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Raw milk: A risk or a right?

State, consumers debate merits of pasteurization

Milk is in the middle of a food fight in Illinois.

A recent initiative by the Illinois Department of Public Health about the sale of raw milk has reignited a longstanding debate over merits of dairy product pasteurization and raw milk health benefits. Pressure from federal agencies and state proposals for stricter laws on unpasteurized milk have put producers and consumers on the defensive.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health officials advocate the pasteurization of milk and discourage raw milk consumption.

According to the April 2008 issue of Healthbeat, a health department publication: “Each year, people become ill from drinking raw milk and eating foods made from raw dairy products. Unlike most milk, cheese, and dairy products sold in the United States, raw milk and raw dairy products have not been heat treated or pasteurized to kill bacteria.”

But raw milk advocates say pasteurization destroys the healthy benefits that the raw liquid offers in the first place.

From 1999 to 2008, 86 outbreaks related to unpasteurized milk were reported to the CDC, leading to 1,676 illnesses, 191 hospitalizations, and two deaths, according to Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases.

“Some states permit sale of raw milk and, not surprisingly, about 80 percent of these outbreaks occurred in states that permit the sale,” he said, adding that CDC policy “strongly supports measures to restrict the sale of raw milk.”

Raw milk proponents take issue with interpretations of CDC data and insist that the public’s right to procure raw milk must be safeguarded.

“My family has been purchasing raw milk from local farmers for around 7 years,” said Vicki McConnell, leader of the Dixon chapter of the nonprofit Weston A. Price Foundation, an organization that says it is dedicated to restoring nutrient-dense foods to diets.

“I would not go back to drinking pasteurized milk,” McConnell said.

Mark McAfee of the National Farmers Union reported that raw milk consumption is increasing by 25 percent a year while conventional milk sales are falling.

“Farmers want to meet the consumer demand,” said McAfee, who also is founder and CEO of Organic Pastures Dairy in California, the largest U.S. producer of raw milk. “And the new NFU policy will help them achieve the right to sell raw milk directly to consumers.”

NFU, which represents farmers in 33 states, adopted new pro-raw milk policies for its organization in March.

Tauxe cites concerns over the inherent uncleanliness of a farm.

“There are no health benefits from drinking raw milk that cannot be obtained from drinking pasteurized milk that is free of disease-causing bacteria,” he said. “... Even if the farm’s raw milk tests come back negative, it is no guarantee that the milk, or the products made from the milk, are always free of those pathogens.”

That concern is overblown, McConnell said.

“All food consumption inherently carries some degree of risk,” she said. “Many foods are implicated in foodborne illness, including pasteurized milk.”

Leafy vegetables account for the most illnesses, she said, and poultry account for the most deaths, according to a CDC article posted to its website.

“I feel that the health benefits of raw milk far outweigh the risks, and I am willing to accept responsibility for that choice,” she said. “More importantly, it is my right to make that choice.”

IDPH officials and the CDC foodborne illness database for 1998 through 2010 indicate two outbreaks in Illinois traced to consumption of fluid raw milk. A total of 20 people became ill.

The CDC database was last updated July but is subject to change as reporting agencies can modify their reports at any time.

Gene Johnston, director of Environmental Health for the Whiteside County Health Department, said incidents of illness from consuming raw milk are “pretty rare.”

“About 10 years ago we linked an illness to drinking raw milk,” he said. “It doesn’t come up very often.”

Lee County Health Department sanitarian Jennifer Kolb concurred. During the 15 years she has been at LCHD, she has never had a call or confirmed case of foodborne illness associated with the consumption of raw milk, she said.

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