Raw milk: evidence of beneficial nutrition

During the last few years bureaucrats and public health officials have been quiet about raw milk, but then Iowa legalised its sale last May. The accompanying publicity – in The New York Times and USA Today, plus many other publications – has resulted in a flurry of pro-pasteurization, anti-raw milk Internet posts.

One of these appeared on December 8, 2023, by Claire Dunavan, Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Infectious Diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and past president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. Dunavan cannot understand the ‘risky allure’ of raw milk. ‘Is it buyers’ faith in ‘Nature’s perfect food’ or sellers’ pure, naked greed?’ she asks. Her main claims are:

• In the 1890s Nathan Straus (co-owner of Macy’s) started a private foundation to dispense pasteurized milk after his son died of typhus during a vacation in Italy – the death blamed on raw milk. (Dunavan then credits Straus with a drop in US infant mortality from 125 per 1,000 to fewer than 16 per 1,000 between 1891 and 1925.)

• Raw milk consumers are 840 times more likely to suffer illness than those who drink pasteurized dairy.

• Recent outbreaks of illness blamed on raw milk have occurred in California, Utah and Idaho.

• Raw milk contains dangerous pathogens like campylobacter and salmonella.

• Raw milk may cause Guillain-Barré syndrome.

• People are avoiding pasteurized milk because of milk allergy ‘as opposed to a serious, even life-threatening infection.’

• The real villains are the people who sell raw milk ‘because they believe there’s an audience out there that will buy it,’ even though they ‘know’ that raw milk will harm some people.

Does greed drive raw milk farmers?

I will take these points one by one, starting with the accusation that raw milk farmers are motivated by pure, naked greed. (For full disclosure, I am a dairy farmer who sells raw milk.)

Conventional dairy farmers today receive about the same price as they did during World War II, even while their costs have skyrocketed. Typically, they get $1.45 per gallon, which costs them $2 to produce. This explains why the number of licensed dairy operations in the US (and in the UK) has steadily declined by more than 55%, from 70,375 in 2003 to 31,657 in 2020. More than 3,000 dairy farms stopped production during 2020 alone.

Some of these farmers have avoided going bankrupt by switching to raw milk sales. Typically, consumers are happy to pay from $5 to $10 per half gallon – enough to save the family farm, especially if the farmer reduces his costs by nourishing his cows on grass (the natural food for cows) rather than feeding grain.

Dunavan refers to farmers’ desire to make a decent living as ‘pure, naked greed’, but let me give you an example of real greed. Dairy company CEOs typically make salaries upwards of $3 million per year. They do this by keeping milk prices as low as possible – hence the heartbreak of losing the farm inflict-

ed on thousands of dairy farmers. That is what most of us would call pure, naked greed.

True causes of infant mortality

As far as Nathan Straus losing his son to typhus and blaming it on raw milk, as any doctor knows, typhus is caused by bacteria spread by lice, chiggers or fleas. Since Dunavan is a public health expert, she should know this. (I have not been able to find any reference to raw milk causing typhus, except for the case of Straus’ son!)

Typhus reigns in filthy conditions and it was a real problem, especially in cities, before the advent of modern housing, sewage systems and washing machines. Even today we see outbreaks of typhus but public health experts typically blame them on rats, never on raw milk!

As for the decline in infant mortality in the US at the turn of the 20th century, it was during this period that public officials worked to clean up our cities with the installation of sewage systems, rubbish collection and clean water.

This was also the period when the car gradually replaced the horse and mule – before the car, our cities were stinking cesspools of manure and grime. Immi­grants huddled in crowded housing without running water and refrigeration, and with only rudimentary sanitation. The death rate by the age of five was 50% – and this was blamed on raw milk rather than unsanitary conditions – officials called it the ‘milk problem’.

Raw milk may indeed have contributed to the high death rate because it came from distillery dairies – inner city confinement dairies of unimaginable filth where cows were fed distillery waste. The milk was so deficient and watery that chalk was often added to make it look white – this was the milk that Straus wanted to pasteurize.

However, pasteurization cannot take the credit for the decline in infant mortality as it was around this time that distillery dairies were banned. The real hero was not Nathan Straus, who did nothing for public clean-up efforts, but Dr Henry Coit, who worked to bring clean, raw milk from the countryside to the cities.

Public health officials at the time lauded Coit’s certified raw milk with saving children’s lives and noted that children in orphanages brought up on raw milk were healthier than those given pasteurized milk.

Questioning the reports

About raw milk safety, Dunavan repeats the recent claim that people who drink raw milk are 840 times (!) more likely to contract food-borne illness than those who do not.

But an analysis by epidemiologist Peg Coleman, based on data considered by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), found that, on a per annum basis, out of 23 foods considered, pasteurized milk ranked second highest and raw milk ranked seventh highest in causing severe illness. The real question that one must ask, however, is: how accurate are reports of illness and death from raw milk?

The Weston A Price Foundation analysed a 2007 PowerPoint presentation by John Sheehan, then director of FDA’s Division of Dairy and Egg Safety, who contended that pasteurization is the only way to ensure the safety of milk, and comprehensively rebutted his claims.

Table 1 shows that the 15 studies Sheehan referenced (to 2005) either were methodologically flawed or that bias or outright fabrication guided the conclusions that he drew; not one of the studies cited by the FDA actually proved that raw milk caused the illness.

We need to do the same analysis for reports of raw milk illness from 2005 to the present – one that includes the claims of illness from raw milk in California, Idaho and Utah. It is safe to assume that many of them are bogus, given the alacrity of public health officials to blame raw milk for any illness without a thorough examination of all the data.

According to the late Dr Ted Beals, who analyzed reports of foodborne illness from 1999 to 2011, Government data report an average of 42 illnesses from raw milk per year out of 90,771 illnesses from all sources.

Using these figures, Dr Beals concluded that one is 35,000 times more likely to become ill from other foods than from raw milk. Beals also noted that there is no way to quantify whether any one food is safer than another from the data we have, but at the same time it is clear that there is no basis for singling out raw milk as ‘inherently dangerous’.

Recently, melons have ranked high in causing illness – including an outbreak from cantaloupe that resulted in over 300 illnesses, over 100 hospitalizations and four deaths. Where is Dunavan’s outcry against greedy melon growers? And what about raw oysters, which kill 15 people per year? Where are the warnings to oyster lovers not to eat these terrible things?

Read the complete article in issue 111.

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