Drinking Raw Milk: It's Not Worth the Risk
By LCDR Casey Barton Behravesh, DVM, DrPH, US Public Health Service
There are many reasons why some people are thinking about drinking raw milk these days. (Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized to kill harmful germs.) Some people want to eat less processed food. Others have heard that raw milk contains more of certain nutrients than pasteurized milk, or that it can prevent or even solve various health problems. Still others think of buying raw milk as one way to support local farmers and sustainable agriculture.
As a public health epidemiologist and veterinarian, I know firsthand how animals and their germs can contaminate all kinds of food, including milk. Also, in my job in the Outbreak Response and Prevention Branch at CDC, I help investigate outbreaks caused by contaminated food and contact with infected animals.
If you’re thinking about adding raw milk to your diet (or your family’s diet), it’s important for you to understand the risks of drinking raw milk.
Why raw milk is dangerous
Raw milk can carry harmful bacteria and other germs that can make you very sick or kill you. Yes, it’s true that it’s possible to get “food poisoning” or foodborne illnesses from many foods, but raw milk is one of the riskiest of all. Raw milk and products made from raw milk (such as cheeses and yogurts) can cause serious infections, such as Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli.
What happens if you get sick from raw milk
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. The seriousness of the illness is determined by many factors, such as the type of germ, the amount of contamination, and the person’s immune defenses.
Speaking of immune defenses… it’s important to remember that some people are at higher risk of getting sick from drinking raw milk. The risk is greater for certain age groups, such as infants, young children, and older adults. It’s also particularly risky for pregnant women (and their unborn babies) and those with weakened immune systems, such as people with cancer, an organ transplant, or HIV/AIDS.
Though some people are at higher risk of getting sick from raw milk, even healthy adults and older children can get seriously ill. Those who recover often suffer from life-long medical consequences. To see how devastating these illnesses can be, check out these real-life stories about the dangers of raw milk.
Even healthy animals may carry germs that contaminate raw milk
Outbreaks of illness related to raw milk have been traced back to both grass-fed and grain-fed animals. Raw milk supplied by “certified,” “organic,” or “local dairies has no guarantee of being safe.
How to stay safe
To keep your family safe, follow these simple tips:
- Always drink pasteurized milk. Check the label or package to be sure.
- If you prefer organic milk, make sure that it’s pasteurized. Raw, organic milk is not safe.
- If you or a member of your family consumes raw milk and then becomes ill, call your health care provider immediately. If it’s an emergency, call 911.
For more information, including questions and answers about raw milk, see Food Safety and Raw Milk (CDC).
I disagree!! I drink raw milk on a regular basis (daily) and feel fantastic! When raw milk is purchased from a quality farmer, one who raises their cattle on grass only (not grain), keeps the milking facilities clean and don't over milk the cattle - treating them as God intended; I trust that source!! I purchase my milk from a farmer who makes great product and I know I DO NOT have to worry about harmful bacteria or sickness in my body because of it! It is the responsibility of the consumer to purchase raw milk from a trusted farm, not the governments. As a citizen of the United States I have the right to purchase what I want from whom I want and I do not want that right to be taken away! If I want to drink raw milk, then I have should have the right to do. If someone else who doesn't know where to purchase good raw milk or does not have the local ability to purchase from a GOOD QUALITY FARMER, then I would not risk drinking raw milk from a 'secret' source. A good local farmer that allows tours of the facility - that does not have secrets. . . knowledge is power!! I use that knowledge to purchase not only raw milk, but pasture raised chicken (meat and eggs), beef, and pork. People must get back in touch with their food source. Until America wakes up, there will be problems. Going cheap and going easy - - will in the end make them extremely sick. I choose good quality food -- it may not be cheap -- but the quality beats quantity and I am WAY HEALTHIER for it! I hope everyone starts to educate themselves on the quality of food and purchases locally!!
NO ONE IN MY FAMILY EVER GOT SICK FROM RAW MILK AND WE HAVE BEEN DRINKING IT ALL OUR LIFE'S. THE ONLY TIME WE DO GET SICK IS FROM YOUR SO CALLED SAFE PROCESSED ENHANCED FOODS.
What a shame to read. I may just be speaking for myself, but I don't plan to take nutrition advice from a veterinarian. Interesting use of fear mongering, too. "Raw milk can make you very sick or kill you!" It may be worth including the number of illnesses and deaths caused by raw milk consumption over the last 10-20 year, and compare that to other foods that are deemed 'safe' by the government. And if the government's only argument against raw milk is that it is dangerous, then perhaps it's time cigarettes and alcohol are completely banned, as well. After all, those things are proven to be dangerous. I suppose there is no profit for the government if the population were to remain healthy, though. How about simply implementing appropriate labeling laws and allowing us to have the freedom of choice?
If some people want to drink raw milk, why stop them? Too many laws and too much money being spent to enforce them. I'm guessing more people die every year from legal liquor, cigarettes, etc than illegal raw milk. Let's all just relax and enjoy life a little!!
Pasteurized milk makes me sick. I absolutely love raw milk! :)
Love raw milk, always have. Went through 3 super healthy pregnancies drinking it and my kids (oldest being 4 now) drink it all the time. I wouldn't give them the heated, killed off stuff if you paid me to. Thanks.
Thanks for the advice. I respectfully reject it and wish the government would allow its citizens to make choices about the food they consume. I know the dairy farmers who provide my family with raw milk, raw butter, and raw cheese, and I frankly have more confidence in them and their product than in your advice about acceptable risks and the commercial industry behind pasteurized, homogenized dairy products from faceless entities that get their milk from sick cows in unsanitary conditions and believe that cooking it to kill pathogens and the milk itself is good for me. Please, keep your hands off my food.
Wait, what? How on Earth can you claim, definitively in such broad strokes that "Raw, organic milk is not safe"? Some raw milk probably isn't safe, is collected in unsanitary conditions and sold by fly-by-night folks out to make a buck. And there are plenty of cases of illness from pasteurized milk, not to mention from meat that's been processed in plants OK'ed by the USDA and even vegetables (spinach and peanuts, anyone?). Your experience as a veterinarian doesn't trump my experience with horrible abdominal cramps from pasteurized dairy compared to no reaction whatsoever from raw milk. It's food for thought, certainly, and any raw milk consumers should indeed be aware of the risks inherent in raw milk. But don't for one moment pretend that all raw milk is dangerous, or that all milk (or any food) processed according to USDA and/or FDA specifications is inherently "safe." If the illnesses and even deaths from contamination of eggs, spinach, ground beef, peanuts, and even occasionally pasteurized milk have taught us nothing else, it's that processing doesn't guarantee safety either.
My relatives had always drank from the bulk tank of their dairies w/o incident. I can't say my family has always had the same good fortune consuming products that are supposedly harmless (aspartame, various pharmaceuticals, hydrogenated oils, etc., etc.) This campaign to keep people from drinking local milk very clearly has little to do with public safety and well-being.
If drinking pasteurized milk products are perfectly safe, can someone please explain why do people get sick from them? How many recalls due to contamination we have seen for these "supposedly safe" products? The question is why do we have harmful bacteria in the milk in the first place?