Real Raw Milk Facts

Know The Risks Before Drinking Raw Milk

Kristin Ryan, director of environmental health for the State of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, wrote this piece for the Anchorage Daily News.

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“Eat Natural” — that’s what many Alaskans are trying to do to improve their nutrition while supporting the local economy. They shop at farmers’ markets, pick organic products at their grocery stores, grow or raise their own food, and participate in food co-ops. Many people are trying to eat foods that are minimally processed.

No one will debate the benefits of a good diet and nutritious foods. However, consumers need to be informed about their choices. This includes understanding the potential risks of consuming unpasteurized or “raw” milk and food products made from it.

Pathogens that cause tuberculosis, diphtheria, streptococcal infections, typhoid fever and other illnesses can be found in raw milk and raw milk products. These pathogens can be neutralized by pasteurization — which involves heating the milk for a brief period of time.

Pasteurization of milk has greatly reduced the risk of harmful germs in milk and milk products. People buy and consume milk, cheese, yogurt and other healthy dairy foods each day without worry. The discovery and wide use of pasteurization provided one of the biggest strides forward in protecting human health in the last century.

Some people consume raw milk and food products made from it because they believe they may be more nutritious or taste better than dairy products made from pasteurized milk. Yet many studies have shown that pasteurization does not significantly change the nutritional value of milk. Pasteurized milk is rich in proteins, carbohydrates and other nutrients. Heat slightly affects a few of the vitamins found in milk, but milk is only a minor source of these vitamins.

Despite advances in dairy farming, illness-causing germs can still contaminate milk and lead to serious illnesses when the milk is not pasteurized. Even a careful farmer can’t control all the risks. You can get a disease from raw milk and raw milk products even if the animals are healthy, clean and grass-fed. Raw milk supplied by “certified,” “organic,” or “local” dairies is no guarantee it is safe either.

Raw milk was the cause of 82 percent of food-borne illnesses associated with dairy products reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 1973 and 2008. From 1998 through 2008, there were 86 public health outbreaks due to consumption of raw milk or raw milk products reported to the CDC. These resulted in 1,676 illnesses, 191 hospitalizations and two deaths. Most of these illnesses were caused by forms of bacteria that would have been killed by pasteurization. Among these 86 outbreaks, 79 percent involved at least one person younger than 20 years old. Public health officials suspect there were a number of other illnesses from consuming raw milk or raw milk products that weren’t reported.

State regulators have tried to allow and regulate the production of raw milk in an effort to make it safer for consumers. Some states require permits and testing. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find bacteria in milk and outbreaks occur even from permitted farms. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health reported that 87 percent of raw milk outbreaks occurred in states where the sale of raw milk was regulated.

The state of Washington has a rigorous regulatory program for raw milk production that includes weekly testing, permits and inspections. Yet, since 2008, there have been five confirmed outbreaks of illnesses from drinking raw milk contaminated with E. coli and Campylobacter. These illnesses can be very serious, involving consequences such as kidney failure and paralysis.

These statistics may strike you as one of those things that happen far away and to “other people.” Not so. Here in Alaska, a recent state investigation found seven laboratory-confirmed and 11 suspected cases of food-borne illness since May in people who drank raw milk from a Mat-Su farm.

The commercial sale of raw milk is prohibited by law in Alaska but Alaskans may choose to consume raw milk from cows or goats that they own. When choosing whether to consume raw milk, or provide it to your family, be sure you are fully informed about the risks.

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Real Life Dangers of Raw Milk

Several families offered to share their stories on video to help raise awareness about the potential risks and negative effects on health from drinking contaminated raw milk.

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