With the recent outbreak of 16 people sickened by Campylobacter and E. coli O157:H7 after consuming raw milk from Billy Goat Dairy in Longmont, Colorado, it is clear that the debate over raw milk is heating up. Advocates of the fresh-from-the-farm, raw dairy product, claim that it is rich in disease-fighting nutrients, which they believe are lost in the pasteurization process. Meanwhile, the United States government and food safety advocates, including Bill Marler, remain firm in their scientifically viable stance that raw milk’s dangers outweigh any believed benefits.
Bill Marler, who started his crusade for food safety as the lead attorney for victims of the Jack in the Box Outbreak in 1993, has turned much of his attention to the dangers of raw milk. “Through my experience I have found that raw milk produced in small dairy farms is unavoidably contaminated,” said Marler. “We need to make sure milk goes through pasteurization so we don’t risk our children’s health.”
Pathogens like Salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli O157:H7 that are originally contained in the manure of an infected animal, can contaminate raw milk and the products that are made from it due to unclean udders, milking equipment, or a generally unsanitary milking environment. Pasteurization is the only way to ensure that these dangerous bacteria do not contaminate products that will be consumed raw.
It is already illegal to sell raw milk in 28 states, but a small, yet passionately devoted raw milk following is trying to loosen the states’ regulatory grip in spite of the long history of outbreaks associated with the product. “I cringe at the anti-science blather protesting that all outbreaks linked to raw milk never happened, or were caused by something else, or were part of some dark conspiracy designed to discredit what is really a wonder-product,” said Marler. “The truth is these outbreaks do happen, including 10 since January alone.”
The outbreaks that Marler references have occurred in 9 different states, including Washington, Utah, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. Washington and Utah have each seen two raw milk outbreaks since the beginning of the year. Health officials from the affected states have counted over 50 confirmed illnesses from infection by Salmonella, E. coli, and Campylobacter, and one victim of the Pennsylvania outbreak developed Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) and is still hospitalized.
In March, the debate boiled over in our nation’s “dairy state” when a hearing turned into a rally on the Raw Milk Act. While it was eventually vetoed, this bill in the Wisconsin Legislature would have allowed the state’s dairy farmers to sell raw milk directly to consumers.
Marler was one of several concerned food safety advocates and industry representatives who had who consulted with Wisconsin’s governor about the bill.
Marler’s crusade against raw milk is personal – he never again wants to see a client like Chris Martin, who, at age seven, developed an infection from exposure to E. coli O157:H7 that almost took his life after he drank raw milk.
In addition to his influence on the Wisconsin bill, Marler played a similar role in convincing the California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to veto a bill that would have liberalized the production and sale of raw milk.
But Marler sees that the problem is much bigger than proposed bills in a couple of states. “A level of education needs to happen. There is so much misinformation about the benefits of raw milk—it’s been touted as a cure-all for everything from allergies to asthma. This is simply not true and whatever possible good comes from raw milk is greatly outweighed by the fact that it can kill you.”
This spring, Marler helped spearhead the collaborated launch of RealRawMilkFacts.com (www.realrawmilkfacts.com), a new website that reveals the benefits as well as the risks of consuming raw milk, and gives up-to-the-minute coverage on all raw milk-related news, including contamination outbreaks and related recalls. Marler collaborated with scientists, food safety advocates and health educators from university, government, industry, and professional organizations, on the website’s content. The site provides clarity on evidence-based studies, presentations, commentaries, regulations, and position statements on the beverage and its use.
Marler also launched the Foodborne Illness Outbreak Database (www.outbreakdatabase.com), a web-based, searchable database of illness outbreaks caused by consumption of contaminated food or water, exposure to animals, or contact with persons ill with a food or waterborne disease. The site includes outbreaks related to raw milk, and provides comprehensive details, including the dairies or farms that sold the product.
“Consumers need outbreak information available to them so they can make informed decisions about what they eat and drink, in the case of raw milk. Businesses that poison their customers need to have a light shone on them so both policy makers and other business can learn from the mistakes”, said Marler, “Our free market does not function if information about the safety of our food is hidden from us.”