By Tracy Sweely

Originally posted February 21, 2011

A few days before Christmas last year I went on my usual bi-weekly visit to the storefront of my local rancher, but as it turned out this was no regular visit.  I had gone to pick up my share of raw (i.e. unpasteurized) milk from the dairy herd that I have been a shareholder in for about three years. The rancher that operates this storefront has been distributing locally produced meat, raw milk, eggs and other products from all over Colorado for 10 years.  Well, that is until a few days before I arrived.  Apparently, an article on the growing popularity of raw milk had run in a local newspaper and the story had included distribution locations.  The day after the story ran my rancher was visited by a county agricultural inspector and served with a cease and desist order.  While he is able to continue to distribute raw milk, he is being required to sequester the raw milk “out of view” of the general public and must make difficult modifications to his operations to do so. Regulators appear to be concerned that a consumer might “get confused” and make a purchase thinking the milk is pasteurized.  This ludicrous justification was given even though the general public is not allowed to purchase the raw milk because it is only there for pick-up by shareholders who are under contract with the dairy in accordance with state statutes. In addition, the bottles are clearly marked with the words “Warning: Raw-Unpasteurized.”

Over the last couple of years there has been a notable increase in the number of reports of state and federal raids and inordinate censure and penalization of small family dairies producing raw milk and raw milk products, and on businesses distributing these products.[i] Although millions of people believe that consuming raw milk has significant health benefits, the rationale given for such raids and censure is that these products are dangerous to public health. Interestingly, the escalating crackdown by regulators has paralleled the increasing popularity of these products.[ii]  Examination of the actual statistics for illnesses caused by raw milk reveals that its consumption is not a serious public health threat, and that regulators’ motivations may not simply be protecting the health of consumers.

According to estimates from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) for all food types consumed, 48 million Americans will suffer from food poisoning in 2011.  Of these 128,000 will be hospitalized and 3000 will die.[iii]Based on CDC figures for a 10-year period between 1998 and 2008, out of the 3 million people who consumed raw milk[iv]there were 161 foodborne illnesses caused by raw milk consumption each year.  Of these, 19 required hospitalizations and .2 resulted in death.[v]

The raw milk industry is not some archaic hold-over from pre-industrial America. We are not talking about milking Bessie into a galvanized bucket out in the hay barn.  The raw milk industry uses modern technologies and equipment, and standards for safe production.[vi] Granted, in the mid-1930’s milk products were the source of 25% of traceable food and waterborne illnesses.[vii]The US Public Health Service began promoting the mainstream pasteurization of milk products in 1924.[viii] Which was a fine idea at the time considering refrigeration only began to get a toe-hold in the American market in the 30’s and did not become mainstream with mass-production until after World War II.[ix] Subsequently, the combination of both pasteurization AND refrigeration has led to milk products now accounting for less than 1% of food and waterborne illnesses.[x] With modern standards of sanitary production techniques and equipment, and the standard of immediate and continuous refrigeration, raw milk can and is produced in a safe and healthy manner.

To gain some perspective, lets extrapolate the CDC figures for raw milk generated illnesses to the entire US population of 309 million citizens. If 103 times more US citizens (instead of just the 3 million who actually do) were consuming raw milk produced under current safety standards, 16,583 foodborne illnesses would be caused by raw milk use annually. Of these 1,957 would require hospitalization and 21 would result in death. It is compelling to note that the risk of death here is actually miniscule compared to other common activities that most people engage in. For example, the number of people in the US who die from motor vehicle accidents averages more than 40,000 per year.[xi],[xii]

But perhaps it is more appropriate to stick with food comparisons. Let’s return to the total foodborne illnesses expected in 2011 by the CDC and consider another hypothetical situation.  If all US citizens had access to and were consuming raw milk, .03% of ALL annual cases of food poisoning would be caused by this use.[xiii] For a little more perspective, lets compare this to the percentage of foodborne illnesses caused by a very common American pastime, eating in restaurants. I was only able to find figures for 1983-1987[xiv]and 1993-1997[xv]but both of these reports indicate that food eaten in restaurants accounts for slightly more than 40% of all outbreaks of food poisoning.[xvi]

It is noteworthy (and it is only fair to illuminate it here) that the CDC statistics from 1998-2008 indicate that of the raw milk generated illnesses, 12% were hospitalized and .12% died while CDC estimates for 2011 for all food types indicate that of the foodborne illnesses expected, .3% will be hospitalized and .006% will die.  These figures indicate that even though you are 1,333 times more likely to get sick eating in a restaurant than to get sick from drinking raw milk[xvii] if you do get sick from raw milk you may be sicker than if you get sick from eating at a restaurant.

This is not an ideal comparison though, since all food types, regardless of level of risk, are lumped together for the 2011 estimates for all foodborne illnesses and do not reflect those illnesses outside the mean due to high-risk food types. Risks vary by food type depending on the pathogens different types of food tend to be associated with. For example, Listeria poisoning is associated with both deli meats and raw milk products.[xviii] Of the 2500 people poisoned by Listeria annually, 500 will die.[xix] Even if all of the .2 deaths from raw milk consumption annually (between 1998 and 2008) were linked to Listeria it would still mean that a far greater number of deaths, 499.8, or 16% of all annual foodborne related deaths, were predominantly from deli meats. [xx]

So, if restaurants account for 40% of all food poisoning outbreaks and raw milk would account for .03% if all US citizens had access to and consumed it, why is eating in restaurants considered safe while drinking raw milk is considered hazardous?  Why are driving a car and eating in a restaurant both legal activities in the US, but selling raw milk for human consumption illegal in 22 states? Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivores Dilemma,[xxi] has pointed out that while it is small consolation to those who are regrettably sickened or tragically die, there is and always will be some risks involved in eating.[xxii] But the relative risks associated with driving a car, eating in a restaurant or drinking raw milk throws into stark relief the fact that, being free American citizens, the choice of what risks to take should be ours.

More than half a century after the implementation of modern technologies and the standardization of sanitary practices for raw milk production, why all the hype? Why all the hysteria? Why are small family farms and distributors of their products being targeted with cease and desist orders?  And why, in a growing number of egregious cases across the country, are their products and equipment being confiscated and destroyed? The only answer that I can fathom is that perhaps the raw milk “problem” is perceived by regulating agencies as a “winnable” battle. Outdated policies have become battle cries for those who want to be perceived as doing their job of protecting the public health. Especially in light of several far-reaching, high-profile, food poisoning outbreaks in the last couple of years that had nothing to do with locally produced food and everything to do with an unsustainable industrial model of food production.

Clearly small family dairies where raw milk is produced have very few resources and very little lobbying power to defend themselves from such statistically unjustified persecution.  It wouldn’t quite be the same for regulators to try to shut down any of the large restaurant chains, let alone all of them together for being “hazardous” to public health.  Clearly the restaurant industry has a certain amount of leverage given that it gave nearly $8 million in political contributions in 2010 alone.[xxiii]  Small family dairies have no such political leverage and are subsequently under siege due to this spurious perception on the part of regulating agencies.  Let us help these families to continue to provide delicious and healthful products and to be vibrant contributors to our local economies. To help small family dairies, please support them buy buying their wonderful products and contribute to a raw milk association in your state.  To learn more visit David Gumpert's site and the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund.

[i] Raids are increasing on farms and private food-supply clubs - 5 Tips for Surviving a Raid

[ii] Is Raw Milk Becoming Too Popular For Its Own Good?

[iii]  CDC: 2011 CDC Food Borne Illness Estimates

[iv] A Clash over Unpasturised Milk Gets Raw

[vi] Is Raw Milk Becoming Too Popular For Its Own Good? and Raw Milk Colorado Dairy Standartds

[vii] Milk Facts: Heat Treatment and Pasteurization

[viii] Milk Facts: Heat Treatment and Pasteurization

[ix]  Wikipedia: Refrigerator

[x]  Milk Facts: Heat Treatment and Pasteurization

[xi] Wikipedia: Traffic Fatalities

[xii] United Kingdome HSE statistics on the average annual risk of death as a consequence of participation in an activity also lends a bit of perspective. The following is a list of the number of US citizens who would die annually if the entire population participated in the activity:

Canoeing: 411

Rock-climbing: 967

Hang-gliding: 2664

Exposure to surgical anesthesia: 1672

I realize these are statistics compiled in the UK. But the death rates given are per the actual number of incidents of participation in the activity. I think we can safely assume that the rate of death per activity would be about the same whether the participant was British or American…

[xiii] i.e.16,583/48 million

[xiv] Foodborne Disease Outbreaks 1983-1987

[xv] Food borne Disease Outbreaks 1993-1997

[xvi] If we use the conservative figure of 40% this would mean that annual illnesses caused by eating in restaurants is estimated to be just over 19 million vs. 16,583 projected if raw milk were accessible to and consumed by all US citizens.

[xvii] 40% vs .03%

[xviii] Diagnosis and Management of Foodborne Illness (see chart)

[xix] Watermark: Decreasing Listeriosis Mortality 1995-2005

[xx] i.e. 499.8/3000

[xxi] Michal Pollan: The Omnivores Dilemma

[xxii] Washington Post: Michael Pollan: on the Food Safety Bill

[xxiii]  Open Secrets: Restaurants and Drinking Establishments: Top Contributors to Federal Candidates, Parties and Outside Groups