Nutrition • Dec 23, 2013

The Medical Risks and Benefits of Raw Milk

BXP65320hI am a cheese snob—I lavish a rich cheese and a dark red wine at the end of a long day.  Some of the best cheeses are made from raw milk, but I haven’t eaten them in nearly a decade, since I became a mom.  Bacteria in raw milk products can cause virulent infections including meningitis and blood stream infections.  For pregnant women, these infections can result in miscarriage or stillbirth.  Infants and young children are more susceptible to the ugly bacteria that can live in raw milk products, including Listeria monocytogenes, Campylobacter jejuni, Salmonella species, Brucella species, and Escherichia coli O157.  As a mom, I have become the cheese police, always reading the labels on all milk products I buy and asking in restaurants if their cheeses are pasteurized.  So I was very excited last week when the American Academy of Pediatrics released a new policy statement calling for a ban on the sale of all raw milk and raw milk products. 

We have a simple fix to this problem—pasteurization.  Yet 30 states currently permit the sale of unpasteurized milk products, although it is illegal to sell these products across state lines.  Raw milk products are still the primary source of foodborne illness in the United States.  From the AAP policy statement:

“[A]mong milk- or milk product–associated foodborne illness outbreaks reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 1973 and 2009, 82% were attributable to raw milk or cheese.”

Supporters of raw milk often cite possible health benefits of unpasteurized products.  According to the AAP, there is no medical evidence to support these claims.  There is, however, strong scientific evidence that pasteurization does not alter the nutritional value of milk.

One European study showed that kids who drink raw milk have less asthma and allergies, but it is unclear if it was the milk itself that caused this difference.  Even the Swiss PhD student who worked on this study, Georg Loss, describes raw milk as a “double edged sword.”  “On the one side it is protective for the development of asthma and allergies but on the other side it may imply serious health risks due to harmful microorganisms.”

We just don’t have enough research right now to say that raw milk consumption prevents asthma and allergies.  But even if that research existed, why would you put your child at risk of serious illness or death in an effort to prevent a treatable illness?  It’s a medical decision all parents need to make before their babies are born—no raw milk.

I’ve seen meningitis from Listeria, a bacteria found in raw milk products.  I’ve seen it turn a healthy, beautiful newborn into a lethargic, gray baby with a high fever.  I’ve tested many more babies for infection caused by raw milk, sticking needles into their backs to collect cerebral spinal fluid and collecting blood for a battery of tests.  Wouldn’t it be easier just to pasteurize?  Good cheese is not worth this pain.