Saturday, June 11, 2011

Raw Milk? You're kidding, right?

Drinking "raw" or unpasteurized milk has become popular in some groups whose members believe there are significant health benefits in raw milk which are destroyed in the pasteurization process.  Actually you and your children are far more likely to become seriously ill from germs in raw milk than you are to improve your health.

Pasteurization of milk is a fairly simple process that involves heating milk to about 160 degrees for 20 seconds.  This important step in processing milk  kills serious, disease-causing bacteria such as Salmonella, E.coli, and Campylobacter jejuni.  Yes, E.coli is the same bacteria causing serious illness and death in Europe right now from contaminated bean sprouts.

Before milk was routinely pasteurized (in the 1920s) it caused many illnesses in our population, such as tuberculosis, typhoid fever, streptococcal infections, diphtheria, and more.  In the early 1900s some smart mothers realized the dangers of raw milk and pasteurized it themselves by boiling it before feeding it to their children!

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras in the 1980s I noticed the villagers where I lived always boiled their milk before consuming it.  We ate our cornflakes with hot milk!  Although they lived in mud huts, with dirt floors, thatched roofs, and chickens and pigs running in and out all day long, these people would not touch milk that had not been heated properly.  At the time I didn't understand the significance of this practice.  Now I do.

Why would anyone want to drink milk that has potentially been contaminated with serious germs like E.coli?  Good question!  Those who do consume raw milk believe it comes from healthy animals, and is handled safely enough that it won't contain disease-causing bacteria.  This is actually very difficult to guarantee.  Even if the animal is healthy, its fecal matter can get into milk.  This can be because it is on the udders, in the barn, on the hands of the farmers, or on insects or rodents living where the animals live.  The germs are microscopic.  Testing the milk is not comprehensive enough to ensure its safety.

Some people believe there are healthy enzymes and vitamins in the raw milk that are destroyed when the milk is heated.  While it is true that heating does inactivate some enzymes and reduce vitamin C content, these are not important nutrients for humans to obtain from cows or animals other than humans.  Raw milk has not been shown to reduce diabetes, asthma, or allergies.  Nor does it improve your immune system.  Raw human milk given directly from a mother to her child is completely different.  We are not cows or goats.

Some people may believe that raw milk has helped their own individual health, but this is what is called testimonial or anecdotal evidence.  It is a claim made by a few, and it is not supported by scientific, or research based evidence.

The images that come to my mind when I think about drinking raw milk are the following:  eating strawberries without washing them, using the toilet or changing the kitty litter box and then preparing a meal for your family without washing your hands, simply cutting up the lettuce for a salad without thoroughly rinsing it first, changing a poopy diaper and then sitting down to lunch, eating bean sprouts in Germany... It nauseates me, repulses me, and makes me shudder to think about taking a sip of milk that has not been pasteurized. 

The diseases you can catch from raw milk are serious.  E.coli can kill.  Certain types of E.coli can cause kidney failure, damage to the red blood cells, and stroke.  In my pediatric training I cared for a preschool aged child who died of a stroke that occurred from complications of an E.coli infection.  It was devastating.  Since I have been in private practice I have had entire families become seriously ill from Campylobacter jejuni that originated in raw milk. 

I don't think drinking raw milk is a smart decision for an adult, but it is certainly their choice to consume it.  When it comes to our precious children I don't think we should putting them at risk by taking our health practices back a CENTURY and giving them raw milk.  I don't think my pediatric practice would be very successful if I practiced 19th century medicine, so I have to recommend against the antiquated and dangerous fad of consuming raw milk.


Here are some links to give you more details.  One link will take you to some testimonials that share experiences some people have had getting sick from raw milk, rather than typical anecdotes that tout the benefits of raw milk.