Approximately 3 million Americans consume unpasteurized milk each year. They believe “raw” milk contains enzymes, vitamins, beneficial bacteria and disease-fighting nutrients that are lost during pasteurization.
These beliefs persist despite the unanimous opinion of public health officials that the risks of unpasteurized milk outweigh any benefits, and that pasteurization—in which milk is heated to kill disease-causing bacteria—is by far the best way to assure milk is safe.
According to the CDC, there were 85 outbreaks of bacterial infections caused by raw milk consumption between 1998 and 2008. These outbreaks were associated with 1,614 reported cases of illness, 187 hospitalizations and 2 deaths. Deaths have also been caused by ingestion of fresh cheese made from raw milk, the CDC reports, especially the Queso Fresco cheeses which are favored by many Hispanic people.
Pregnant women, the elderly and children are particularly vulnerable to bacterial infections associated with raw milk, but healthy young adults can also be stricken.
The FDA bans interstate sales of unpasteurized milk for human consumption, but 28 states allow it to be sold, and others are considering doing so. These states impose their own laws regarding milk processing. Some require in addition that warning labels be affixed to milk containers.
In the aftermath of some recent outbreaks associated with unpasteurized milk, the FDA and CDC are ramping-up efforts to warn consumers about its dangers, and urging states to strengthen what regulatory controls they currently enforce.
Pasteurization was widely adopted in the US around 1938. Before then, cow’s milk caused nearly 25% of all food- and water-borne disease outbreaks. “People don’t remember the bad old days,” Robert Tauxe, the CDC’s deputy director of food-borne and bacterial diseases division told the Wall Street Journal.