An Exchange on Raw Milk

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
July 26 2010 12:20 PM

An Exchange on Raw Milk

We've already received more than 800 comments on Deborah Blum's takedown of unpasteurized milk from last week (" The Raw-Milk Deal "). Many of those came from readers questioning her evidence and conclusions. One critic of the piece is Slate 's critic at large,  Stephen Metcalf , who sends in the following comment:

/blogs/browbeat/2010/07/26/an_exchange_on_raw_milk/jcr:content/body/slate_image

Between 1993 and 2006, roughly 65,000 people in the United States died from a foodborne illness. Of those, after reading Deborah Blum's article, guess how many died from drinking unpasteurized dairy products?  One percent would be 650; 0.1 percent would be 65. Keep going. The right answer is 0.003 percent of all those fatalities. That's a grand total of 2 people in 13 years. Let's put this number in perspective. In that same period, more than 300,000 Americans died from gunshot wounds. More than 150,000 from drunk driving. Over 4 million from cigarettes. Raw milk currently has a market penetration of 0.5 percent. If we imagined that number increasing by a hundredfold (i.e., if half of all milk consumed in the United States were unpasteurized), then we'd expect that 15 people would die from raw milk illness every year, given current outbreak/mortality rates. Even if everyone in America drank raw milk, ceteris paribus , more people would still die from eating contaminated beef.  

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I am not for balancing human lives against a shamanistic belief in uncorrupted food. And I don't believe raw milk could "scale up" without becoming more dangerous. Raw milk is a niche item, sold by small dairies, under strict state regulation; and it's going to stay that way. I buy it (rarely) because I know the people who produce it, and I know their farm. To sell it to everyone would require losing both the intimacy of the transaction and the hands-on care required to make it safe. (Nonetheless, it is unclear what the net health outcome of wider consumption of raw milk would be. At least two peer-reviewed studies , one in the Lancet , the other in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology , have shown a very high inverse correlation between the consumption of raw milk and incidents of asthma—a disease, by the way, that kills about 4,000 people a year in the United States.)

To bolster her casually presented claims that the benefits of organic are minimal or nonexistent, Blum links to two second-hand journalistic accounts of research—research that has not gone uncontested, to put it mildly. (Click here , here , here , and here .) A little digging reveals that the science—on how well organic scales, what its effects are on soils and groundwater, what its labor requirements would be, and whether yields increase or decline without the aid of nitrogen soil enhancers and synthetic pesticides—is far from settled.

A very well-funded, tightly focused effort is currently under way to make the consumption of foods locally and organically grown by small producers look elitist, faddish, and superstitious and to make the long term health consequences of eating industrially produced food appear minimal. Meanwhile, the impulse in boutique opinion journalism to rob the food evangelists of some of their (admittedly) obnoxious sanctimony is now every bit as automated as the foodies' naive enthusiasm. What a lovely gift to Big Ag.

******

In 2008, a Northern California public health nurse named Mari Tardiff became persuaded that raw milk was a health food. She had friends who swore by it; she had read the materials on-line promising renewed strength and vitality. She went to a local dairy, bought a bottle, shared it with her son. Within hours, they were both violently sick. And a little over a week later, she was paralyzed from the neck down .

Tardiff's illness was traced to Campylobacter , which turned out to be thriving in that particular batch of milk. The outbreak sickened nine people. Eight were briefly ill—nausea, diarrhea, what we think of as classic food poisoning symptoms—and recovered. Tardiff was the unlucky one. The bacterial infection triggered a neurological disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome, which almost killed her, and which has left her, at age 55, almost helpless.

I mention this case because Mr. Metcalf seems to suggest that such outbreaks only really count when they kill people. But even a survivable food-borne illness can devastate someone's life. Any outbreak matters, whether it kills someone or not, because it means that people were harmed by a food that they should have been able to trust. Of course, guns and cigarettes and drunk drivers kill and maim countless more. But the last I heard, no one was claiming that drunk driving carries no risk or that smoking was good for one's health. By contrast, raw milk is marketed as a risk-free health food, capable of curing everything from Crohn's disease to asthma. A good example is the " Raw Milk Ninja " video on YouTube, which features Mark McAfee of California's prominent raw milk dairy, Organic Pastures.

The selling of raw milk, the wonder food, has been so effective in the last few years, that we can no only longer really use 1996-2006 data to evaluate our risk today. Consumption is going up—and so is the rate of milk-linked disease. For instance—again to use slightly older numbers—the CDC estimated 85 outbreaks from 1998 to 2008, an average of 8.5 a year. We surpassed that number in the first six months of this year; already nine outbreaks have been reported.

I did have to laugh at the notion that my claims were "casually presented," because I am such a nerdy over-researcher. I try not to overwhelm my stories with information from every document and Web site listed in my notes. I'm sorry that Mr. Metcalf doesn't like my links. But we'll have to disagree here. For instance, I would never cite the Huffington Post, as he does, as a credible source on science. Its coverage (if one can call it that) of raw milk, for example, is downright embarrassing .

And the real point here is not statistical gamesmanship or linksmanship, either. The real point is the one I started with: unpasteurized/raw milk is a risky product and those who believe in it should be responsible enough to offer full disclosure. Period. Mr. Metcalf says he is against balancing "shamanistic belief in uncorrupted food" against human lives, and there we are in full agreement.

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