Raw milk: "Russian roulette" is right
My usual morning newspaper routine includes reading the health sections on Tuesdays, and the food sections on Wednesdays. I gather the raw milk people have been plastering news outlets with press releases recently, because Sally Squires' Lean Plate Club column yesterday in the Washington Post health section was pretty direct about the risks of drinking raw milk, and the Times reported on it in today's Food section (see below).
Squires' column reports a number of recent cases of milk-borne bacterial illness in humans (there are a number of pathogenic bacteria specific to milk), and gives good data on the extent of the problem: raw milk from a quarter of the farms tested had disease-causing bacteria in it. Particularly telling regarding public understanding is Squires' online chat yesterday, where a number of people wrote in to say, basically, that they drank raw milk all the time growing up and never got sick. As I always say, though, the plural of anecdote is not data. People, did you read Squires' column?
Today, the New York Times reports in the food section on raw milk, and the struggle over whether it should be legal or not. Writer Joe Drape interviews a number of raw milk fineshmeckers, some of whom even feed it to their kids, who have apparently fallen for the improved healthfulness arguments cited in Squires' article. More enzymes? Sorry, they're destroyed as soon as they hit the stomach. Maybe it tastes better but, as the Center for Science in the Public Interest points out in the Times article, universal pasteurization led (early in the 20th century) to a precipitous drop in the proportion of food-borne illness caused by milk. Otherwise, the Times does not offer any data on risks, just perceptions.
I think many people are more likely to fall back on their own experience than to pay attention to hard numbers. Some consumers, those who are more likely to prefer small, organic farmers over large industrial farms, for example, (and I sympathize, but for other reasons) may prefer to take their chances with "natural." They might believe the hokum spouted by the Sally Fallon, who is trying to promote consumption of the who says that non-industrial dairy-produced milk has its own antimicrobial properties. Is that so? Well, until you submit your magic milk for bacterial testing along with everyone else, I'm not touching it. In this case, I'll side with the National Dairy Council official quoted by Squires, who said that that drinking raw milk is "like playing Russian roulette" - it's hard to argue with that.