Should we drink Raw / Unpasteurized Milk?

This year I came across people advocating the drinking of raw milk for health reasons. Just to be clear this is milk that is unpasteurised (or unpasteurized if you’re American). The argument is that pasteurisation (heating the milk to 71.6ºC for 15 seconds) damages the milk and destroys some nutrients and fatty acids etc and so raw unpasteurized milk is better for you.

Having been mulling this over for a couple of months but had not really reached a decision, rather lazily after a brief search of the web I’d come to the conclusion that finding a reliable source would likely be the major limiting factor, so let that make the decision for me.

Today however, being the last Sunday of the month, I went to Ashton Farmers Market, where amongst the usual purchases of wild venison, rabbit (or Hare as it was today), assorted organic meats and a large bag of salamis, I also found myself at the Cheshire Cheese stall of HS Bourne. This was nothing out of the ordinary until he mentioned that some of the cheeses were from unpasteurized milk and before I knew what I was saying, I asked if he sold unpasteurised milk?

Imagine my surprise when he told me that he was in the process of getting approval and license to do just that and he would probably be able to sell it within a few weeks. There ensued some evangelising about raw milk and how healthy it was and how his whole family had grown up on it etc, but the real effect was that is spurred me on to do some proper research.

So a lazy Sunday afternoon with my mate Google later, and I am now as informed as I think I’m ever going to be on the subject. I had intended on reading the research papers myself but soon discovered that pretty much all serious research isn’t fully published on the net and you’re looking at about £30 to buy a research paper. However I did find what I suspect is the most comprehensive post on the net on the subject of unpasturised milk, indeed it took me about an hour to read it end to end.

Bill Marler summarises every major piece of research I’d come across and many more that I hadn’t, giving succinct bullet points on the germane factors of each one, including not only their key findings but also what (if any) conclusions they draw. For example, I was particularly interested in reading a 2007 study entitled “Unpasteurized milk: health or hazard?” by M R Perkin, a 630 page research paper. Bill however summarises it thus:

• This is an editorial in the same issue with the Waser article below
• Reviews epidemiological evidence of the protective effect of raw milk for allergic disorders in children
• He concludes that the Waser paper “adds to the weight of evidence that a protective effect is associated with unpasteurized milk consumption….The key issue now is to determine what underlies this protective effect and whether it is possible to separate the protective effect from the hazardous [pathogens] substances.”

As you can surmise from that extract, the general opinion on the subject goes like this: There is most definitely a statistically significant relationship between raw milk consumption and reduced incidents of asthma and allergies (although some studies don’t necessarily distinguish between unpasteurized milk and the more general benefits of living on a farm, aka the “hygiene hypothesis” which argues that exposure to a more biologically dirty environment as a kid, builds an improved immune system later in life).

However that increased health benefit comes with an increased risk of disease (e.g. salmonella, Cryptosporidium species, Campylobacter species and E. coli O157), further the damage done to the milk by pasteurization is debated as a matter of science and the exact cause of the increased health benefit is not known. Therefore the general “official” opinion is that the benefits are not worth the risks.

I however am not convinced. I know lots of people with asthma (me and the Missus to a mild degree) and lots of people with allergies / excema. However I am only aware of knowing one person who had Salmonella and that was not due to raw milk or even eggs, it was an improperly cooked burger. In terms of statistics these are quoted in a legal case in America against Alta-Dena, a producer of Certified Raw Milk (CRM):

Dannemeyer traced the history of opposition to Alta-Dena and CRM from 1966 and said that the public has lost respect for public health authorities in California in regard to this issue. He claimed that health department records show that 3.6 million human cases of salmonellosis were reported between 1971 and 1982 in California, and that almost half of them were attributed to food service establishments, most of the remainder to meat and poultry, and only 103 to certified raw milk.

I had to read that 3 times before it sunk in: in 12 years there were 103 cases of salmonella attributed to raw milk, but that was out of 3.6 million other cases. 103 our of 3.6 million, that’s a tiny 0.003 percentage of cases! However the stats are confusing, as the previous quote was from an advocate of the raw milk trade, this next quote was from an antagonist:

Dr. Bolton exhibited a chart which analysed the 123 cases of S. dublin reported in California in 1983. It showed 51 patients who used raw milk, including 44 who used it from Alta-Dena. Only 10 of the 51 had been exposed to such other possible sources of S. dublin infection as raw eggs or raw or rare meat.

Whis is a little odd, how was there 3.6 million cases in the 12 years to 1982, how come there was only 123 cases in 1983? To be honest I’m inclinded to believe the second statistic, it seems a more plausible number. Either way, it’s still a very small number and less than half are attributable to raw milk. Also bare in mind that none of these studies has reported any deaths as a result of unpasteurised milk.

So in conclusion, I find that on the balance of probabilities, asthma, allergies and eczema are far more serious and massively more prevelant, 500 asthma related deaths each year for example in the under 65’s, with 74,000 emergency hospital admissions each year.  Compare that to a handful of salmonella cases… it seems ludicous to me to compare the two.

It strikes me that it is fear that makes the establishment advise against raw milk.  Fear of the unknown in that they can’t say what it is that bestows the health benefits; and fear of saying something is safe that they can’t explain, especially in this litigious society.  It’s a shame, but there you have it.  I’m going to look forward to my first batch of unpasteurised milk, I wonder if it really tastes as good as people say?

{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Bill Marler 28 July 2008, 12:29 pm

    Before you do slurp down raw milk, review all of my blog a bit more carefully. Go to http://www.marlerblog.com and type in “raw milk.” There are two studies of the pro and con literature, and a history of raw milk. Also, there are cases where I am representing (or have represented) several people with severe illness (E. coli, Campylobacter, Listeria) from drinking raw milk or eating raw milk cheese.

  • Colin McNulty 28 July 2008, 9:28 pm

    Thanks for the visit and comment Bill.

    I’ll take another look at your blog, but whilst I agree that raw milk isn’t 100% safe, neither is a lot of food I eat. Mad Cow was a huge one of course, but every year there are E. coli etc cases from meat and eggs and the like. Like everything in life, it’s a value judgement of risk vs reward and at the moment, I’m not convinced the risks of raw milk are high enough.

    What I would like to do is find out the proper stats of incidences of and deaths from:

    E. coli
    Campylobacter
    Listeria
    Salmonella
    etc

    Compare the official stats vs those attributable to raw milk, and then look at the stats for Asthma, eczema etc.

  • Duncan Ricks 30 July 2008, 3:10 pm

    An interesting read mate, while I probably wouldn’t put the effort into finding unpasturised milk I think I would be happy to try/take it up. I mean what did they do before pasturisation????

    I have a fine example of someone that drank unpasturised milk for the first 22 years of his life (Until he moved from the farming trade) and he said it never did him any harm but would that be because he was brought up on it and his immune system was use to it? How would your body react when it had never had it before?

  • Colin McNulty 31 July 2008, 5:06 am

    >How would your body react when it had never had it before?

    That’s a good point, I intend on “weening” myself onto it rather then drinking a gallon a day to start with. 😉

  • MikMIt 9 August 2008, 12:48 am

    What they did before pasteurization? They died (or got really sick). Of course, they didn’t have refrigeration widely available and their dairies weren’t nearly as clean as modern farms. I worked on a dairy farm and drank raw, whole milk. Loved it. But the truth is it can be quite dangerous. Luis Pasteur saved countless lives. (Back in his day, people didn’t live very long because of food-bourne illness.)

    Look at milk in third-world countries. Many of them just simply boil the milk. Boiled milk – not my favorite. But they have learned their lesson. It’s possible that the modern processing systems limit risks but remember, I worked on a “modern” dairy farm. I can’t begin to count the number of times the milkers fell into a fresh pile of … well, don’t try to imagine it. Not to mention that washing down the cows always left some drizzling water that was inevitably sucked into the system.

    The idea that only 103 cases in California were attributed to raw milk doesn’t surprise me at all. The vast majority of the population drinks pasteurized milk but most of them eat egg, chicken and beef products so there would naturally be much larger numbers attributable to that. Not only that, I’m sure the medical professionals involved in many of the cases are prone to blame the most common sources rather than a relatively uncommon raw milk possibility.

  • Colin McNulty 14 August 2008, 5:31 pm

    > The vast majority of the population drinks pasteurized milk but most of them eat egg, chicken and beef products so there would naturally be much larger numbers attributable to that.

    Which kind of makes the point that yes, there is a risk, but no more so than eating any of these things. What really gets me is watching cooking programs on TV, so many deserts are made with raw eggs!

  • Julie 28 October 2008, 3:03 am

    One thing that is very important to understand is why they began pasteurizing the milk. Back in the day dairy conditions were horrendous, (even more so than today). The cows were unhealthy and given the barley slop. A cow that was sickly and dying was milked up until it’s last day of life. How can an unhealthy cow produce healthy milk? Kids were dying from the nasty toxic milk, (this was 100+ years ago). Pasteurization began right around the time that these dairies started to reform and follow more sound sanitation health guidelines due to regulations. A great read on this subject is The Untold Story of Milk.

    It is important to find raw milk that is coming from cows that eat grass, (which is the best diet for them). Grain-fed, hormone-filled cows do not produce the same quality milk as a grass fed cow naturally treated cows. Also it is important to find a diary that tests their milk on a regular basis.

    We have been drinking raw milk for the past couple of months, my husband’s allergies have significantly decreased. We love it!

    One last thing, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYDK6HBHvfs is a very informative video on the safety of raw milk.

    Best wishes to you, hope you find what is best for you.

  • Colin McNulty 28 October 2008, 7:56 am

    Thanks for the post Julie, I’ll checkout that video, and the others on the channel.

  • Paul Remfry 13 October 2009, 7:54 am

    I had a really bad attack of sinusitus and had for years always had a rather runny nose. Last March I went over to unhomogonised milk and found an immediate improvement, since then I have changed to buying raw, unpasteurised Herefordshire milk and have been breathing the easiest that I can remember. And my goodness, can you tell the difference with taste. Its great to have milk again with a creamy head. It also does not go off as quickly as processed milk and does not separate into water and sludge when left too long. It also does not taste like drinking white-wash! Ill effects after 6 months none – health benefits a clear head and unblocked nasal passageways. I certainly won’t be going back.

  • Colin McNulty 13 October 2009, 4:07 pm

    Thanks for the post Paul. Where are you getting your Herefordshire milk from?

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