Real Raw Milk Facts

San Jose Mercury News: Raw Milk Risk And Benefits

Helen Shen reporting for the San Jose Mercury News writes a balanced article about raw milk health risks and benefits. Several food safety professionals, producers, and consumers are interviewed including members of the Real Raw Milk Facts Working Group:

Raw milk has not been pasteurized, or heated to kill bacteria. A recent CDC study says raw milk products accounted for 36 percent of individuals sickened in milk-related disease outbreaks between 1993 and 2006. That's a large percentage considering that only an estimated 1 percent of milk drinkers consume raw milk.

In all, 4,413 people were sickened in dairy-borne outbreaks -- although that is just a small fraction of the 48 million people the CDC estimates are sickened by food each year.

"No matter how you line it up, there is more risk with the raw product," said Michele Jay-Russell, a UC Davis food safety expert not involved in the study.

CDC epidemiologist Adam Langer, lead author of the study, noted that research does not support any special health benefits of raw milk.

"It's just not worth the risk," he said.

But raw milk's popularity persists in California, fueled by permissive laws that allow it to be sold in supermarkets and anecdotal evidence of health benefits that is enough to convince its devotees.

Raw milk is a $9 million business in California, according to Mark McAfee, owner of the Fresno-based Organic Pastures Dairy Company -- one of only two state-licensed raw milk suppliers.

"It sells like crazy," said McAfee. His $8 million operation, licensed in 2001, has grown roughly $1 million annually in recent years, and now serves about 75,000 consumers weekly, he said.

Raw milk believers swear by the product's purported health benefits, including relief from allergies, eczema, asthma, lactose intolerance, ulcers and inflammatory bowel disease. Most claims rely on anecdotal evidence and informal surveys.

Christine Chessen, 45, of San Francisco says raw milk improved her three children's immune systems after they started drinking it in 2007. The family has since weathered every flu season sniffle-free. "It's almost like I feel like they're inoculated or something," said Chessen, a certified nutritionist.

Some European studies have linked raw milk consumption to fewer childhood allergies. But many of those same studies cite milk-borne pathogens in recommending against raw milk as preventative treatment.

Mary McGonigle-Martin, 52, of Murrieta, says she didn't fully grasp the health risks when her 7-year-old son Chris was sickened in the 2006 outbreak. Pro-raw-milk websites and conspicuous advertisements at her local health foods store convinced her that raw milk could be a safe, natural remedy for her son's chronic sinus congestion. She bought Organic Pastures milk after reading about the farm online. "That they tested the milk and they'd never found a pathogen -- the testing was what sold me," said McGonigle-Martin, a school counselor.

Even with sophisticated lab tests, E. coli can be much harder to detect in milk than in, say, ground beef, said Michael Payne, a UC Davis food safety expert. "I have zero faith that there exists technologies that currently allow for the adequate on-farm testing of raw milk for pathogens," he said.

Chris Martin developed HUS, experienced kidney failure, and at one point required a ventilator. "My choice almost killed my child," said McGonigle-Martin.

For other parents, she stresses that drinking and serving raw milk is a personal choice that should be made knowing all the risks.

Read the whole story:

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