By Ted Beals, MS, MD
Public health officials, the federal government and the dairy industry have long claimed that unless milk is pasteurized it should not be consumed or sold to the public. One of their arguments is that raw milk is “inherently dangerous.” They also claim that raw milk has been a significant source of consumers’ foodborne illness. Publications have stated that there have been incidents of outbreaks of foodborne illness in which raw milk was thought to be the source of the illness. These reports of outbreaks attributed to raw milk continue to be used as one of the strongest arguments for convincing legislatures to pass laws requiring milk pasteurization. The documented health benefits from raw milk do not overcome the perceived health risk in public health officials’ policies and communications, and they persist in insisting that milk must be pasteurized to be safe for human consumption. This article offers a counter-argument to the notion that unpasteurized milk is “inherently dangerous” by making a clear distinction between “pre-pasteurized milk” and milk that is intended to be consumed fresh and unprocessed. This distinction may be helpful to dairy farmers and consumers of fresh unprocessed whole milk as more states move toward allowing sales of this type of milk.
The harmful bacteria that are currently thought to cause outbreaks attributed to raw milk are Campylobacter jejuni, a small group of Escherichia coli that produce the shiga toxin, Listeria monocytogenes and salmonella. According to my data documentation, since 1999, the number of outbreaks associated with fresh unprocessed milk reported each year in the USA is, in fact, declining. This decline has occurred despite the well-recognized fact that the number of small dairies that are providing fresh unprocessed milk to families is rapidly increasing, and the number of people who are consuming fresh unprocessed milk has also been steadily increasing. Today, over 11 million people in the USA regularly drink this nutritious food. The argument that raw milk is “inherently dangerous” is based on the observation that manure, which contains many types of bacteria, is everywhere in the dairy environment, and that several well-documented studies have shown that the four bacteria of public health concern are frequently cultured in raw milk.
In my personal contacts with dairy farmers and families consuming fresh unprocessed milk over more than 20 years, none had episodes of foodborne illnesses in those drinking the milk. Since some of the dairy farmers that were providing unpasteurized milk to their consumers were testing their milk for bacteria to show that their milk was safe, I asked them for copies of their lab reports on their milk, and none of the reports they sent me showed positive laboratory results for these four harmful bacteria. This was in complete disagreement with the published studies that report finding bacterial contamination in more than 25 percent of the milk they sampled.
I became convinced that this inconsistency in lab results was due to differences in how the milk was produced. The scientific studies that showed a high presence of the four bacteria in samples had tested milk only from dairies that produce milk to be shipped to dairy industry plants, where it was pasteurized and homogenized, before sale to the public. In contrast, the dairy farmers I was receiving lab reports from were producing milk that they knew was going directly to families that came to their farm to get fresh unpasteurized milk. These consumers and farmers knew each other personally and were consuming that farm’s milk because it was not pasteurized.
I concluded from this difference in lab results that the term “raw milk” is too general; in fact, we are talking about different milks: “fresh unprocessed milk” and “pre-pasteurized milk.” I stopped referring to all milk coming from dairy farms as raw milk, and instead, I indicated the difference by calling milk from dairies that specifically produce milk that is not to be pasteurized “fresh unprocessed milk” and calling milk that is being shipped to industrial pasteurization plants “pre-pasteurized milk.” The milk that researchers tested in their often-quoted studies was “raw milk” from dairy farms supplying the industry and intended to be pasteurized, that is, “pre-pasteurized milk.”
Over the years, I have been asked to testify in court cases related to milk and dairy farms. Whenever I testified in court or gave public presentations in support of our position that unpasteurized milk is safe for human consumption, I made the point that there are two types of raw milk, and I suggested that the distinction between milk intended for consumption without pasteurization and milk intended for pasteurization might explain why the four harmful bacteria have been found in the samples that they tested for the research studies-—that milk was being prepared for and shipped to their “consumers” (dairy processing plants) for pasteurization.
When I made this distinction, the supporters of pasteurization argued that my findings were worthless. They made four main scientific objections:
Countering these criticisms appeared to require collecting data that would satisfy all the critics’ criteria; however, such a study would be prohibitively expensive.
As more states become convinced to allow people to obtain unpasteurized milk, their regulators have felt the need for specific legal requirements, to ensure that this milk was “safe.” Some of those requirements called for regular, periodic testing. In some of these states, regulators specifically wanted to test the milk for the four harmful types of bacteria that had been associated with milk-borne illnesses. This meant that these states were gathering and recording solid data about the occurrence of pathogens in samples of fresh unprocessed milk made available to the public. Based on this testing, the state could shut down any dairy whose milk might make consumers sick.
The individual states were not actually doing research; they wanted testing to help them determine whether the availability of the fresh unprocessed milk from a particular dairy should be halted until the milk was deemed safe. Nevertheless, these data would satisfy all of the criticisms that were repeatedly brought against the data I had collected from dairies that sent me their testing reports, and they were publicly available.
We made Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to each of the 17 states that were doing milk microbiology testing. We specifically asked for all bacterial testing data that they were getting from laboratories as part of their regulatory control of unpasteurized milk in their state. We received more than 20,000 laboratory reporting sheets from the states and created a massive dataset. This included all testing by each state’s own periodic milk sampling, using their own labs for testing unpasteurized milk. The compiled dataset included 372 dairies from across the nation. The data represented the states’ documented collection and testing criteria. They also included results of a lot of laboratory testing, including some non-bacterial testing. The testing included milk from several types of milking herds, bulk tank samples and samples from other milk products produced by each specific dairy.
The purpose of this summary on this dataset is limited to comparing testing for the four harmful foodborne pathogens in fresh unprocessed whole cow’s milk, so as to accurately parallel the published research studies that showed that up to 25 percent of raw milk is contaminated with these harmful pathogens.
Of the 14 states returning FOIA responses, seven states required testing for the presence of the four bacteria (Campylobacter jejuni, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes and salmonella). In addition, one state tested for these pathogens in periodic samples, although such testing was not in their formal regulations; results from this state are included in this summary. Thus, our dataset includes routine, periodic laboratory results only, for the years 2010 to 2014, the years we asked for in our FOIA requests. It is important to note that these data included samples collected during all seasons and in various parts of the country.
In the following summary, we report on only fresh, whole cow’s milk, excluding data from goats and other animals and from other products made from milk. This subset includes milk from 187 dairies across all regions of the county. There were 4,692 samples of milk tested, including 3,506 individual tests for the four pathogens. As we entered lab information for these samples into the dataset, it became obvious that some of the samples were processed for reasons other than as part of the state periodic scheduled sampling. We included only those samples that were part of periodic testing because this paralleled the sampling performed in the research studies cited by those advocating pasteurizing of all milk. The samples excluded from the states’ results were:
Of the 187 cow dairies from eight states with regular, periodic testing of fresh, whole cow’s milk, 94 percent had no samples that contained confirmed evidence of any of the four pathogens during the period tested. And less than 1 percent (0.75 percent) of the fresh unprocessed whole cow’s milk samples contained one or more of these four pathogens. This compared to the 25 percent positive samples from the “raw milk” in the published results from milk going to the pasteurization plants, what I would call “pre-pasteurized milk.” It is clear that these two types of milk are significantly different: “pre-pasteurized milk,” destined for pasteurization in industrial milk plants, and fresh unprocessed milk, produced for families who want their milk unpasteurized. And thus, the claim that raw milk is inherently dangerous, based on testing only of milk that the dairy farmers knew will be pasteurized, is not borne out by the data on fresh unprocessed milk.
This review of the FOIA data from states that have enabled the provision of fresh unprocessed milk to families counters the argument that this type of milk is “inherently dangerous.” This information supplements the accumulating data showing that more dairies are providing their fresh milk to their neighbors and an increasing number of families are drinking their milk unprocessed. At the same time, however, the number of outbreaks of foodborne illness attributed to this milk is declining.
In conclusion, this summary shows that as more people want to get their food from local farmers and want fresh, high-quality food, they are convincing elected officials that they should be allowed to determine if the food they eat is for their own health and taste, rather than for the business criteria dictated by the “food” industries. In subsequent summaries on these data, I will discuss the “value” of testing fresh unpasteurized milk for pathogens as well as additional information learned from the data on the correlation of different types of biological testing of fresh unprocessed milk.
About the Author
Ted Beals is a pathologist, health educator and administrator. He is the retired National Director of Pathology & Laboratory Services, Department of Veterans Affairs. Since retirement he continues his years of biomedical research, now focusing on dairy safety and foodborne illnesses. He is an international consultant and educator on the medical aspects of agricultural product safety. Ted is a lifelong advocate for organic principles, sustainable and local agriculture and the nutritional and medical values of nutrient-dense foods. Ted is active in promoting the rights of farmers to provide and consumers to obtain milk and other locally produced fresh unprocessed foods. Ted lives with his wife Peggy on forty acres in rural Michigan.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Wise Traditions in Food, Farming, and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation.
When two or more people become ill from the same food source, it is legally classified as an “outbreak” and must be investigated by the local public health authority. Based on the assumption that if people become ill from food it is due to pathogens or some other contamination, federal regulations require that any medical laboratory that detects evidence of pathogens believed to cause human illness must send that information to local public health officials and the CDC. Currently, the four bacteria considered of public health concern when found in milk—Campylobacter jejuni, a small group of Escherichia coli that produce the shiga toxin, Listeria monocytogenes and salmonella—are included in the pathogens that must be reported to health officials. If local investigation appears to show more than one person with the clinical finding of foodborne illness, health officials must then determine whether the illnesses are connected by type of food consumed and timing of exposure. It is important to point out that the milk is not the source of these illnesses. Rather, milk is the vehicle that transmitted pathogens from some other source into a person’s digestive system and thus spread the illness. It is also important to understand that the investigation of such incidents is not scientifically confirmed, only that the local health officials believe that the incidents might be connected. (See westonaprice.org/cdc-cherry-picksdata-to-make-case-against-raw-milk-2/.)
In 2007, a workgroup was formed in the state of Michigan, to give a clear direction to the director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development on how to provide fresh milk to consumers. At its first meeting, the workgroup of 12 stakeholders realized that they needed to specifically distinguish the milk they were discussing. The Michigan Pasteurized Milk Ordinance had already defined “raw milk” as milk that would become pasteurized, so the workgroup went step by step and coined the phrase “fresh unprocessed whole milk” as the term to be used in their discussions. The term was used in the full consensus report from this workgroup (springhouse-press.com/books.html) and has since been used by many throughout the world.