By Sally Fallon Morell
Ever since the proponents for pasteurization began their campaign against raw milk—and this dates back to the 1940s—their main argument has been the safety argument. Raw milk is “inherently dangerous,” they claim. Or as the early articles proclaimed: “Raw milk can kill.” The latest example of this rhetoric comes from a 2014 study out of Johns Hopkins, which concluded that “the relative risk of individual illness is almost 150 times greater per unit of nonpasteurized dairy product, compared to pasteurized.”
As reported in the Fall, 2016 issue of Wise Traditions, WAPF published a critique of this conclusion in 2015.1 The claim is derived from an analysis published by Langer and colleagues in 2012, which actually found no statistical difference in the rate of illness (as opposed to the number of “outbreaks”) attributed to raw milk or products produced from raw milk compared to those produced from pasteurized milk. In addition, the Langer analysis limited its time frame to the years between 1993 and 2006. By selecting such a narrow time period, the data excluded the nation’s largest outbreak of salmonella: in 1985, a multi-state outbreak of salmonella that was traced to pasteurized milk from a Chicago milk plant. This resulted in over 16,000 confirmed cases, and the investigators estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 people were sickened.
Our own analysis of illnesses attributable to raw and pasteurized milk over the years 1980 to 2005 indicates almost 11 times more illnesses attributed to pasteurized milk than to raw milk. Using the estimate that one percent of the milk is consumed raw, we can calculate that on a per-serving basis, raw milk is less than twice as dangerous as pasteurized milk. Recent data suggest that as many as three or four percent of Americans consume raw milk; using these data instead of the one percent figure would make pasteurized milk appear up to twice as dangerous as raw milk on a per-serving basis.
Mark McAfee from Organic Pastures Dairy in California has compiled a list of all the outbreaks from pasteurized milk and pasteurized milk products since 1966. During this period there have been 153,657 illnesses, 188 hospitalizations, and 73 deaths from pasteurized milk and pasteurized milk products.2 The average number of illnesses per year over the fifty-year period is 3,073.
Ted Beals, MD, has kept a list of reported illnesses from raw milk since 1999. This list indicates a maximum of 50 reported illnesses per year from raw milk. This is two percent of the rate of illnesses from pasteurized milk. If over this period two percent of the population has consumed raw milk, then the rate of illness from raw and pasteurized milk is about equal.
However, the vast majority of the illnesses claimed for raw milk are not proven, simply reported. For example, a report “Raw Milk Cons: A Review of the Peer-Reviewed Literature,” compiled by the personal injury attorney William Marler, cites 102 references for illness caused by raw milk. An analysis of these studies shows that 96 percent of these reports found no positive milk sample or no valid statistical association.3 That means that the number of illnesses caused by raw milk is probably far lower that the 50 per year claimed in the literature. And the key point remains: no published study records any deaths from raw milk.
Here’s another way of looking at Dr. Beals’ data: during the eleven-year period of 1999 to 2010, illnesses attributed to raw milk averaged 42 per year.4 With at least 9.4 million people consuming raw milk, the rate of illness from raw milk is about .00044 percent. The CDC reports an estimated 48,000,000 cases of foodborne infections per year in the U.S. population of about 300,000,000. The rate of illness from all foods can then be calculated at 16 percent. Thus, one is at least 35,000 times more likely to contract illness from other foods than from raw milk.
Yet another way of looking at the data is as follows: between 1998 and 2005, there were over 10,000 documented outbreaks that contributed to 199,263 documented cases of foodborne illness. Raw milk was associated with 0.4 percent of these cases, a number that is probably exaggerated. There is no way to quantify whether any of these foods is safer than another from these data, but it is clear from these data that there is no basis for singling out raw milk as “inherently dangerous.”
The most serious illness ascribed to raw milk is infection by the virulent strain of E. coli O157:H7. The number of E. coli O157:H7 cases nationwide is difficult to determine, but in California, there are apparently about 75 “clusters” per year (personal communication of a California Health Department official to Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures Dairy). We can assume about 10 cases per cluster or 750 per year in California. Over a twelve-year period, that would be 9,000 cases. About three percent of the population of California consumes raw milk. If raw milk drinkers contracted the pathogen at the same rate as the general population, we would expect about 270 raw milk drinkers to be infected during the period. But in fact, there have been only seven raw milk drinkers who have contracted E. coli O157:H7 during the twelve-year period of 1999-2011. The low number of raw milk drinkers infected with E. coli O157:H7 suggests that raw milk is actually protective against this pathogen.
In the early days, we did not have much evidence to refute the headline-grabbing claims against raw milk, but today we have years of input and records. And these records show us that the claim of inherent danger in raw milk is false. While it might be difficult to come up with a precise comparison of illnesses per person for raw versus pasteurized milk, it is abundantly clear that raw milk is not more likely to cause illness than pasteurized. The key point is that there has never been a confirmed death from raw milk, but there have been more than 70 deaths from pasteurized milk and pasteurized milk products.
This article appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Wise Traditions, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation.
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