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The Raw Milk Debate: Economic Opportunity or Legal Liability

Despite claims of health benefits associated with raw milk consumption, raw milk is a well documented source of bacterial pathogens which can cause human illness, and in some instances, death (Oliver et al., 2009; Schmidt and Davidson, 2008). Consumers who choose to purchase and consume raw milk should understand that raw milk may contain dangerous bacterial pathogens. Consumers should also understand whether they are in a risk group, which increases their chances of adverse health impacts from exposure to bacterial pathogens.

The dangers posed to public health by bacterial pathogens associated with raw milk consumption are numerous. Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella Typhimurium, Escherichia coli O157:H7, and Campylobacter are just four of the pathogens of concern in raw milk. The bacterial pathogens posing a risk to consumer health have become more dangerous in the past two decades. During this same period, the percentage of our population at risk for foodborne illness has increased significantly. It is critically important to understand risks posed by raw milk consumption, why the pathogens have become so dangerous, who is at greatest risk for severe illness and death, and why we need public health policies that limit exposure and warn susceptible consumers about dangers posed by raw milk consumption.

Of all of the food commodity sectors in the U.S., no sector is more committed to public health than the dairy industry. The reason for the absolute commitment to public health stems from early in the 1900s when raw milk was a major source of human disease, including tuberculosis and scarlet fever (Potter et al., 1984). Numerous deaths were linked to raw milk consumption. The public health response to this crisis was the crafting in 1924 of the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO), a comprehensive document which governs all aspects of production, processing, and marketing of milk and dairy products (U.S. FDA, 2007). Pasteurized milk is not a safe product simply due to the heat treatment which milk receives; milk safety is achieved because the PMO outlines a comprehensive system to assure milk safety.

The PMO is constantly updated, guided by scientific experts, farmers, and dairy industry personnel working through the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments (NCIMS) which works to “assure the safest possible milk supply for all the people” through enforcement of Grade A milk sanitation laws.  The PMO has made pasteurized milk one of the safest food products available to consumers, and this ordinance has had a profound positive impact on public health. The PMO is the accepted operating guideline for the handling and production of milk and dairy products in most states. Adherence to the PMO importantly protects the U.S. milk market by enhancing consumer confidence in dairy product safety and reducing liability costs of this economically significant sector of the U.S. agricultural economy.

Many states have recently passed legislation to expand the sale of unpasteurized milk, allowing farmers to sell larger quantities of unpasteurized milk and thereby enhance economic opportunities in these times of severe economic challenges for so many dairy farmers. However, should economic opportunity be met at the expense of public health?  Does pursuit of economic opportunity for some create the right to jeopardize the image of an entire industry that has built its reputation on the safety and wholesomeness of its products? Has this legislation created two standards for milk production in the U.S. and if so, what does this pose for the future of the U.S. dairy industry? There are important liability issues faced by individuals producing products causing harm to consumers, so the key question remains:  Has raw milk legislation created economic opportunity or legal liability for farmers engaged in the sale of unpasteurized milk?

Catherine DonnellyCatherine Donnelly
Professor, Dept. of Nutrition and Food Science, University of Vermont
Co-director, Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese

15 Responses

  1. What a ridiculously biased way to pose the question over this debate! The very question presumes that public health must be sacrificed for monetary gain, and the preamble offhandedly dismisses any potential benefit other than monetary benefit for farmers. The initiative for raw milk has nothing to do with making extra bucks for farmers in hard times or otherwise. I am a food scientist and have degrees in both food science and nutrition, and I don’t have an explanation at the molecular level for the difference between raw milk and pasteurized, but I can absolutely assure you that there is very strong evidence that numerous people who cannot easily digest pasteurized and homogenized milk are easily able to digest raw milk, and I believe this would stand up to formal verification.
    This whole debate as framed above also totally misses the connection between raw milk and local food production. When consumers buy milk directly from a farmer whose cows and operational cleanliness they can see and approve, the risk from contamination or pathogens is minimal, which is why there are, to my knowledge, no reports of sickness from raw milk sales at the local level. The notion that raw milk sales should or could be expanded to major industrial operations and dairies, effectively hijacking the market in the same way as the organic industry was created, is an obvious mistake. It removes the connection between the farmer and the consumer and increases the delay between milking and consumption.
    The small supply of raw milk by direct sales from farmer to consumer is neither a threat to the dairy industry nor to public health. Offering raw milk as a larger scale industrial operation would be a bad decision, as would maintaining excessive bureaucratic and inappropriate regulations designed for commercial dairies for small scale farmers. If the idea of various states’ legislation is simply to allow small farmers to sell raw milk to consumers in peace with a reasonable care for food safety, then this is a very positive and laudable step.

  2. The comment by Jonathan Davis, on November 11th, 2009 at 2:42 pm puts the debate in a light that removes the unnecessarily presented “fear factor” as seen in the wording of the original report which misses completely the local level connection. I reiterate – “If the idea of various states’ legislation is simply to allow small farmers to sell raw milk to consumers in peace with a reasonable care for food safety, then this is a very positive and laudable step.”

  3. There is a simple alternative to making raw milk safe: the application of a low level pressure at cold temperatures eliminates all pathogens while leaving the milk raw. Anyone can verify this simple and economical procedure at Avure Technologies in Kent, WA. A similar process is being used used to eliminate pathogens in oysters.

  4. If the purveyors of raw dairy products performed simple microbiological testing before releasing products for distribution, they could greatly reduce risk to the public.
    If they do not take such preventative measures, then they must be held responsible for harm to the consumer. I know of no industry that grows and thrives by killing it’s customers.

  5. “I know of no industry that grows and thrives by killing it’s customers.”

    How quickly you forget the tobacco industry….

  6. Let’s talk about PMO milk. Grain-fed Holstein cows. Dirtier milking parlor because pasteurization will take care of it. The milk of hundreds of cows commingled, so if any one animal is sick, the milk is in the whole tank. Transferred from milk parlor holfding tank to tanker truck, transferred from tanker truck to bottling holding tank, each transfer is an opportunity to pick up cleaning solvents, disinfecting chemicals, and other impurities. Milk is centrifuge separated into milkfat and nonfat milk, then recombined to form an amalgam product with precise fat content–the millkfat and nonfat not necessarily even from the same farm. Vitamin D imported from New Zealand lambswool UV radiated lanolin added as well as Vitamin A from China? Other additives in some milk products: carageenan, microcrystalline cellulose, “natural cream flavor,” “color added,” calcium, and/or Chinese nonfat milk solids cut with melamine. This scale is enabled by pasteurization which enables a 3-week shelf life. More recently, ultrapasteurization is leading to nationwide distribution and even longer shelf life.

  7. Does anyone know if the California dairies are now achieving the same strict coliform standards as PMO milk since Calfiornia passed the requirement about a year ago? If so, that means that PMO milk achieves their bacterial standard by pasteurization and unprocessed producers achieve the same standard by engaging in practices and methods that keep things very clean in the first place.

    If they both come out achieving the same standard, then 1) neither product is more prone to subsequent contamination than the other, and 2) what does it say about the handling of the product and the safeguards in the PMO milk prior to pasteurization?

  8. Hi

    My question is to you whether listeriosis, salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and brucellosis are killed or not when you boil the raw milk three times.This is a common practice in many part of world today where pasteurized milk either not available or expensive.

  9. [...] The Raw Milk Debate: Economic Opportunity or Legal Liability. Catherine Donnelly, Professor, Dept. of Nutrition and Food Science, University of Vermont. [...]

  10. Rasheed: The orgamism that cause the above conditions would be killed after boiling just once!

  11. It has long been established that consumption of raw milk is a public health risk. Since the establishment of the PMO, foodborne disease associated with the consumption of milk has been reduced dramatically. The fact that a person can go to a farm and buy milk from a farmer they know, from cows that have names, milked in a building that looks clean is, by no means a substitute for an established pasteurization process…equipment that looks clean can harbor a host of pathogens. I do not debate the fact that some components (especially proteins) of raw milk are altered by pasteurization, but the risk of raw milk consumption is significantly greater than the benefits derived.

  12. Aw shucks, we’s all jus’ hicks in the sticks what don’t know nothin’ ’bout cleanin’. We jus’ wipes them tanks wit’ a rag and dey look real purty and clean, sho’ ‘nough…
    It’s interesting to suppose how much more effective our food supply might be if food industry people and government regulators actually took the time to relate to farmers and work with them, even small producers, instead of viewing them and consumers with a sort of sneering contempt like “DRW”. Healthy cows, scrupulous hygiene and prompt consumption is exactly how raw milk can be safely delivered and consumed locally, and this has nothing to do with suggesting a substitute for the PMO for long-chain food distribution or storage.
    Unfortunately the food industry in general has earned the distrust of the public through an embarrassing series of major food-borne illnesses and deaths, which is a significant factor in the growing interest in local food supply. Attacking or over-regulating local suppliers will do absolutely nothing to improve public safety or trust in the overall long-chain food supply. Harassing local suppliers of raw milk is a solution in search of a problem.

  13. Yes, the FDA shows just how much concern it has for the health of the public.
    That is why it took them 50,000 deaths from Vioxx to reluctantly take it off the market. and then they had the gall to state that:
    “if even one person is helped by a drug, it is worth using, even though 50,000 will die from using it”

    Until the day comes when they have totally banned cigarettes, cigars, whiskey, vicodin, lipitor, avandia, plavix, abilify, seroquel, zoloft, zyprexia, ambien and chantix, then we can outlaw raw milk. All of these products are dangerous, cause suicidal and homicidal rages, destroy livers and kidneys and heart attacks, strokes and death as side effects. All things that are opening cited on TV.
    The also need to ban hamburger cleansed with ammonia to kill the salmonella and all factory meat farms that allow the animals to live in their own feces and have to be shot up full of antibiotics to stay alive until sent to market.
    Cows are being fed chicken waste full of feces, distillery waste products and whatever else is deemed cheap and plentiful, as long as it fattens the bottomline and saves money.
    It’s a crying shame that a government agency that is supposed to be looking out for the people, sells the people out every chance it gets.
    In short the FDA and the Dept of Ag are hypocrites and liars.
    All they truly care about is playing along with big pharma and factory farms to ensure they keep their profits and that there is no competition or complaints to get in the way.
    How do you get people to obey laws when the watchdog breaks the laws and lies about doing it?
    The FDA is a two bit pharma whore who is trying salvage it’ reputation by attacking anything healthy and nourishing for the people!

  14. ” am a food scientist and have degrees in both food science and nutrition, and I don’t have an explanation at the molecular level for the difference between raw milk and pasteurized, but I can absolutely assure you that there is very strong evidence that numerous people who cannot easily digest pasteurized and homogenized milk are easily able to digest raw milk, and I believe this would stand up to formal verification.”

    The author of the first comment was later proven wrong in a clinical study.

  15. Raw milk should not be allowed for sale to the general public. They have come to rely on all milk being safe to consumer all the time, they don’t know and can’t be taught about the inherent danger of raw milk, they are ignorant to the issue. If you want raw milk to drink go buy a cow, yak, camel or goat. But don’t harm the legitimate industry that tries every day through pasteurization to make dairy products safe to consume!

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