For people seeking a healthier lifestyle, organic foods are a popular choice. Proponents of organic foods choose unprocessed foods free from pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics and additives. Raw, unpasteurized and unprocessed milk is associated with this movement by those who swear by the perceived nutritional benefits, taste and the hope that raw milk can prevent ailments such as lactose intolerance. However, until evidence-based research demonstrates that raw milk is a nutrient rich, disease-curing super food that uses its “good bacteria” to kill the “bad bacteria” within, public health professionals should seek and defend policy restricting raw milk sales.
In 2011 alone, raw milk-related outbreaks spanned across the United States, arising in Alaska, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. Raw milk contaminated with the bacteria campylobacter was a part of several of these outbreaks. In Wisconsin, 16 people--including 9 children--became ill from campylobacter after drinking raw milk served at a fourth grade school event.
States that allow the sale of raw milk have a higher occurrence of raw milk-related outbreaks. Not surprisingly, all of the states that experienced outbreaks, except Alaska and North Carolina, allow the sale of raw milk in retail stores. [11/22/11 editor’s note: Some states allow the sale of raw milk on farms but not in retail stores.] Alaska, despite banning raw milk sales, allows residents to obtain raw milk through ownership in cow sharing programs.
North Carolina is one of 20 states that have completely banned the sale of raw milk, yet residents nevertheless have suffered from illness caused by raw milk, illustrating a problem with variations among state regulations. The prohibition in North Carolina is undermined by the legal sales to residents in neighboring South Carolina. The recent outbreak in North Carolina was linked to campylobacter contamination in raw milk from a South Carolina farm.
Surprisingly, despite evidence demonstrating that raw milk can be a serious public health concern, proponents of raw milk have managed to chip away at policies that are in place to protect the public’s health. Many state legislatures are considering legislation that would make raw milk more accessible. And earlier this month, raw milk advocates protested outside FDA offices, insisting that raw milk is safe and that policies should not prohibit it from interstate commerce.
Raw milk can become easily contaminated with harmful pathogens from udder infections, fecal matter and dirt located on udders, and from the milking equipment itself. These pathogens include E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, norovirus and giardia, which can cause vomiting, diarrhea, organ failure and even death. In a perfect world, farm animals would never lie in their own manure or get sick and farmers would always use sterile equipment. In reality, even the most conscientious farmer can never truly ensure that raw milk is pathogen-free. Pasteurization, a heat-treating process that removes bacteria from milk, is the only solution to this problem.
The federal and state governments have not underestimated the value of pasteurization of milk to public health. The FDA banned the interstate sale of raw milk in 1987. The sale of raw milk is also regulated in every state with some states adopting in part or in full the FDA’s Pasteurized Milk Ordinance.
States impose varying levels of regulation of raw milk sales as some allow the sale of raw milk at retail establishments and others limit sales to the farm. Some states impose signage, labeling and storage requirements so consumers are aware that they are purchasing raw milk, while many require that raw milk sellers obtain a permit. These regulations are in place to prevent outbreaks and to try to ensure quality controls on a product that can be inherently unsanitary.
Ultimately, the best public health policies are cultivated from sound evidence. Based on the ongoing outbreaks and known risks of raw milk, public health professionals should remain persistent in protecting strict regulations on the sales of raw milk in their state, or seek to tighten laws that permit such sales. For the misinformed proponents, unfortunately, it may take a trip to the hospital to change their minds about drinking raw milk.
For more information on raw milk regulations by state, see Raw Milk Regulations and Statutes--50 State Compilation and Fact sheet--Raw Milk: The Risks of Consumption and State Regulation of Sales.
This blog was prepared by Nicole Grimm, student attorney in the Public Health Law Clinic at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, supervised by Kathleen Hoke Dachille, director of the Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.