On Friday, the FDA reported 12 new cases of illness in the Midwest linked to raw milk from a dairy contaminated with a dangerous bacterium, campylobacter. "Raw milk is inherently dangerous and should not be consumed by anyone, at any time, for any reason," says John Sheehan, director of the FDA's division of plant- and dairy-food safety.This from the Wall Street Journal and many other sources.
Down with raw milk! Burn it! Pasteurize the cows!
Hmm. Let's take a step back.
Establishing the actual cause of an outbreak is not as straightforward as one might like. It's possible that these cases were caused by raw milk—but it's also possible that the outbreak was caused by something else. Given that the FDA has a stated agenda of abolishing the consumption of raw milk, they may be motivated to jump to conclusions if these conclusions support their agenda. It has happened before, and farms have been shut down, or had their raw milk sales suspended, based on inconclusive or incomplete evidence.
Even if it turns out that the outbreak was caused by raw milk, it is important to keep things in perspective.
Consider foods that have caused outbreaks in recent years: ground beef, organic spinach, tomatoes, peanuts. Some of these outbreaks have involved hundreds or thousands of people, and hundreds of tons of product. What has happened? Have ground beef processing plants suspended operations? Has anyone been put out of business? Not that I know of. Has there been a call for an end to sales of these dangerous foods? No.
There was an outbreak traced to pasteurized milk in Massachusetts in 2007 that caused 3 deaths. Was there a call for an end to sales of pasteurized milk? No.
Should people be able to choose for themselves what foods they eat; where, how, and from whom they buy them; and how they are processed? I say yes.
Should the government continue in its valuable role of monitoring food outbreaks and gathering data? Yes.
Should the government continue to have the power to regulate commerce in different types of goods? Probably. But individual liberties must be preserved, and regulations and prohibitions should be in proportion to actual threats.
Many people claim that raw milk is no different from pasteurized milk, just more dangerous, and that therefore there is no reason to drink raw milk. Others claim that raw milk has a different nutritional profile from pasteurized milk.
I have a friend who can't drink pasteurized milk without getting indigestion. If she takes lactase pills, the indigestion goes away. Lactase is the enzyme that's necessary to digest lactose, the sugar in milk. Some people make lactase in their bodies, and some people don't. She would seem to be one of those who don't. Interestingly, she can drink raw milk without any digestive problems. Raw milk contains lactase. Lactase, along with other enzymes and some vitamins, is destroyed or diminished by heat.
It sounds to me like raw milk is different from pasteurized milk, in at least one way.
The report-in-progress of the Michigan Fresh Unprocessed Whole Milk Workgroup describes other differences. This group includes officials from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and other representatives of state government, a medical doctor, an official from the MSU College of Agriculture, and others.
I hope that their report will put to rest, once and for all, the claim that raw milk and pasteurized milk are no different.