Raw Milk and the Raw Deal

Story at-a-glance -

  • According to the FDA, just over 115 people per year, on average, get sick from raw milk… in a country were 9-48 million people get sick from foodborne illness annually
  • A new report ranks CAFO beef and vegetables (often contaminated by CAFO pollution) as top sources of foodborne illness
  • The government continues to waste resources targeting raw milk farmers producing a safe, healthy food while turning a blind eye on the other foods that are killing and sickening millions

By Dr. Mercola

An entire section of the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) website is devoted to warning Americans about the “dangers” of raw milk. There it states that more than 1,500 people in the US became sick from raw milk from 1993 to 2006.1

This is just over 115 people per year, on average… in a country were 9 million people get sick from foodborne illness annually.2 Is it possible to get sick from drinking raw milk?

Yes! But it’s also possible to get sick from eating a salad, a cheeseburger or a bowl of fruit. In fact, you’re far more likely to be infected with a foodborne illness when eating any number of foods other than high-quality raw milk.

A new report produced by the Interagency Food Safety Analytics Collaboration (IFSAC), a partnership of the US Department of Agriculture, the US Food and Drug Administration and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), revealed which foods are most likely to make you sick… and the answers might surprise you.3

Picking Out Food at Your Supermarket Is Like Playing Russian Roulette

Of the 9 million people who get sick from eating food each year, 55,000 are hospitalized and 1,000 will die.4 These are the estimates from IFSAC, which are actually far lower than those given by the CDC in 2011.

According to those estimates, the problem is far worse with 48 million people being sickened by foodborne diseases each year, including 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.

Whichever figure is correct, suffice it to say that it’s a lot.5 According to the IFSAC report, certain foods cause so many illnesses each year that shopping at your supermarket is like playing a game of Russian roulette.

Will you pick the package of chicken breasts with salmonella in it? Will the ground beef for your hamburger patties contain the particularly deadly E. coli O157? Will your bagged salad be covered in any number of disease-causing pathogens?

Government agencies have painted the picture that if you go to a farm and purchase high-quality farm-fresh milk (i.e. raw milk), you’re walking away with a food that is crawling in dangerous bacteria. The way they make it sound you’d think you could get sick just by looking at it. But I’d take my chances on the farm any day.

The fact is, the majority of foods that are making people sick are coming not from small organic farms selling raw-milk products… they’re coming from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). And if you shop at a typical supermarket, where do you think most of the food comes from?

The very same CAFOs producing the most contaminated foods… the companies behind the so-called “ag-gag” laws trying to keep you from seeing what’s going on behind their closed doors.

Their food might not kill you… but then again it might. Or, if you pick the “wrong” package of chicken, for example, you might simply end up spending a few days in the hospital or, if you’re “lucky,” just 24 hours or so tied to your porcelain throne.

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Which Foods Are Most Likely to Make You Sick?

The IFSAC report used data from nearly 1,000 outbreaks between 1998 and 2012. They were looking for which foods were most responsible for illnesses caused by four types of foodborne bacteria: salmonella, E. coli O157, listeria, and campylobacter. These four pathogens alone cause nearly 2 million cases of foodborne illness each year in the US.6 Here’s what the data revealed:

  • E.coli O157: Beef (46 percent), vegetables grown in rows (36 percent)
  • Listeria: Fruits (50 percent), dairy (31 percent)
  • Salmonella: Vegetables grown from seeds (18 percent), eggs (12 percent), fruits (12 percent), chicken (10 percent), sprouts (8 percent), beef (9 percent), and pork (8 percent)
  • Campylobacter: Dairy (66 percent), chicken (8 percent)

You’ll notice a definite problem with meat and eggs also made the list. Ninety percent of all chicken meat and eggs sold in the US come from CAFOs, and overall, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists,

“Although they comprise only about 5 percent of all U.S. animal operations, CAFOs now produce more than 50 percent of our food animals.”7

That was in 2008, and the number of CAFOs has only risen since then. You’ll also notice vegetables as a serious food of concern. Why? Vegetables make us sick not because of plant diseases… but because of the same CAFOs that are producing contaminated meat and eggs.

Dr. Michael Greger, a graduate of the Cornell University School of Agriculture and the Tufts University School of Medicine, told the Huffington Post:8

“People don't get plant diseases; they get animal diseases. The problem is that because of the number of animals raised today, a billion tons of manure are produced every year in the United States--the weight of 10,000 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers.

Dairy cow and pig factories often dump millions of gallons of putrefying waste into massive open-air cesspits, which can leak and contaminate water used to irrigate our crops. That's how a deadly fecal pathogen like E. coli O157:H7 can end up contaminating our spinach.”

What About the Dairy on the List?

The report states that the large number of campylobacter outbreaks associated with dairy were “largely, although not entirely, due to outbreaks associated with raw fluid milk or cheese produced form raw milk (e.g., unpasteurized queso fresco).”

The report went on to acknowledge their limitations, noting that their results reflect surveillance biases and uncertainties due to sparse data.

They particularly urged caution in interpreting their findings for campylobacter in dairy (along with listeria in fruit). Past research has found, for instance, that the food and food-contaminant combination that causes the most economic damage is campylobacter in chicken.

In addition, it’s unclear what sources of unpasteurized dairy accounted for the outbreaks. For instance, Mark McAfee, CEO of Organic Pastures Dairy and an internationally recognized expert in raw milk production and safety, investigated the two deaths in California that the CDC said were linked to raw milk. He noted:9

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? ...The last people to die from milk died from pasteurized milk at Whittier farms in 2007, not from raw milk."

It’s unfair that the government continues to target peaceful raw milk farmers producing a safe, healthy food for people who want it. Yet, outrageously, aggressive armed raids by federal agents against Amish raw milk farmers are not uncommon. Raw milk isn't the only food on the chopping block, either. 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. Meanwhile, other foods are killing and sickening millions. Where are the warnings against eating CAFO chicken, beef and eggs, for starters?

Drug Residues in Your Milk and Meat

There are other reasons to reconsider CAFO food aside from foodborne illness, including drug residues. Antibiotics and other drugs are commonly given to dairy cows and other livestock. Milk is tested for up to six commonly used drugs, such as penicillin, and if excess levels are found the milk cannot be sold. However, not all drugs given to animals are tested for, and there has been concern that illegal drugs might be showing up in milk too. In 2012, the FDA conducted a survey to determine whether illegal drugs were finding their way into the US milk supply. The study was only green-lighted after a more than year-long “negotiation” into its terms with the dairy industry and state governments.

Why the FDA, which is charged with protecting the public health, would need to negotiate study terms with an industry it is supposed to police is only one murky aspect to this story… Even more unsettling is the fact that in 2015, years after the study’s completion, the FDA has yet to release its findings. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the survey data, but the FDA denied it. What are they hiding? CSPI appealed and is currently waiting for the FDA’s response. So far, they have only stated that the agency is “unable to provide a specific release date at this time but is actively working to publish the report…”10

For the record, CSPI has reason to be suspect of drugs in milk. In 2011, they reviewed drug-testing reports at slaughter plants and found that dairy farms accounted for 67 percent of drug-residue violations. In all, 17 different drugs were found in more than 735 drug-positive tissue samples. This included drugs that are banned for use in cattle, such as the antibiotic gentamicin.11 When illegal drug residues are found in animals coming from dairy farms, it’s an indication that drugs may be being improperly used elsewhere on the farm, and possibly accumulating in your milk as well.

The FDA Will Target Raw Milk… But Not Rampant Overuse of Antibiotics in Animal Feed

While the FDA continues to waste resources on “warning” the public about a healthy food like raw milk, they knew for more than 12 years that routine use of antibiotics in livestock is harmful to human health, yet took no meaningful action. Nearly 25 million pounds of antibiotics are administered to livestock in the US every year for purposes other than treating disease, such as making the animals grow bigger faster. The drug-resistant bacteria that contaminate your meat may pass on their resistant genes to other bacteria in your body, making you more likely to become sick.

Drug-resistant bacteria also accumulate in manure that is spread on fields and enters waterways, allowing the drug-resistant bacteria to spread far and wide and ultimately back up the food chain to us. Meanwhile, antibiotic-resistant bacteria infect 2 million Americans every year, causing at least 23,000 deaths. Even more die from complications related to the infections, and the numbers are steadily growing. You can see how easily antibiotic resistance spreads, via the food you eat and community contact, in the CDC's infographic below.

antibiotic resistance
Source: CDC.gov, Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013

Europeans Enjoy Raw Milk from Vending Machines

To put matters even more into perspective, consider that some European nations sell raw milk in vending machines! And contrary to popular (American) belief, the bodies are NOT piling up as a result. As reported by Modern Farmer:12 "Europe's embrace of raw milk vending machines isn't new. Such daring dispensers of unpasteurized dairy can be found in France, Croatia, Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands and, as one map,13 shows, all over the place in Italy."

The safety measures are remarkably simple. If the temperature of the milk rises above the regulated level, the machine will stop dispensing milk, and the farmer is notified via text message. The milk spout is sterilized by a UV light between each purchase. In the US, several states have outright banned the sale of raw milk for fear of contaminated milk despite the fact that, statistically, such fears are completely and udderly unfounded (pun intended). Research by Dr. Ted Beals, MD also shows that you are actually about 35,000 times more likely to get sick from other foods than you are from raw milk!14

It’s Legal to Consume Raw Fish… Why Not Raw Milk?

When the government gets involved in telling people what foods they can and can’t consume, it’s a slippery slope to oppression. Yet, so far, the FDA seems fairly focused on raw milk, thanks to a strong dairy lobby. Lobbying spending by the dairy industry doubled from 2003 to 2013, reaching $8 million the latter year.15 Meanwhile, other so-called raw “risky” foods, like sushi and undercooked eggs, are enjoyed by Americans each and every day, legally, I might add. And, even without government interference, there is great incentive for sushi restaurants and raw-milk producers alike to produce safe, high-quality products. As reported by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research:16

“…the market is already able to protect the public against another food that is often seen as potentially risky—raw fish. Currently, the federal government has no regulations concerning which fish can receive the designation of ‘sushi grade,’ meaning it is expected to be consumed raw. In other words, a gas station vendor could buy low-grade fish from the nearest waterfront and label it “sushi grade.” But people would be hesitant to purchase raw fish from a gas station that they do not trust. Further, a business will not stay open for long if it disappoints its customers, much less if it makes them seriously ill by selling tainted food.

Without being told by the government to do so, stores tend to reserve the best quality, cleanest fish for the label “sushi grade.” These sales operate without regulation and without sacrificing public health. Companies selling raw milk likewise regulate their own products in a manner that protects the health of their consumers. Ten states allow retail sales of all types of raw milk, and more allow on-farm sales. Despite warnings from the FDA, there is no massive public health crisis in the states that allow consumption of raw milk, compared to those that do not.

…Weighing the benefits of raw milk, and other foods such as lettuce and shellfish, against the risks is an individual choice that the government should stay out of. For some, drinking raw milk may not make sense. For others, the flavor and the health benefits might outweigh the associated risks, especially when purchasing raw milk from a trusted source—whether that be a family friend, a local farmers market, or a reputable retail store. Instead of creating and enforcing regulations which ban products when there are not substantial threats to the public, government agencies should leave people and the food that they choose to consume alone.”

Join the Fight for Food Freedom

The fight over raw milk stands as a symbol of the much larger fight for food freedom. Who gets to decide what you eat? You? Or the FDA? If the FDA and other government agencies are allowed to impose their view of "safe food" on consumers, raw milk won't be the only thing lost—all food will be pasteurized, irradiated, and genetically engineered. The effort to reclaim our right to buy and consume raw milk is leading the way for everyone who wants to be able to obtain the food of their choice from the source of their choice. So please, get involved! I urge you to get involved with the following action plan to protect your right to choose your own foods:

  1. Get informed: Visit www.farmtoconsumer.org or click here to sign up for action alerts. To review the raw milk laws in your state, see the Farm-to-Consumer.org's Raw Milk Nation page.
  2. 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. 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: Getting your raw milk from a local organic farm or co-op is one of the best ways to ensure you're getting high-quality milk. You can locate a raw milk source near you at the Campaign for Real Milk Website. California residents can find raw milk retailers by using the store locator available at www.OrganicPastures.com.

As with all foods, the source matters, and this is just as true with raw milk as any other food. If you’re interested in raw milk, here are tips for finding high-quality raw milk sources.

How to Minimize Your Risk of Foodborne Illness

Sometimes, food-borne illness may be inevitable, but there are steps you can take to lower your risk. This includes commonsense measures like washing your hands and sanitizing counters/cutting boards after handling potentially contaminated foods, rinsing fruits and vegetables before eating, and storing foods at the proper temperature. One important factor impacting whether your food is “safe” isn’t total storage time, but rather how much time it spends in the temperature “danger zone” (between 40-120 degrees F).17 You’ll want to avoid leaving your groceries in a hot car for too long, for instance, as this will generally promote food-borne illness.

It’s important to keep in mind that the potential for foodborne illness applies to ANY food, and where it comes from is probably the greatest indicator of whether it’s likely to be safe or contaminated. So ultimately, the key to making sure that any food you eat is safe is to get it from a high-quality source. I can't stress the importance of this enough. When you get your produce from small farmers that raise their food in natural settings using clean water, as opposed to massive agribusiness conglomerations that use sewage sludge as fertilizer, there is very little risk in eating these foods raw. The same goes for meat, eggs, and raw dairy products, as well.

I also suggest browsing through my Sustainable Agriculture resource page to find farmer's markets, family farms, and other sources of safe, high-quality food. Not only are these sources likely to raise food in more sanitary conditions than a CAFO, but there's a better chance that it will also be locally grown. The closer you are to the source of your food, the fewer hands it has to pass through and the less time it will sit in storage -- so the better, and likely safer, it will be for you and your family. Finally, along with the practical precautions mentioned above, lowering your chances of becoming ill from food poisoning also involves keeping your immune system healthy by following these five steps to boost your immune system health.