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What You Need to Know About Raw (Unpasteurized) Milk

Raw Milk: Know the Raw Facts - Many people choose raw milk thinking it will improve their health, but it can cause serious illness. Outbreaks linked to raw milk have doubled in the past 5 years.Raw milk can carry harmful germs that can make you very sick or kill you. If you're thinking about drinking raw milk because you believe it has health benefits, consider other options.

Developing a healthy lifestyle requires you to make many decisions. One step you might be thinking about is adding raw milk to your diet. Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized (heating to a specific temperature for a set amount of time to kill harmful germs). Germs include bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

Making milk safe

Milk and products made from milk need minimal processing, called pasteurization. This process includes:

  • Heating the milk briefly (for example, heating it to 161°F for about 15 seconds)
  • Rapidly cooling the milk
  • Practicing sanitary handling
  • Storing milk in clean, closed containers at 40°F or below

When milk is pasteurized, disease-causing germs are killed. Harmful germs usually don't change the look, taste, or smell of milk, so you can only be confident that these germs are not present when milk has been pasteurized.

Risks of drinking raw milk

Raw milk can carry harmful bacteria and other germs that can make you very sick or even kill you. While it is possible to get foodborne illnesses from many different foods, raw milk is one of the riskiest of all. Getting sick from raw milk can mean many days of diarrhea, stomach cramping, and vomiting. Less commonly, it can mean kidney failure, paralysis, chronic disorders, and even death.

Many people who chose raw milk thinking they would improve their health instead found themselves (or their loved ones) sick in a hospital for several weeks fighting for their lives from infections caused by germs in raw milk. For example, a person can develop severe or even life-threatening diseases, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause paralysis, and hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can result in kidney failure and stroke.

Who is at greatest risk of getting sick from drinking raw milk?

The risk of getting sick from drinking raw milk is greater for

  • young children,
  • the elderly, and
  • people with weakened immune systems, such as people with cancer, an organ transplant, or HIV/AIDS.

However, it is important to remember that healthy people of any age can get very sick or even die if they drink raw milk that is contaminated with harmful germs.

If you are thinking about drinking raw milk because you believe it has health benefits, consider other options.

Aren't raw or natural foods better than processed foods?

Many people believe that foods with no or minimal processing are better for their health. However, some types of processing are needed to protect health. For example, consumers process raw meat, poultry, and fish for safety by cooking. Similarly, when milk is pasteurized, it is heated just long enough to kill disease-causing germs. Most nutrients remain after milk is pasteurized.

Some people choose to drink raw milk because they have heard that raw milk may be a good source of beneficial bacteria. Unfortunately, raw milk can also contain harmful bacteria. If you are looking for sources of bacteria that may be beneficial to your health, consider getting them from foods that do not involve as high of a risk as raw milk. For example, so-called probiotic bacteria are sometimes added to pasteurized, fermented foods, such as yogurt and kefir.

Many people also believe that small, local farms are better sources of healthy food. There are many local, small farms that offer pasteurized organic milk and cheese products.

What can I do to avoid getting sick?

As a consumer, you can take steps when grocery shopping and at home with all of your dairy products to minimize the risk of getting sick:

  • Only consume pasteurized milk and milk products. Look for the word "pasteurized" on the dairy labels. If in doubt, don't buy it!
  • Keep pasteurized dairy products refrigerated at 40°F or below at home and dispose of any expired products to reduce the risk of illness.
  • If you consume soft, fresh, un-aged cheeses like queso fresco, make sure they are made from pasteurized milk. Aged cheeses made from raw milk are generally okay to eat because germs usually die off during the aging process. However, outbreaks associated with these cheeses have been identified.

Reported outbreaks represent the tip of the iceberg. For every outbreak and every illness reported, many others occur, and most illnesses are not part of recognized outbreaks. Protect yourself and your loved ones. Avoid raw milk, it's just not worth the risk.

Read the full feature CDC Feature on Raw Milk.

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Posted in: Bacteria/Virus | OutbreaksTagged: Salmonella