Slate.com recently had a long article on the history of raw milk advocacy, "The Raw-Milk Deal: Pure-food worshippers put their health at risk—especially when they drink unpasteurized milk," by Deborah Blum.
Today, just about 0.5 percent of all the milk consumed in this country is unpasteurized. Yet from 1998 to 2008, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received reports of 85 infectious disease outbreaks linked to raw milk. In the past few months, physicians have treated salmonella in Utah, brucellosis in Delaware, campylobacter in Colorado and Pennsylvania, and an ugly outbreak of E. coli O157-H7 in Minnesota, which sickened eight people in June. Epidemiologists not only identified a rare strain of the bacteria but matched its DNA to those stricken, the cows on the farm that supplied them with raw milk, and manure smearing the milking equipment and even the animals themselves. When regulators shut down the dairy farm, supporters promptly charged them with belonging to a government conspiracy to smear the reputation of a hallowed food.
Some, like Wisconsin raw-milk champion Max Kane, dismiss infectious disease altogether: "The bacteria theory's a total myth," Kane told one interviewer. "It allows us to have an enemy to go after similar to how it is with terrorism. It's food terrorism."
After a dairy in Washington state was linked to an E. coli outbreak last December, the farmer himself put it like this in an interview with the Seattle Times. Scientists were wrong to malign his milk because "everything God designed is good for you."
My position on raw milk is that its safety is as good as the farm that sells it. The farm has to be pretty near perfect to keep cattle from being infected. If the farm's standards are supremely high, there is nothing wrong with raw milk. However, it is extremely difficult to keep standards that high, and the more cattle the harder it is to do.
The flip side is that there is nothing special about raw milk, although it very well might taste better. It is not healthier for you. For sure it has no special properties that make it drinkable for those who are lactose intolerant. Sometimes it seems like every raw milk advocate spews forth this nonsense about LI and I have to admit that it prejudices me against their case. If they are that wrong on this crucial point, what else might they be wrong about?
For those who advocate raw milk, the comments on that article contain many passionate defenses. The conflicting claims about statistics are a problem. Here's my take. The raw, pardon the pun, numbers of illnesses from raw milk are small, but since so few people have access to raw milk, there are a disproportionate number of illnesses per capita. That worries me.
I'll also fault Deborah Blum on one side issue. Yes, it's true that organic foods aren't more nutritious and that people who say that are simply ignorant. But most knowledgeable proponents of organic foods make the different claim that they taste better. You can test objectively for nutrition; you can't test for taste. That's subjective. We do know, however, that many foods have been bred to travel well so that they can be shipped to market in better condition, often better-looking condition, but that this affects taste. If you want to argue in favor of organics for taste then you have a much better case, and one that Blum should have mentioned.