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.

Woman holding a glass of milk. Click image to expand.
Woman holding a glass of milk

In February 1907, a New York physician discovered that his longtime dairy supplier had switched to pasteurized milk. He so detested the practice—not to mention the taste—that, as he wrote to the New York Times, he would rather "run the risk of typhoid, scarlet fever, diphtheria, and tuberculosis rather than [endure] the evils that I believe would follow the systematic and prolonged use of pasteurized milk."

One assumes the doctor was indulging in a public temper tantrum, not broadcasting a suicide wish. By 1907, physicians knew well the blistering fevers of typhoid, the terrible choking deaths of diphtheria, and what was then called "the white plague" of tuberculosis. Raw milk containing those very pathogens had been linked to the deaths of hundreds of children in New York City annually. And by the time that letter was published, some four decades of experiments showed that the quick-heat treatment of pasteurization could save lives.

But the subject of raw milk just makes people irrational. The doctor's snit about his preferred dairy product is part of a grand theatrical tradition, a century's worth of contention, lawsuits, accusations, counter-accusations, profanity, career damage, threats, and a certain amount of pure melodrama: "Pasteurized milk is dead milk which will rot on standing," one of the New York physician's intellectual descendents declared during hearings preceding the FDA's 1987 ban on interstate shipping of raw milk. "One of nature's most perfect foods has been murdered."

Worshippers at the milk shrine—to indulge in yet more hyperbole—stand before only one image of that perfect food. It's golden, creamy, foamy, fresh from grass-fed, family-farm cows. It doesn't cause but cures illness. Raw milk, with its legion of followers, has become a poster child of the food rights movement, giving emotional power to the idea that all of us deserve access to untainted, unprocessed, healthy food.

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And it's in this incarnation—the one that draws a cultlike following—that the raw-milk ideal becomes dangerous. They're not alone, of course; pure-food advocates in general tend to cast a romanticized glow over their favored products. We hear that old-fashioned organic produce contains more nutrients than that grown by modern agriculture, despite the fact that most research suggests that, basically, a carrot is a carrot and one spinach leaf is pretty much another (and all lose nutrients as they sit on a shelf). We hear that we should return to old-fashioned farming methods, advice that ignores the key fact that such techniques are so inefficient that they can't sustain the world's current population. There's an element of wishful thinking to many food mythologies, but—unlike the haloed status of raw milk—most don't lead directly to risky behavior or public health concerns or physicians complaining that increased consumption of "nature's perfect food" has led to a recent doubling in the number of milk-borne disease outbreaks.

Pasteurization, named for the great 19th-century French scientist Louis Pasteur, is essentially the process of heating a liquid to a temperature that will kill most microorganisms living within it. Hoping to aid winemakers who were concerned about the rapid spoiling of their product, Pasteur discovered that as the wine aged, populations of bacteria increased, metabolizing sugars and producing acid as byproduct. But if it was gently heated to 120 degrees Fahrenheit before aging, the bacteria were killed, and the wine would keep for much longer.

It was actually a German chemist, Franz von Soxhlet (who never seems to get any public credit or, of course, blame), who, in 1886, first proposed using the technique to reduce bacteria in bottled milk. * In the United States, public health advocates began urging dairy farmers to begin using pasteurization as a means of breaking down a near tidal wave of child mortality. Raw-milk followers, including our friend the irate physician, fought the move.

It wasn't until 1914—compelled by a typhoid epidemic linked to unpasteurized milk—that New York City finally enforced a pasteurization rule. Seven years later, the city's infant death rate, which had hovered at an appalling 240 of every 1,000 live births, had dropped to 71 deaths per 1,000, a victory many credited to pasteurization.

But not everyone was convinced. (Some consumers thought that the change in milk's taste meant that it was now less nutritious.) It took another decade for the U.S. Public Health Service to adopt a Pasteurized Milk Ordinance restricting transportation of raw milk; the policy came thanks largely to microbiologist Alice Evans, who proved that bacteria in cow's milk could make humans very sick. Evans, in fact, caught one of the diseases she was studying—brucellosis. At the time, the disease was frequently called undulant fever, so named because body temperatures rose and fell in "undulating" waves, accompanied by intense sweating and joint pains. Evans suffered recurring attacks of the fever for years and liked to joke that it was the revenge of the microbes.

It would still take several decades for pasteurization to become the national standard. Public health officials estimated that in 1938, a full fourth of all food-borne illnesses were linked to unpasteurized milk. In one of the more publicized cases of the 1940s, Edsel Ford, son of auto tycoon Henry Ford, died from drinking raw milk from one of the family farms.

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."

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.

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