The Raw Milk Debate

March 29, 2012

The raw milk debate is heating up. To learn about both sides of this debate, in the latest issue of Food, Nutrition and Science, we talked with Dr. Heidi Kassenborg, a veterinarian and the Director of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Dairy & Food Inspection Division, and Doug Stephan, radio host of Good Day and a dairy farmer who sells raw milk from his East Leigh Farm in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Dr. Heidi Kassenborg (con) vs. Doug Stephan (pro)

The debate over raw milk is heating up. A study released by CDC (Centers for Disease Control) in February 2012 examined the number of dairy outbreaks in the United States during a 13-year period. Between 1993 and 2006, 60% (73/121) of dairy-related outbreaks reported to CDC were linked to raw milk products. But according to the Weston A. Price Foundation, the CDC has manipulated this data to make raw milk look dangerous, simultaneously dismissing similar dangers associated with pasteurized milk.

In the U.S., only 10 states can currently sell raw milk for purchase, and in 15 others, only on-farm sales are allowed. Meanwhile, in France, raw milk is sold in vending machines on the side of the road. As the House continues to debate bill 1830 (a bill that would expand raw milk availability to all states), we talked to Dr. Heidi Kassenborg, a veterinarian and the Director of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Dairy & Food Inspection Division. We also talked to Doug Stephan, radio host of Good Day and a dairy farmer who sells raw milk from his East Leigh Farm in Framingham, Massachusetts. Here’s what they had to say about what the debate over raw milk actually means for farmers ­– and consumers.

Is raw milk a wonder food? Or a health risk? What are the benefits and what are the dangers?

Kassenborg: I think there is a basic misunderstanding of food safety advocates’ position on this issue. We aren’t against milk that hasn’t been pasteurized (i.e. raw milk). We are against the pathogens that can and often do get into milk during the milking and collection process.

We live in a time of unprecedented public health and food safety. Unlike the experience of our great-grandparents, today it is uncommon for anyone to know someone who has contracted a serious foodborne illness. This is not some accidental fluke of history. It’s due to decades of work by scientists and public health experts. These food safety steps have been largely invisible to the average consumer, but I hope this incredible success hasn’t bred complacency or lack of appreciation for the science behind these advances.

Various health benefits are attributed to raw milk, but many of the studies used to support these claims are very old and outdated. While the question of raw milk benefits is open for discussion, there can be no reasonable doubt about the risks. State after state has reported outbreaks of serious illness clearly associated with raw milk, and statistical analyses show an alarming rate of illness relative to the number of people consuming the product. These are the facts, plain and simple.

Stephan: Human civilization wouldn’t be here at all if raw milk were inherently dangerous – all of the milk that any of our ancestors drank before the past 80 years was unpasteurized. It’s even safer now, with refrigeration, stainless steel equipment, and better sanitation at dairy farms.

No food is 100% safe – any product can cause illness if processed improperly, as we have learned from foodborne illness outbreaks from peanut butter, spinach, eggs, and other products in recent years. Raw milk has a very short supply chain, though – it goes through very few steps in getting from the cow to the consumer. Fewer processes means fewer opportunities for the milk to become contaminated.

All raw milk is source-identified, meaning the consumer knows what farm it came from. This means that, should a problem arise, it can easily be traced back to the farm and the cause of the problem can be addressed. On the other hand, conventional milk mixes together milk from hundreds of farms and is shipped thousands of miles to consumers. A problem with one farm could contaminate milk from hundreds of others, the problem could quickly become widespread, and the source of the issue might never be identified.

Kassenborg: Raw milk advocates need to prove that they can produce a product that is free of dangerous pathogens, and on-farm precautions simply aren’t sufficient to prevent pathogens from getting in the milk. A dairy cow produces more than 125 pounds of manure every day and that manure is produced on the same end of the cow from which the milk comes. Healthy cows can shed pathogens that sicken humans. That’s why pasteurization was such a big step forward for public health when it was introduced years ago.

Pasteurization controls harmful bacteria, parasites and other pathogens by heat treating milk to a certain temperature and pressure for a particular time period. If raw milk advocates believe heat treatment is a concern, why aren’t they exploring other ways of pathogen control that don’t involve heat treatment? For example, potential non-heat treatment methods of removing pathogens from milk include ultraviolet light, microfiltration, pulsed electric fields, ultrasound, cold plasma, and high hydrostatic pressure. Pursuing those alternatives could be a more productive strategy than the anti-science approach some seem to take now.

Stephan: Raw milk is a ‘complete’ food. It contains components that help prevent potentially dangerous pathogens from growing in the milk, enzymes that help the body digest and use the nutrients in the milk, and many vitamins and minerals that are destroyed or rendered ineffective by pasteurization.

But whether or not raw milk is healthy shouldn’t be the determining factor about whether or not it should be available to consumers. The only consideration should be whether or not raw milk can be produced and distributed safely, and farmers in states around the nation have proven that it can.

Also, opponents of raw milk sales fail to recognize that there are two kinds of raw milk – the milk being processed that is meant to be pasteurized, and the milk being processed that is meant to be served as raw milk. Milk intended for raw milk consumption has extremely low bacteria counts. Mine are the lowest of anybody in the state because the animals are clean, the barn is clean and the system is clean. I have a couple hundred cows, so it is possible to do this. In big dairies there is more bacteria because the conditions are not as clean, but this works for them because that milk is intended for pasteurization. We must acknowledge that these two milk products are entirely different.

Kassenborg: Low bacteria counts do not mean that a producer’s milk is pathogen free. It doesn’t take many bacteria to cause illness; less than 50 bacteria in the case of Escherichia coli O157:H7. Furthermore, a recent study from Wisconsin found no evidence to back up claims that smaller dairy farms have higher quality milk than larger farms. In fact, the group mean values for small farms (>118 cattle) for both the bulk tank standard plate count (commonly referred to as the bacteria count) and somatic cell counts were higher than for large farms (119–713 cattle), and for confined animal feeding operations (?714 cattle)*. Additionally, many small dairies have been the source of raw milk outbreaks. Again, on-farm precautions just aren’t enough to ensure a consistently safe product when it comes to raw milk.

How important is the issue of food choice and how involved should the Federal government be with this issue?

Stephan: The government has no role in determining food choice. Government agencies have a role to protect consumers from foods that are inherently unsafe or that become unsafe through how they are handled. The laws and regulations should be appropriate to the existing need, not antiquated, unscientific fears. The majority of foodborne illness outbreaks are caused by mass-produced products, so there is clearly a need for more oversight in the industrial food sector.

Kassenborg: When talking about the role of government food safety regulation, I like to use the analogy of a football referee. Most people would agree that we would have chaos if teams were allowed to call their own penalties, and so the sport evolved to have an impartial referee make the calls. But when a referee blows the whistle against the home team, sometimes our tendency is to get mad at the referee instead of getting mad at the player who jumped off sides. In the case of raw milk, government regulatory agencies are playing the role of referee and some advocates clearly don’t like our calls. That’s their prerogative, but to me it’s a big leap to go from that disagreement to saying we should get rid of the referees entirely. We don’t root for either team – we root for a clean game. I am sorry if you don’t like our calls, but we do our best to base our calls on the facts.

One of the core functions of government since ancient times has been ensuring the integrity of the food supply for its citizens. I don’t think the “buyer beware” approach cuts it when it comes to public health and food safety. Most people don’t have the means or inclination to independently develop expertise in food safety, so we all have to take someone’s word regarding the background, composition and nutritional value of the food we eat.

With regard to free choice, I have to ask whether it is truly being exercised when unsuspecting consumers are lured into trying raw milk through the dissemination of incorrect and outdated information. What is more, is free choice being exercised by children whose parents give them raw milk? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that a substantial proportion of raw milk product associated illnesses falls on children; among the 86 unpasteurized dairy product outbreaks from 1998 to 2008, 79 percent involved at least one person less than 20 years old.

How do raw milk sales restrictions affect the businesses of independent and small farmers?

Kassenborg: Minnesota farmers can sell raw milk on their farms, but most choose not to do so. Civil liability claims for illnesses traced to raw milk can be in the millions of dollars. Insurance policies with premiums and deductibles that are affordable for a raw milk business model may be difficult to obtain. In the absence of adequate, affordable insurance coverage, an important question for a dairy farmer to consider is whether selling raw milk is important enough to them that they are “willing to bet the farm on it."

Stephan: Allowing farms to sell raw milk to meet the growing consumer demand is a proven tool for saving small family farms. In my state, Massachusetts, we have lost hundreds of conventional dairy farms in the past decade. At the same time, however, the number of farms licensed to sell raw milk has steadily increased, and no farm licensed to sell raw milk has gone out of business.

Farmers who sell raw milk are able to get a fair price for their product, a price that allows them to cover their costs and feed their families. Farmers who sell their milk into the conventional market are at the whim of the federal milk marketing order, a complicated system whereby the federal government sets the price that processors pay for milk. This price is often far less than what it costs to produce the milk, which is why thousands of family operated dairy farms have gone out of business in recent years.

Do you believe that raw milk will be allowed to be sold in all states? By when? What impact, if any, could this have on pasteurized milk sales?

Stephan: I can’t predict what will happen in the future with individual states’ laws. Giving consumers a choice is always a good thing, though, and can ultimately help the competition. There will always be consumers who prefer one product over another, and if conventional milk producers want to compete with the growing interest in raw milk they’ll need to figure out how to make their product as appealing as raw milk.

Kassenborg: It’s hard to make predictions about the future of this business. Whatever ultimately happens, my hope is that consumers will do their homework and make well-informed decisions that weigh the risks and benefits.

What do you think is the future of raw milk sales in the United States?

Stephan: I’d like to see more farmers start offering raw milk for sale to meet the rapidly increasing demand. A growing number of consumers want to know where their food comes from and want the money they spend on their food to go to the farmers who produce it, and that translates into opportunities for dairies. When it comes to raw milk being offered and available everywhere, House bill 1830 addresses that.

Kassenborg: My hope is that producers, consumers, lawmakers and government regulators keep food safety as a primary concern as they consider their views of raw milk. If heat treatment or pasteurization are not acceptable, then what is the acceptable intervention to ensure the safety of our milk? Despite what some may say, regulatory agencies are not in the business of picking winners and losers. We deal with the facts, and let them guide our actions. Our goal is to provide the consumer with reasonable confidence that the food they eat will not make them sick.

Learn more about Doug Stephan’s farm here: Learn more about the public health concerns surrounding raw milk here:

*S. C. Ingham, Y. H. (2011). Comparison of bulk-tank standard plate count and somatic cell. J. Dairy Sci. (94:4237–4241, 4237-4241).