How the CDC Transformed 21 Raw Milk Illnesses Into 20,000

Raw Milk

Story at-a-glance -

  • There were 21 reported illnesses linked to raw milk in Minnesota from 2001 to 2010, but a new CDC study claims more than 20,500 Minnesotans were actually sickened
  • If a person was sickened by campylobacter, E. coli O157:H7 or salmonella during the study period, and had drank raw milk in the week before, the illness was blamed on raw milk (even though many foods could have caused the illness)
  • Even using the above criteria, this only raised the illness to 530, which were then multiplied based on an assumption that the illnesses were underreported
  • The CDC continues to put out incredibly misleading data regarding raw milk, misleading the public that all raw milk is dangerous, when it fact it’s typically safer than pasteurized milk when it comes from a high-quality source

By Dr. Mercola

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) frequently cites raw milk as a leading cause of foodborne illness outbreaks and deaths. The problem is, if you look at the actual data, you will not find any deaths linked to raw milk in the US. Even illnesses linked to this food are minimal, and far lower than those from the CDC-approved and supported pasteurized milk.

By continuing to publish misleading data about the illnesses (or rather the lack of illnesses) linked to raw milk, an educated consumer cannot help but view the CDC as biased against raw milk and in favor of industrial dairy.

The latest case of data massaging is especially blatant, signaling that either the CDC is becoming even more brazen in its attacks… or is beginning to get worried that raw milk is catching on.

CDC Twists 21 Raw Milk Illnesses Into 20,500

Public health agencies had previously stated that there were 21 reported illnesses linked to raw milk in Minnesota from 2001 to 2010. But that doesn’t exactly scream “danger,” does it? Perhaps seeking larger numbers that jive better with the CDC’s message that raw milk is dangerous, the CDC put out a new study stating:1

“…the number of illnesses ascertained as part of documented outbreaks likely represents a small proportion of the actual number of illnesses associated with this food product.”

Instead of the 21 illnesses, the study’s authors declare that up to 20,502 Minnesotans, or 17 percent of raw milk consumers, may have actually been sickened with enteric pathogens after drinking raw milk.

How they arrived at this number demands scrutiny. For starters, that raw-milk illnesses would be underreported is quite an assumption, considering that public health officials are obsessive about regulating and attacking raw milk producers. If an illness occurs, the odds of it just falling away quietly are not good; this is what the public health agencies are waiting for, after all.

Further, because of the intense regulatory oversight, it’s easy to link an illness to a raw milk producer, should one occur. There are only so many raw milk producers, and because of state laws, most people buy it directly from the farm.

Even in California, where retail sales are legal, there are still only two or three dairies providing that milk. So as far as tracking down an offending product, raw milk is actually among the easiest.

None of this really matters, though, when you consider how the CDC study went about finding these “new” raw-milk illnesses. They found every case of illness from campylobacter, E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella from 2001 and 2010.

Then they found those who had consumed raw milk in the previous week. If a person had consumed raw milk in the prior seven days and became sickened by one of the pathogens just listed, it was assumed that the raw milk was the cause.

What if the person had also consumed another food that may have easily made them sick? It doesn’t matter in the eyes of the CDC! There was no testing or real evidence to link the illnesses (now up to 530 at this point), just pure speculation! And if this isn’t outrageous enough, this is only the beginning.

Magical Multipliers Turn 530 Illnesses to 20,000

It still wasn’t enough to classify 530 illnesses as raw-milk-related. The researchers then took these and applied “pathogen-specific underdiagnosis multipliers” to them. These multipliers, which can range from 30 to 100, are used in cases where illnesses might be underreported, such as because people recovered so quickly that they never sought medical attention.

This then drove the final tally up over 20,000 illnesses, which, more aptly, were created out of thin air. The Raw Milk Institute Board (RAWMI) (of which I am a board member) was among those who strongly criticized the study’s “broad sweeping assumptions and methodologies,” stating:2

The study states that ‘illness among raw milk consumers could not be definitely linked to their raw milk consumption.’ Nonetheless, the authors proceed to make very strong statements regarding the number of cases of illness that could possibly be linked to raw milk.

In addition, the study uses standard multipliers for pathogen specific source attribution that may be over-estimated for a very particular commodity such as raw milk consumed by a small percentage of the population.

Furthermore, there are no relative risk estimates given for other potential sources of contamination such as raw eggs, produce, ground meat etc. This makes it very hard for the reader to compare the risk estimates given for raw milk to the risk of consuming other raw or pasteurized foods.

It should also be noted that people seeking out raw milk products may also consume other raw foods, and to attribute every case of food-borne disease to raw milk is therefore misleading. The validity of the study estimates and conclusions is therefore highly questionable.”

Alternet also reported on the disturbing implications of such a grandiose study, which they rightfully stated sets a dangerous precedent:3

It represents a radical departure from past public health data analysis. Post-Minnesota-data, if you get sick from campylobacter or E.coli O157:H7 or salmonella and you have consumed raw milk, then any other culprits, like chicken or fast food, can be automatically eliminated and you can be assumed to have been sickened by raw milk.

If you carry the logic a bit further, you realize that under this new precedent, even if reported illnesses from raw milk decline to zero, the public health enforcers will be able to pull out of their hats any number of supposed illnesses from people who drank raw milk, and became sick from some other food. In other words, they’ll always be able to say raw milk is unacceptably risky, and can’t be tolerated, no matter what the facts are.”

CDC-Reported Raw Milk Deaths Were Not from Raw Milk

The prior study was not the first time the CDC has put out incredibly misleading data regarding raw milk. In 2012, Mark McAfee, the founder of Organic Pastures Dairy, sent a letter to the CDC, highlighting the “highly erroneous and very misleading information” on their Web site.4 Among the information at issue was a long-standing claim by the CDC that between 1998 and 2008, there were two deaths from raw milk. This number is often used in media reporting about raw milk.

But those illnesses actually appear to have come from a form of cheese that isn't legal under current FDA regulations, called queso fresco.

McAfee did not receive a response from the CDC until he threatened to file a Freedom of Information Act request, and despite receiving information from the CDC that showed the deaths were from a type of Mexican cheese, the CDC Web site still lists two deaths from raw milk. McAfee wrote the following in 2012, and it seems to have fallen on deaf ears at the CDC:

“Two years ago, I submitted a FOIA request to the CDC to request data on the two deaths that the CDC database claims were from raw milk. The data I received back from the CDC showed that in fact there had been no death from raw milk at all. The two deaths had been from illegal Mexican bath tub cheese and not raw milk from any place in America. Why does the CDC persist in publishing this erroneous information?

If the CDC is a scientific organization and not a data spinning, twisting arm of Big Ag dairy processors, processors that hate raw milk because they lose control over markets when farmers connect directly to consumers with clean raw milk, I would urge you to correct the data that is posted at your raw milk website and include the correct data. There have been no deaths from raw milk or even raw milk products in America from an American source of raw milk. That is the data that the CDC gave me.”

Even as the CDC continues to report on raw milk dangers, the state of Arkansas has announced that no illnesses have been caused as a result of a recent increase in raw milk sales. Meanwhile, the CDC stays silent about the proven health benefits linked to raw milk, like the GABRIELA study, which found school-aged children who drank raw milk were 41 percent less likely to develop asthma and about 50 percent less likely to develop hay fever than children who drank store-bought (pasteurized) milk.5 As McAfee wrote to the CDC:

“…Your CDC website is incomplete and shows massive bias. There is no mention of the peer reviewed and internationally published studies… of how raw milk stabilizes MAST cells and heals and prevents asthma and eczema. There is no mention of the massive market segment departure from fluid pasteurized milk because of lactose intolerance, and no mention of the fact that rarely do consumers experience lactose intolerance with raw milk. The CDC raw milk website is one-sided and only attacks raw milk. This is not the scientific approach. It is a political approach for the suppression and destruction of raw milk.”

The Two Raw Milks in the US

Whether or not milk is safe to be consumed raw depends largely on where it comes from. It’s contrary to reason that milk (and many other foods) that comes from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are thought of as safe while raw milk sourced from a small carefully run farm is not. In CAFOs, large groups of animals are kept in a small space, oftentimes without natural light or access to the outdoors. The conditions are filthy, with animals standing in one another's waste. Needless to say, harmful bacteria naturally thrive in these conditions.

To combat disease (and promote unhealthy growth), the animals are fed antibiotics, the result of which is they become living and breathing “bioreactors” for the generation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. They may also receive hormones, which increase milk production, and they're fed a diet of grains and soy (most of which is now the genetically engineered variety) rather than grass, which alters their gut flora and makes them and their milk even more prone to carrying infectious diseases.

As a result, drinking CAFO milk raw would be extremely dangerous. It must be pasteurized for safety. On the other hand, milk from grass-fed cows raised on smaller, clean farms can be safely consumed without being pasteurized, provided the farmer is committed to providing a safe, quality product. As stated by the Raw Milk Institute, which is helping to establish national raw milk guidelines:

“As a favor to industry, the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] and other government agencies refuse to acknowledge that there are ‘Two Raw Milks in America’ – raw milk produced with pasteurization in mind, and raw milk intended to be consumed raw – and insist that all raw milk is dirty and must be pasteurized. Experience has shown this to be untrue; it has been clearly demonstrated in California and other states that when proper care and conditions are used and when standards and testing are implemented… raw milk can be extremely safe.”

Getting your raw milk from a local organic farm is one of the best ways to ensure you're getting high-quality milk, but even then if you're thinking about purchasing milk from a small farmer, it would be very wise to visit the farm in person. Look around and ask questions about the following general conditions, which should indicate a source of high-quality raw milk.

Low pathogenic bacteria count (i.e. does the farmer test his milk regularly for pathogens?) The milk comes from cows raised naturally, in accordance with the seasons The cows are not given antibiotics and growth hormones to increase milk production
The milk is quickly chilled after milking The cows are mainly grass-fed Cows are well cared for

Join the Fight for Food Freedom

The fight for food freedom isn’t just for those who love raw milk – it’s for everyone who wants to be able to obtain the food of their choice from the source of their choice. Raw milk isn’t the only food on the chopping block. Raw-milk cheeses and heritage-breed pigs are also being targeted, and there’s no telling what other small-farm, niche foods may be next. So please, get involved! I urge you to embrace the following action plan to protect your right to choose your own foods:

  1. Get informed: Visit or click here to sign up for action alerts.
  1. Join the fight for your rights: The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF) is the only organization of its kind. This 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization provides a legal defense for farmers who are being pursued by the government for distributing foods directly to consumers.
  2. Your donations, although not tax deductible, will be used to support the litigation, legislative, and lobbying efforts of the FTCLDF.

  3. Support your local farmers: Buy from local farmers, not the industry that is working with the government to take away your freedom.