The Dangers of Raw Milk

Milk and milk products provide a wealth of nutrition benefits. But milk that has not been pasteurized can harbor dangerous microorganisms that can pose serious health risks to you and your family if consumed raw.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 1993 through 2012, there were 127 outbreaks linked to raw milk or raw milk products like ice cream, soft cheese, or yogurt. They resulted in 1,909 illnesses and 144 hospitalizations. The CDC points out that most foodborne illnesses are not a part of recognized outbreaks, and for every illness reported, many others occur. Perhaps more than at any other time, it’s important to prevent any illness that may result in a hospitalization or further strain the health care system.

Raw milk can come from cows, sheep, and goats — or any other animal. Raw milk can carry dangerous bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, Campylobacter, and others that cause foodborne illness, often called “food poisoning.” These bacteria can seriously injure the health of anyone who drinks raw milk or eats products made from raw milk. However, the bacteria in raw milk can be especially dangerous to people with weakened immune systems (such as transplant patients and individuals with HIV/AIDS, cancer, and diabetes), children, older adults, and pregnant women.

What are the risks associated with drinking unpasteurized (raw) milk? While it is possible to get foodborne illnesses from many different foods, raw milk is one of the riskiest of all. Getting sick from raw milk can mean many days of diarrhea, stomach cramping, and vomiting. Some people who drank raw milk have developed severe or even life-threatening diseases, including Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause paralysis, and hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can result in kidney failure, stroke, and even death.

Here are some things you should know:

  • Illness can occur from the same brand and source of raw milk that people had been drinking for a long time without becoming ill.
  • A wide variety of germs that are sometimes found in raw milk can make people sick. These germs include Brucella, Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, E. coliListeria, and Salmonella.
  • Each ill person’s symptoms can differ depending on the type of germ, the amount of contamination, and the person’s immune defenses.

Milk pasteurization protects consumers. Milk pasteurization is a rapid, carefully controlled heat treatment which renders milk free of harmful germs. Current standards require a minimum of 161°F for 15 seconds to ensure safety. This rapid heating process preserves the nutritional value of milk while ensuring safety. Following pasteurization, milk is rapidly cooled. Pasteurization techniques in use today help ensure that milk has a long shelf life. Many companies actually enhance the nutritional value of milk at the time of pasteurization by fortifying milk with vitamin D, which helps with calcium absorption.

But aren’t raw or natural foods better than processed foods? Many people believe that foods with little to no processing are better for their health. Many people also believe that small, local farms are better sources of healthy food. However, some types of processing are needed to protect health. One type of processing happens when we cook raw meat, poultry, and fish to make them safe to eat. Similarly, when milk is pasteurized, it is made safe by heating it just long enough to kill disease-causing germs. Most nutrients remain in milk after it is pasteurized.  And the enzymes that may be destroyed on pasteurization are not enzymes that humans can absorb and use.

Is raw milk a good source of beneficial bacteria? Raw milk contains bacteria, and some of them can be harmful. So, if you’re thinking about consuming raw milk because you believe it is a good source of beneficial bacteria, you need to know that you may instead get sick from the harmful bacteria. If you think that certain types of bacteria may be beneficial to your health, consider getting them from foods that don’t involve such a high risk. For example, pasteurized fermented foods, such as yogurt and kefir, contain bacteria that are safe to eat.

I know people who have been drinking raw milk for years, and they never got sick. Why is that? The presence of germs in raw milk is unpredictable. People can drink it for a long time without getting sick, and then get sick if their milk is contaminated.

What about homemade ice cream or holiday egg nog?  Each year, homemade ice cream or eggnog cause serious outbreaks of infection from Salmonella. Often the infection is due to the presence of raw eggs, but raw milk is also risky.  Freezing ice cream mix will not destroy harmful bacteria and make homemade ice cream (made with raw eggs or raw milk) safe to consume. Likewise, adding brandy or other alcohol to eggnog made with raw milk (or raw eggs) will not make the eggnog safe to consume.

Protect Your Family with Wise Food Choices

Most milk and milk products sold commercially in the United States contain pasteurized milk or cream, or the products have been produced in a manner that kills any dangerous bacteria that may be present. But, unpasteurized milk and products made from unpasteurized milk are sold and may be harmful to your health. To avoid getting sick from the dangerous bacteria found in raw milk, you should choose your milk and milk products carefully. Healthy choices include:

  • Pasteurized milk or cream products
  • Soft cheeses, such as Brie, Camembert, blue-veined cheeses, and Mexican-style soft cheeses such as Queso Fresco, Panela, Asadero, and Queso Blanco made from pasteurized milk
  • Cream, cottage, and Ricotta cheese made from pasteurized milk
  • Yogurt made from pasteurized milk
  • Pudding made from pasteurized milk
  • Ice cream or frozen yogurt made from pasteurized milk

Aged hard cheeses such as Cheddar, and extra hard grating cheeses such as Parmesan, can be safe even if made with raw milk.

Additional Information

Stay well and food safe! Barb

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