Consumer Corner: Raw vs. pasteurized milk a hot debate

By CHUCK DEBEVEC  |  July 11, 2010 at 4:30 AM
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ST. PAUL, Minn., July 11 (UPI) -- Raw milk gets a raw deal from health and agricultural officials, say proponents who contend its benefits outweigh the risk of drinking unpasteurized milk.

Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation in Washington and founder of "A Campaign for Real Milk," contends most investigations blaming raw milk for making people sick "are highly biased and never proved raw milk actually caused the illnesses." Other foods such as chicken and seafood pose a much greater danger, she says.

"Raw milk has never killed anyone and pasteurized milk definitely has killed people," she said in a recent telephone interview with United Press International, citing three deaths attributed to tainted pasteurized milk in Massachusetts in 2007 and six deaths from pasteurized cheese in Europe in 2009.

Fallon Morell, who estimates 1 million to 10 million people in the United States drink raw milk, ardently touts its health benefits, "especially for young children." Pasteurization, which uses heat to wipe out nearly all bacteria, also destroys enzymes such as lipase and other components raw milk proponents say are beneficial in a wide range of ways, including building a stronger stomach lining. Those who swear by raw milk say allergies, asthma, lactose intolerance, ear infections, gastro-intestinal problems and diabetes are just some of the afflictions it can help ease.

"It's just a terrible thing to raise a child on pasteurized milk," she said. "It's associated with so many health problems, including asthma. It's not a real food. It shouldn't be used by anybody.

"Raw milk helps build a healthy immune system. It kills pathogens. Pasteurized milk doesn't do that."

Fallon Morell only recommends drinking raw milk from cows that are pasture-fed, not from large-scale dairies where cows are confined and she says often live in "a filthy mess."

Pasteurization has been around for more than 100 years and a public health staple in the United States for decades. Federal health authorities say its track record of reducing outbreaks of serious illnesses such as tuberculosis, salmonella and E. coli speaks for itself.

Despite Fallon Morell's stance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 45 outbreaks from 1998 through 2005 related to raw milk, accounting for 1,007 illnesses, 104 hospitalizations and two deaths.

As recently as last month, raw milk was suspected in an E.coli outbreak that sickened several people in Minnesota, the Minnesota Health Department said.

In April, Michigan health officials concluded 13 people fell ill with a bacterial infection called campylobactern after consuming privately purchased raw milk from an Indiana farm. However, testing of milk found in the patients' homes didn't turn up any of the bacteria.

In both Minnesota and Michigan, many of those sickened were children.

"Natural doesn't necessary mean more healthy when it comes to milk," Dr. Sandra Wiederhold of Richland, Mich., told the Kalamazoo Gazette. "As a pediatrician, I promote health and safety and I don't see that raw milk does that."

In Wisconsin, lawmakers approved a bill that would have allowed the sale of raw milk products to consumers but Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed it in May.

"I think (Doyle's decision) was a combination of the agribusiness industry who, whatever they say, were afraid of losing a little market share, and the public health establishment that is instinctively afraid of freedom of any sort," state Sen. Glenn Grothman told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

"I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for all the people with stomach ailments, autism and other ailments who are going to have to try to obtain a product illegally because their government doesn't believe in freedom."

Milk, particularly from cows, and other dairy products are thought by some to be linked to autism and raw milk proponents attribute it to pasteurization.

In the Michigan outbreak, the Food and Drug Administration reiterated its stance against raw milk, saying it may contain a wide variety of harmful pathogens -- including salmonella, E.coli, listeria, campylobacter and brucella bacteria -- that may cause illness and possibly death.

Michael Schommer, communications director for the Minnesota Agriculture Department, said the state allows what it calls occasional sales. Farmers can only sell raw milk on-site directly to consumers, who must bring their own containers, he said.

When it comes to the dangers of raw milk, Schommer says the short answer is milk comes from cows, cows also produce manure and regardless how clean a farm is, there's still a chance of contamination so pasteurization is the way to go.

"The health benefit (of raw milk) is up for debate," Schommer told UPI. "The health risk is not."

Slightly more than half of U.S. states allow raw milk sales in one fashion or another, from retail stores to direct farmer-to-consumer arrangements. Fallon Morell's group helps farmers avoid legal hassles by setting buying clubs, and reaching herd- and cow-sharing agreements under which people "don't buy the milk, they own the cow."

While more inconvenient than just grabbing a container of milk off a supermarket shelf, she says, "We think this is fine. We'd like to see this in every state."

But, she says, the FDA and the U.S. Agriculture Department remain "implacably opposed" to raw milk consumption and think their goal is to have it banned nationwide.

She says the FDA's response to a Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund lawsuit seeking to have the agency's ban on interstate commerce of raw milk found unconstitutional is telling. The Gaia Health Web site reports the FDA states in its response to the suit that "plaintiffs' assertion of a new 'fundamental right' under substantive due process to produce, obtain and consume unpasteurized milk lacks any support in law," and that "there is no 'deeply rooted' historical tradition of unfettered access to food of all kinds."

"So that's their attitude: We do not have the right to food of our choice and they have the right to control everything," she said.

She says proponents of raw milk have "put a lot of science together" to prove its benefits and safety, though she'd like to see even more studies done, confident they would only bolster their cause. Overcoming the Resistance by federal officials is difficult, she admits, saying progress will come "one retirement at a time." She likens it to the medical community's longtime resistance to the benefits of acupuncture.

"We're going to have to wait for the old guard to get out of there," she said. "I think it's just a matter of time."

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