The milk pasteurization debate is more than a century old.
According to “The Untold Story of Milk” by Connecticut-based natural medicine practitioner Ron Schmid, at the end of the 19th century, the population growth in cities created the “milk problem” — people wanted to drink it, but were too far from farms to get it from healthy cows. Instead they bought milk from “distillery dairies”, where sickly cows were fed the grain refuse from whiskey distilleries. As a result, many people, especially children, were getting sick.
The two solutions that emerged to solve the problem were pasteurization — heating milk to kill bacteria — and certification — creating sanitary conditions for raising and milking cows.
Schmid argues that the dairy industry cooked the case for pasteurization during the Great Depression because it is a cheaper and easier way to reduce the risk of bacterial outbreaks. He argues that pasteurization, which was first promoted nationally in the 1920s, gets credit for stopping the spread of tuberculosis, even though the mechanical milking system, as opposed to hand milking, was developed around the same time.
It’s true that bacteria such as campylobacter, e. coli and listeria can thrive in raw milk and are killed by pasteurization. But raw milk advocates, such as the Washington-based Weston A. Price Foundation, argue unpasteurized milk also contains enzymes and good bacteria that not only improve the immune system, but also protect milk from bad bacteria. The beneficial bacteria is also killed by pasteurization.
Health professionals still advise against raw milk, however, disputing many of the health claims, and noting that consumers seeking good bacteria can find it in pasteurized products such as certain yogurts.
A recent European study found children who drank raw milk were less likely to develop asthma and allergies, but it also admitted because of the potential presence of bacteria in raw milk, it could not recommend raw milk to prevent asthma.
“The public in general is confused about this issue,” said Allen Sayler, vice president of the International Dairy Foods Association, the dairy industry’s lobby in Washington. “While more and more are feeding raw milk to their children, based on wondrous claims and miraculous effects, less attention is paid to the fact that there exists a population of former raw milk drinkers who have suffered either serious temporary illnesses or permanent disabilities.”
Last year, a California woman who drank raw milk developed a rare disease that left her nearly paralyzed. Bill Marler, a Washington-based food poisoning litigator representing her in a lawsuit against the dairy said many of his clients only heard about the health benefits, but didn’t realize the risks.
Still, “you’re not going to stop it, so you should regulate it,” he said. “But I also don’t think you should sell it in retail outlets. If people want it, they’ve got to go to the farm and get it.”