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Defending Raw Milk Against the CDC

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a study in February that the agency publicized with the headline, “Majority of dairy-related disease outbreaks linked to raw milk.” It’s not surprising, but still disappointing, to see how the agency was willing to ignore the real facts and data in order to try to discourage people from drinking raw milk. 

To put it simply, there are very few illnesses attributed to any kind of dairy product each year. For the 14-year period that the CDC examined, there was an average of 315 illnesses a year from all dairy products for which the pasteurization status was known. Of those, there was an average of 112 illnesses each year attributed to raw dairy products. 

To put those numbers in context, there are approximately 24,000 cases of foodborne illness reported to the CDC each year, of which raw dairy products account for one-half of one percent (0.5%). When placed in the context of the number of people who drink raw milk (based on the CDC’s own data), the numbers are even more reassuring. Out of the approximately 9.4 million people in this country who drink raw milk, only 0.001% of them allegedly get ill from raw dairy each year.

Notice that the majority of the illnesses (203) were linked to pasteurized dairy products. Yet the headline states that the majority of outbreaks were linked to raw milk. Remember that an outbreak could be thousands of people seriously ill, or just two people with minor stomach aches, or anything in between. The rate of outbreaks is of little significance if one is concerned about the risk to people’s health. This is particularly true in the arena of dairy, since raw milk outbreaks are typically small (most involve fewer than 20 people), while there have been fewer, but often much larger, outbreaks related to pasteurized milk. The real question is the rate of illnesses, not outbreaks. 

… the study actually failed to prove that making raw milk legal leads to increased numbers of illnesses.

Similarly, CDC publicized the sensationalist claim that raw milk was “150 times more likely” to cause an outbreak than pasteurized milk. But even with respect to outbreaks, the CDC had to stretch to reach this conclusion. The authors relied on data about consumption from 15 years ago, ignoring the CDC’s own food consumption survey in 2006-07 that showed that 3% of the population drinks raw milk. The authors also conflated raw milk with raw dairy generally, lumping together all illnesses from all raw dairy products. This enabled them to make raw milk appear more risky because of the many illnesses attributed to queso fresco, a soft (not aged) raw cheese that is frequently made under very unsanitary conditions. This combination of selective data choice enabled the authors to produce impressive, if inaccurate, findings.

The other headline from the CDC press release was that there were higher rates of raw milk outbreaks in states where it is legal. It would hardly be surprising to see some sort of increase in foodborne illnesses related to a food where sales of that food is legal. If we banned ground beef, we would certainly see fewer illnesses related to ground beef products.

Yet, even though this is a common-sense proposition, the study actually failed to prove that making raw milk legal leads to increased numbers of illnesses. Yet again, the CDC’s focus was on the number of outbreaks, rather than illnesses. In a single sentence buried in the middle of the study, the authors admitted that the rate of foodborne illnesses caused by raw dairy did not show a “statistically significant” increase in states where it was legal to sell raw dairy products. This is most likely due to the very low numbers of illnesses from raw milk; because raw milk illnesses are few and happen only sporadically, the incidence is too low to show a pattern.

Despite the manipulation of the data in the CDC study, it still reveals a basic fact: the incidence of illnesses from any dairy product is very low.

The study authors again made several additional faulty assumptions. They categorized states as simply “legal” or “illegal,” paying no attention to whether the sale of raw milk is legal in grocery stores, on-farm only, or otherwise restricted (such as in Kentucky, where it is legal only by prescription). In making these simplistic classifications, the authors treated states that formally recognize herd shares or that allow the sale of raw milk as pet food as “illegal” states even though many people obtain raw milk in those states for their own consumption from legally recognized sources. In contrast to the CDC’s flawed analysis, the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund provides a much more accurate map of the status of raw milk across the country. See the Raw Milk Nation map at www.farmtoconsumer.org/raw_milk_map.htm

The CDC also ignored important factors such as population and geography.  For example, the three most populous states in the country (California, Texas, and New York) all allow for legal sales of raw milk; the larger number of people in these states would logically lead to larger numbers of illnesses than in low-population states such as Montana and Wyoming and has nothing to do with the fact that raw milk is illegal in those states.  Moreover, since both Texas and California have large Hispanic populations and share a border with Mexico, there would logically be a much higher incidence of illnesses due to queso fresco, even though raw queso fresco is illegal in both states. 

The study also ignored the very important question of the source of the milk.  Even in states where the sale of raw milk is legal, people still sometimes get their milk from unlicensed sources, specifically, conventional dairies that are licensed only to sell milk for pasteurization, not raw for retail.  This “pre-pasteurization” milk is not in the same category as milk produced intentionally for raw consumption.  The study authors had access to all of the investigations on each outbreak, yet they chose not to even mention how many outbreaks in “legal” states were traced to illegal sources.

Ultimately, any food can be the source of foodborne illness.  The real issue is whether such a high percentage of people get sick from that food that it justifies a government ban.  Despite the manipulation of the data in the CDC study, it still reveals a basic fact: the incidence of illnesses from any dairy product is very low.

So what can you do about the inaccurate and unfair characterization of raw milk by the CDC?  Speak up!  Call your U.S. Representative and Senators today, and ask to speak with the staffer who handles agricultural and food issues.  Briefly explain to them how important raw milk is to you and your family, and offer to address any concerns they have about whether it is a high risk product.  Then ask them to sign on as co-sponsors of HR 1830 and S1955, the bills to legalize interstate transport of raw milk. 

You can find more information and tools for taking action at www.farmtoconsumer.org/hr1830. If you don’t know who represents you, you can look it up at www.congress.org or by calling the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121.

If you are working on state legislation to improve access to raw milk and need help countering the government’s misinformation, contact the Fund and we can provide materials; call 703-208-FARM (3276) or send email to info@farmtoconsumer.org.
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