Benefits of raw milk are anecdotal, but the dangers are terrible


There seems to be no middle ground in the debate over raw milk. On one side, you have farmers happy to sell a product for $10 to $18 a gallon, and consumers who believe they are purchasing a product that is not only more healthful but will also cure everything from allergies to autism. On the other side, you have public health officials defending the time-tested benefits of pasteurization as a way to make milk safe to consume.

But even though the argument appears to have two sides, the reality is as simple as it is undeniable: Raw milk is seriously risky, and should be consumed, if at all, with extreme caution.

Health department officials in Minnesota last week reported three, and possibly four, E. coli infections linked to drinking raw milk from a dairy in Gibbon. One infected child has now developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a potentially deadly complication.

There have now been at least nine outbreaks of illness tied to raw milk since January 2010. The other states with outbreaks include Nevada, Utah, New York and Pennsylvania. There was also a multistate outbreak with illnesses confirmed in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. Washington has had two as well. And, even worse, these outbreaks involved at least three different pathogens.

In January, a dairy farm in New York was linked to five Campylobacter infections. Another outbreak of Campylobacter was reported in February in Pennsylvania. State health officials there said approximately 10 people became ill after drinking raw milk. One of the ill developed Guillain - Barre Syndrome, became paralyzed, and is still hospitalized.

In March, raw milk caused at least 17 Campylobacter infections in Michigan, Illinois and Indiana. In April, Utah was the site of Salmonella and Campylobacter outbreaks tied to raw milk. Earlier this month, Nevada health officials reported that a child became seriously ill with a Campylobacter infection after eating homemade raw milk cheese that was illegally sold door-to-door.

Over the last several years I have tried to bring some level of rationality to the debate over the consumption of raw milk. I first published on my blog a summary of the findings of a review of peer-reviewed literature on the topic of the "pros" of the consumption of raw milk. Most alleged benefits were anecdotal, with a reduction in allergies as the only scientific observation. I then posted about the "cons." The overwhelming con of drinking raw milk, according to the scientific literature, is the serious risk of infection, and the injury, disability and death that result.

In trying to base the debate over the pros and cons of raw milk more firmly on facts, and not anecdote and emotion, I have found that the most instructive thing that I can do is to remind readers of real-world effects that drinking raw milk can cause. For example:

Chris Martin, then age 7, developed an E. coli infection in September 2006 following consumption of raw milk. He was hospitalized with severe gastrointestinal symptoms. Shortly thereafter, he developed severe hemolytic uremic syndrome. He was hospitalized through November, after incurring over $550,000 in medical bills. Renal experts have suggested that Chris is likely to develop severe renal complications in the future.

Mari Tardiff was one of those sickened in the June 2008 outbreak of Campylobacter connected to raw milk. As a result of her campylobacter infection, Mari developed Guillain Barre syndrome, or GBS, a potentially fatal inflammatory disorder. She was essentially paralyzed. Her goal, as yet unreached, is to walk again. Medical expenses to date exceed $1 million.

Kalee Prue, a 27-year-old mother of one, became infected with E. coli in June 2008, as the result of consumption of raw milk. Her symptoms began in early July, and intensified for several days. Twice she sought treatment in the emergency room. In July, it became apparent that she was developing hemolytic uremic syndrome. By the time she was released from the hospital she had incurred over $230,000 in medical bills. Kalee has not recovered full renal function. She is at severe risk for long-term renal complications.

I understand the desire of a farmer to sell a highly profitable product, just as I can understand the desire of consumers to make up their own minds about drinking raw milk. But farmers and consumers need to be fully informed, and the risks need to be fully understood. Because of the debate and the risks, I helped fund the building of www.realrawmilkfacts.com as a place where the pros and cons of raw milk production and consumption can be discussed against the background of scientific facts.

Bottom line: Be informed.