Raw milk advocates and health officials step up dispute

In the past, I’ve blogged about the potential dangers (including a few fatalities) from consuming or giving your children raw (unpasteurized) milk. Recently USA Today carried a reasonable review of the topic:

Maybe you can’t cry over spilled milk, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have big fights if it’s unpasteurized.

To a small but dedicated community, it’s “raw milk,” a life-giving, vitamin and enzyme-rich miracle cure for asthma, gastrointestinal disorders and multiple other illnesses.

The viewpoint, championed in the past decade by the Weston A. Price Foundation, which follows the nutritional teachings of a mid-century Ohio dentist, has gained a life of its own on the Internet.

To public health officials and state departments of agriculture, unpasteurized milk can be a dangerous, germ-ridden drink that is especially hazardous to children and their immature immune systems.

An outbreak of campylobacter tied to unpasteurized milk in Middlebury, Ind. sickened at least 20 people in March in Michigan, Illinois and Indiana, according to the state departments of health.

New website launching

The latest round in this dispute at the intersection of food, alternative health and anti-government activism took place this week, first with a national conference of pro-raw-milk advocates in Wisconsin on Saturday followed by today’s launch of a well-financed website warning of raw milk’s risks.

The Madison, Wis., symposium featured more than a dozen speakers, including Fresno, Calif., dairyman Mark McAfee, delivering the keynote titled “Raw milk as medicine Proudly violating FDA drug laws.”

Emily Matthews, a supporter of raw milk and a registered nurse, keeps a cow so her family can produce its own raw milk in Schleswig, Wis.

Selling unpasteurized milk except at the farm is illegal in the state. She doesn’t believe unpasteurized milk is dangerous, especially if it comes from cows fed on grass rather than corn.

“I have seen more kids directly harmed by vaccines,” she says. “I’ve never seen anybody whose kids were harmed by raw milk.”

Most states disagree.

Retail sale of unpasteurized milk is legal in only 10 states and banned in another 10. In the rest it is legal only at the farm, via “cow-share” (when people buy shares in a cow so they’re drinking their own milk), according to the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund.

The Food and Drug Administration simply wants to protect the public from disease, says John Sheehan, director of FDA’s division of plant and dairy food safety.

Unpasteurized milk is unsafe, a view held not only by the FDA but also by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Virtually every scientific association there is is saying exactly what we do, which is that raw milk can contain pathogens and it shouldn’t be consumed,” he says.

Milk can be contaminated with pathogens such as salmonella, campylobacter and E. coli O157:H7 carried in manure via unclean udders or milking equipment, Sheehan says.

Pasteurization, which was invented in the 19th century and has been common in the USA since the 1920s, is the process of heating milk to at least 161 degrees F for at least 15 seconds to kill pathogens.

It’s that heating raw milk advocates object to, as they feel it destroys health-giving vitamins, enzymes and organisms.

The Real Raw Milk Facts site, launched today, was created by more than a dozen scientists and health educators. It’s meant to carefully lay out the research on raw milk, without being as dogmatic as government sites that just tell people not to drink it.

But the site is not to be confused with similar ones, some several years old, such as www.raw-milk-facts.com, www.realmilk.com, www.rawmilktruth.com and www.rawmilk.org, all hosted by advocates of raw milk.

‘Granola tea-partiers’

The site gets funding from a surprising source: Seattle-based food-safety lawyer Bill Marler, who made his fortune suing food producers.

He has underwritten the $20,000 cost, even though it might cost him business if fewer people get sick. “Raw milk is where the right and left come back together. It’s an intersection for the ‘back to nature’ and the ‘don’t tread on me,’ people — they’re the granola tea-partiers,” he says.

What might be most convincing to those trying to decide about raw milk are the videos on the new site of three children and two adults hospitalized by illnesses linked to drinking unpasteurized milk.

One of them is Kalee Prue, 29, who got E. coli O157:H7 from the first bottle of unpasteurized milk she ever drank, in 2008. Her son, who was still nursing, had skin problems, and she had read online that raw milk might help.

Prue, of East Hampton, Conn., was in the hospital for 33 days and now has kidney damage and can’t have more children.

Prue still believes people should take their health into their own hands but says “there are many ways of getting similar benefits” without drinking raw milk.

“I would tell them to research it more … and make sure they understand the risks, because they’re real, not just statistics.”