Pure-food worshippers put their health at risk—especially when they drink unpasteurized milk.

What to eat. What not to eat.
July 19 2010 10:05 AM

The Raw-Milk Deal

Pure-food worshippers put their health at risk—especially when they drink unpasteurized milk.

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Today, just about 0.5 percent of all the milk consumed in this country is unpasteurized. Yet from 1998 to 2008, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received reports of 85 infectious disease outbreaks linked to raw milk. In the past few months, physicians have treated salmonella in Utah, brucellosis in Delaware, campylobacter in Colorado and Pennsylvania, and an ugly outbreak of E. coli O157-H7 in Minnesota, which sickened eight people in June. Epidemiologists not only identified a rare strain of the bacteria but matched its DNA to those stricken, the cows on the farm that supplied them with raw milk, and manure smearing the milking equipment and even the animals themselves. When regulators shut down the dairy farm, supporters promptly charged them with belonging to a government conspiracy to smear the reputation of a hallowed food.

Some, like Wisconsin raw-milk champion Max Kane, dismiss infectious disease altogether: "The bacteria theory's a total myth," Kane told one interviewer. "It allows us to have an enemy to go after similar to how it is with terrorism. It's food terrorism."

After a dairy in Washington state was linked to an E. coli outbreak last December, the farmer himself put it like this in an interview with the Seattle Times. Scientists were wrong to malign his milk because "everything God designed is good for you."

It seems an odd conclusion to draw from an outbreak of Escherichia Coli O157:H7, an organism dangerous enough to kill people by causing complete renal failure. I wish someone would explain the logic that leads to the conclusion that this apparently divine infection is actually "good for you."

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Raw-milk and other pure food obsessives are in love with a past that never really existed. The golden, creamy milk of those 19th-century farms killed people, often enough that public health crusaders fought for years for the protection of pasteurization. Our great-great-grandparents' farms were never meant to sustain the world; in 1898, in fact, the famed British chemist Sir William Crookes warned that without chemical fertilization, global famine loomed by the 1930s. And the pure-food, raw-milk, farms-of-our-forefathers movement would be so much more impressive—and appear so much more concerned for others—if it would trade some of its inspirational rhetoric for something I like to call healthy reality.

Correction, July 19, 2010: This article originally misspelled the name of Franz von Soxhlet. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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Deborah Blum is a professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin and author of The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.