Every year 128,000 Americans are hospitalized and 3,000 die due to food borne illnesses according to the Center for Disease Control.
Common causes are consumption of undercooked food or food that has been improperly stored. Although a multitude of foods contribute to these statistics, one type of food is unfairly castigated above the rest: raw milk.
Raw milk is milk that hasn’t undergone the process of pasteurization, where it is heated to a temperature sufficient to kill the dangerous bacteria. Pasteurization is very effective, but it kills most of the beneficial nutrients along with the bad. Enzymes such as phosphatase, which helps absorb calcium and lipase, which helps absorb fat, as well as Vitamin A are eradicated. Other beneficial nutrients such as Vitamin C are reduced considerably.
Pasteurized milk that has not gone raw. (CU Independent Photo Illustration/Robert R. Denton)
Consumers of natural foods usually prefer the higher nutritional value of raw milk, which is signficicantly higher than pasteurized milk. They also prefer supporting local farmers, but unfortunately many are unable to do so due to anti-raw milk policies. The FDA banned the interstate sale of raw milk in 1986 and most states have either created large impediments to its sales or banned it altogether due to the fears of it causing serious illnesses like tuberculosis.
Though it’s true that raw milk potentially poses a higher health risk than pasteurized milk, the extent to which this is true is massively overstated by its opponents. Even using the harshest statistics, sickness and death from raw milk is extremely uncommon.
The CDC attributes only two deaths in the past decade to raw milk, but it was revealed that one of these deaths resulted from consumption of queso fresco, an unsanitary Mexican cheese that is often made in bathtubs, hence its unflattering nickname “bathtub cheese”. Although raw milk was an ingredient, the contamination was most likely due to the fact that the cheese was left to fester in an unsanitary bathtub. The other death attributed to raw milk was also the result of an adulterated product rather than the milk itself, so raw milk was not necessarily the cause in either case.
Although raw milk has undeniably caused some illnesses, an average of only 27 illnesses are attributed to raw milk each year, the vast majority of which are mild gastrointestinal ailments like diarrhea that last less than a week. Among the few who became seriously ill, some already had compromised immune systems from taking immunosuppressive drugs.
So despite the fact that raw milk has undeniably caused some sickness among those who consume it, banning it outrightly is unreasonable considering the fact that we tolerate foods such as eggs and ground beef that cause much more sickness than raw milk.
Pasteurized milk isn’t without blame either, considering it has been traced to multiple outbreaks of sickness, including the 1985 Salmonella Outbreak which sickened nearly 200,000 and killed 18. Clearly pasteurization is not some panacea that can eliminate all the risks associated with drinking milk.
If the cows are living in filthy conditions bereft of sunlight or basic sanitation and the farmers are taking no health precautions, people are going to get sick whether or not the milk is pasteurized. Almost all milk-borne illness results from improper diets and living conditions for the cows or lack of sanitation by the farmers in handling the milk.
Legislators have failed to understand that not all raw milk is created equal. When it comes from unhealthy cows on unhealthy farms it is indeed a health hazard, but when it comes from healthy, grass-fed cows on well-managed farms it poses virtually zero risk.
Unfortunately, many of the latter type of farms are closing shop due to stringent raw milk laws so more and more of our milk supply is coming from unpleasant sources.
This issue ultimately boils down to freedom of choice, not a debate about the health risks.
People should be allowed to choose what to put into their bodies regardless of whether or not it is harmful. We tolerate cigarettes even though they are the cause of nearly 1 in 5 American deaths per year, yet raw milk, the “cause” of at most two deaths in the past decade, is spoken about as if it is the scourge of the Earth.
Consumers should be given the choice to drink the type of milk they want and accept the risks associated with that choice. It is still a matter of debate on whether or not raw milk does a body good, but taking the power of choice from consumers by outlawing raw milk does nobody any good.
Contact CU Independent Opinion Writer Mark Lamb at Mark.email@example.com.
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