milk are being discussed in multiple states this year. And at the federal level, HR 1830, which would legalize interstate commerce of raw milk, has been gaining traction, with five co-sponsors at the time this article goes to print. Unsurprisingly, the FDA sent congressional staffers a notice trumpeting the results of the CDC study.

WAPF published an immediate rebuttal to the study, pointing out several of its fundamental flaws (www.westonaprice.org/press/cdc-cherrypicks-data-to-make-case-against-raw-milk). But while WAPF can do a lot to counter the agency’s misinformation, it’s just as important for each individual member to step forward to explain the issues to their elected officials and the people in their community.

WHAT THE NUMBERS TELL US

In absolute numbers, illnesses related to dairy products, whether pasteurized or raw, are relatively rare. For the fourteen-year period the CDC examined (1993-2006), they found an average of three hundred fifteen illnesses a year from all dairy products for which the pasteurization status was known. Of those, an average of one hundred twelve illnesses each year were attributed to all raw dairy products, and two hundred three illnesses were attributed to pasteurized dairy products.

To provide some context for those numbers, consider that an average of almost twenty-four thousand foodborne illnesses are reported each year. So only one half of one percent of all foodborne illness is attributed to raw dairy products. According to a CDC food consumption survey, 3 percent of Americans drink raw milk (Foodborne Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet) Population Survey Atlas of Exposures (2006- 2007), www.cdc.gov/foodnet/surveys/FoodNetExposureAtlas 0607_508.pdf). That translates to approximately 9.4 million raw milk consumers nationwide. Out of those millions of raw milk drinkers, approximately one hundred twelve allegedly become sick each year from raw dairy products, or 0.001 percent annually.

Thus, the simplest response to the CDC’s announcement is that milk is not a high risk product, and comparisons between raw and pasteurized milk are not relevant from the perspective of protecting public health.

FUNDAMENTALLY FLAWED

Digging a little deeper reveals that the study’s comparisons were not only irrelevant, but fundamentally flawed. The most sensationalist quote from the study was that raw dairy is “150 times” more likely to cause a “foodborne illness outbreak” than pasteurized dairy. But remember that “an outbreak” can be thousands of people seriously ill, or just two people with minor stomach aches, or anything in between. The rate of outbreaks is of little significance if one is concerned about the risk to people’s health. This is particularly true in the arena of dairy, since raw milk outbreaks are typically small (most involve fewer than twenty people), while there have been fewer, but often much larger, outbreaks related to pasteurized milk. The real question is the rate of illnesses, not outbreaks.

Even with respect to outbreaks, the CDC had to make several leaps of logic to reach this sensationalist conclusion. The authors quoted a 1996-1997 survey that found only 1.5 percent of respondents had consumed raw dairy products within the seven days before the interview. The authors then noted that some people consumed both raw and pasteurized dairy products and jumped to the conclusion that only 1 percent of the dairy products in this country are consumed unpasteurized.

But why rely on a survey from fifteen years ago? The CDC has a far more recent food consumption survey, conducted in 2006-07, in which 3 percent of respondents had consumed raw milk within seven days before the interview. The same survey found that 78 percent of people had consumed pasteurized milk within the last seven days. So the most recent data would indicate a ratio of raw:pasteurized milk consumption of 3:78, or approximately 4 percent of milk being consumed raw.

If one considers the number of illnesses rather than outbreaks, and uses the most recent consumption data from CDC, then the ratio is 10:1, not 150:1. Doesn’t sound as scary, does it? And that is still based entirely on the government’s own numbers, without addressing the issue of whether raw dairy was unfairly blamed for some of those illnesses. It is also based on the assumption of similar serving sizes, although many people who consume raw milk do so as a much larger part of their diet than those who consume pasteurized milk. The real comparative risk numbers are almost certainly even lower.

Some careful readers may have spotted a problem in the above discussion: the shift from discussing raw milk (consumption rates) to discussing all raw dairy (the number of illnesses). I did this because there were no data on raw cheese versus pasteurized cheese, so I’m willing to assume for purposes of this article that all dairy products as a whole have a similar ratio of consumption as milk.

But that conflation of raw milk with all raw dairy products often causes its own problems. The CDC study used a tactic common among raw milk opponents, namely lumping together all illnesses from all raw dairy products. This enabled them to make raw milk appear more risky because of the many illnesses attributed to queso fresco, a soft (not aged) raw cheese that is frequently made under very unsanitary conditions. Particularly since most states that allow the legal sale of raw milk do not allow the sale of queso fresco, this is an important distinction.

LEGALITY OF SALES

With respect to the legality of sales, the CDC’s study made another key “finding,” namely that the incidence of outbreaks caused by raw dairy products was significantly higher in states that permitted the sale of raw dairy products than in states that prohibited such sales. In its accompanying press release, the agency used this finding to try to discourage state legislators from allowing increased legal access to raw milk.

It would hardly be surprising to see some sort of increase in foodborne illnesses related to a food where that food is legal. If we banned ground beef, we would certainly see fewer illnesses related to ground beef products. And unless legislators are prepared to ban all food, foodborne illness will remain a reality. The real issue is not whether some people get sick from a given food. The issue is whether such a high percentage of people get sick from that food that it justifies a government ban.

Yet, even though this is a common-sense proposition, the study actually failed to prove that making raw milk legal leads to increased numbers of illnesses. Yet again, the CDC’s focus was on the number of outbreaks, rather than illnesses. In a single sentence buried in the middle of the study, the authors admitted that the rate of foodborne illnesses caused by raw dairy did not show a statistically significant increase in states where it was legal to sell raw dairy products.

This lack of correlation between the legal status of raw milk and the rate of illnesses matches an analysis I did of the CDC data from ten states: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, and Tennessee. I picked these states because the CDC’s 2006-07 food consumption survey provided the specific rates of raw milk consumption in those states, and I then analyzed the legal status of raw milk in those states, the number of illnesses attributed to raw milk, and the total number of foodborne illnesses for each.

The rate of raw milk consumption ranged from 2.3 percent to 3.8 percent, while the percentage of foodborne illnesses allegedly traced to raw milk (as compared to the total foodborne illnesses in those states) ranged from 0 percent to 1.45 percent. Interestingly, there was no pattern indicating that making raw milk legally accessible increases consumption. Maryland (where raw milk sales are illegal) had the exact same percentage of people who had drunk raw milk within the last seven days as California (where raw milk can be sold in grocery stores). And Georgia, where raw milk can only be sold as pet food, had the highest consumption rates of all. In addition, there was no pattern of increasing rates of consumption correlating to increasing illnesses. The two states with the highest rates of consumption—Tennessee and Georgia—had lower rates of raw milk illnesses than the three states with the lowest rates of consumption— Minnesota, Colorado, and Connecticut.

How can this be true? The most likely reason is that the risk of foodborne illness from raw milk is low enough that the outbreaks are sporadic and occasional. Because raw milk is not a high-risk food, the incidences of illness are too low to show a pattern.

This lack of a consistent pattern makes it all the more troubling that the authors of the CDC study chose to cut it short. Although data are now available all the way through 2009, the study stopped with the year 2006. This is particularly significant since two major outbreaks were linked to pasteurized dairy the very next year, in 2007. Specifically, one hundred thirty-five people became ill from pasteurized cheese contaminated with E. coli, and three people died from pasteurized milk contaminated with listeria in 2007, which would have seriously affected the authors’ ability to claim that raw dairy products are more dangerous than pasteurized, even with their manipulation of the data.

So what can you do about the inaccurate and unfair characterization of raw milk by the CDC? Speak up! Call your U.S. representatives and senators today, and ask to speak with the staffer who handles agricultural and food issues. Briefly explain to them how important raw milk is to you and your family, and offer to address any concerns they have about whether it is a high-risk product. Then ask them to sign on as co-sponsors of HR1830 and S1955, the bills to legalize interstate transport of raw milk. You can find more information and tools for taking action on the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund’s website, at www.farmtoconsumer.org/hr1830 (STATUS CLOSED). If you don’t know who represents you, look it up at www.congress.org or by calling the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

If you are working on state legislation to improve access to raw milk and need help countering the government’s misinformation, email me at Judith@FarmAndRanchFreedom.org.

This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2012.

mcgearyJudith McGeary is the WAPF chapter leader for Austin, Texas, and is also an attorney and small farmer. She has a B.S. in Biology from Stanford University and a law degree from the University of Texas. After a clerkship with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, she practiced as an attorney in administrative law, litigation and appeals. She left her legal practice to form the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to lobbying on behalf of independent agriculture, representing both farmers and consumers. She and her husband live on a sustainable, pasture-based farm outside of Austin, with heritage poultry, sheep, cattle and horses. For more information, go to www.farmandranchfreedom.org or call 1-866-687-6452.

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