Scientists discourage efforts to make raw milk more available

Don’t even try to separate Chris Schlicht from her raw, unpasteurized milk.

“You bet I’ve got raw milk!” Schlicht wrote in a recent e-mail message. “I can say that raw milk and home-raised meat saved my life.”

Before she moved to Gig Harbor, Wash., more than 20 years ago, Schlicht says she was “sick, underweight and having an impossible time trying to get pregnant.” Then she began drinking raw milk, planted a garden and started raising her own livestock for meat. “I gained weight and got pregnant in less than six months,” she notes. “I’ve been drinking raw milk ever since.” So do her husband and her son, now 22.

If Schlicht, now also a raw milk producer, had to choose between no milk and pasteurized milk, she says the choice would be easy: “I would do without milk altogether.”

She has company. A growing number of consumers are fighting to drink their milk unpasteurized despite well-documented health risks and recent outbreaks of serious infections tied to raw milk. From 1998 to 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tied 45 outbreaks of various food-borne diseases to unpasteurized milk or cheese. More than 1,000 people became ill, 104 were hospitalized and two died, according to the CDC.

Drinking raw milk “is like playing Russian roulette,” says Gregory Miller, executive vice president of the National Dairy Council. “Why would you take that risk?”

The Food and Drug Administration agrees. It bans interstate sales of raw milk and raw milk products. Agencies from the CDC to the World Health Organization also warn consumers against drinking unpasteurized milk, although a handful of states, including California and Washington, allow raw milk to be sold in stores.

Other states have laws originally crafted to let farmers share ownership of livestock and consume the milk and other products they provide. Raw milk advocates have started using those laws as loopholes to buy shares of animals for their use — a practice that some states are trying to halt.

In October, Maryland adopted emergency regulations forbidding farmers from selling shares of livestock to consumers. “We believe that it is a sham to circumvent the law to do a cow share,” says Ted Elkin, deputy director of Maryland’s Office of Food Protection and Consumer Health Services.

The push to make raw milk available “seems like a very dangerous idea,” says Elkin, who notes that what proponents of raw milk “call ‘life forces,’ we call bacteria.”

In July, Department of Agriculture scientists reported that nearly a quarter of the raw milk collected from 861 farms in 21 states contained bacteria linked to human illness. Among the results, 5 percent of samples contained listeria, 3 percent had salmonella and 4 percent had types of E. coli that can cause diarrhea and other gastrointestinal illnesses. Less than 1 percent had the most dangerous form of E. coli — 0156:H7.

Raw milk has “measurable levels (of unhealthy bacteria) and they are probably more prevalent than what we are seeing,” says Jeffrey Karns, a microbiologist at the USDA’s Environmental Microbial Safety Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., who led the study.

That doesn’t bother Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a group that has led the charge to make raw milk more available. She and other proponents contend that raw milk has more protein, more antibodies, healthful enzymes and even more calcium than pasteurized milk.

“You aren’t going to change the amount of calcium in a glass of milk by not heating it,” says Stuart Patton, professor emeritus of dairy science at Penn State University. Pasteurization may destroy a small percentage of B vitamins, particularly thiamin, and about 20 percent of the vitamin C in milk, Patton says. But milk is not a major source of either one.

The debate over raw milk is one that Patton, 84, has heard often in his long career. “There can be all kinds of speculations based on people’s hopes and wishes,” he says. “But until there are really good studies that show clearly the difference between raw and pasteurized milk, you are just dreaming. The milk is still the milk. Pasteurization is such minimal treatment that it does not change milk chemically very much.”

Peggy Thiel, 52, of Spring Grove, Pa., agrees. She grew up drinking raw milk on her family’s dairy farm in Wisconsin and learned the benefits of pasteurization the hard way. Thiel says that she and her older brother were often sick until their family doctor urged her mother to begin pasteurizing their milk. After that, their health improved.

That was enough proof for Thiel, who says, “I have no desire to drink raw milk.”

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