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?