Anyone out there remember Elsie the cow? She was the cartoon mascot of the Borden Dairy Company back when I was a kid, and her smiling face—accented with a necklace of flowers and superimposed upon a large yellow daisy—greeted me every day on the school lunch tray. You probably had a cartoon cow on your milk carton too. Maybe not Elsie, but some other cute bovine dreamed up by the marketing gurus of your regional dairy.
And so… it’s no wonder that our earliest memory of a dairy farm brings to mind an idyllic scene of smiling cows romping around flowered fields and a freshly-painted barn.
Then we grew up and watched the Netflix documentaries.
Turns out those flowered fields were really mud pits next to a filthy corrugated structure that would never pass for a barn. And romping? No way. The cows were packed in too tight to move! Add in stories of steroid injections and antibiotics and it’s easy to see how the organic milk bandwagon got started.
Truth be told, my family jumped on that one… along with countless friends and neighbors… and we are happily paying a little more for a gallon of milk that comes from something a bit closer to my childhood vision of a dairy farm.
But now there are those who want to turn back the clock even further. Putting the cows to pasture and eliminating steroids and antibiotics wasn’t enough. They want raw milk… straight from the cow!
That may be fine if you can sterilize an utter and drink from the animal itself. But let’s face it, few of us have that opportunity. By the time raw milk makes its way to your breakfast bowl, it has passed through machines and containers and hands. It has also been stored, and this storage is a big problem because microorganisms love milk and reproduce in it abundantly.
This isn’t a new problem.
In the early 1900’s, raw milk became recognized as a significant source of disease. In fact, between 1912 and 1937, some 65,000 people died of tuberculosis contracted from consuming raw milk in England and Wales. That’s when famed microbiologist Louis Pasteur stepped in. His process of heating the milk between pumping and storage decreased the numbers of bacteria and the incidence of disease.
His plan has worked well for decades. But now we have a new problem… well-intentioned post-moderns who want to muck it up. They say tuberculosis isn’t a real threat in milk today, and even if someone contracted tuberculosis from milk, the disease is easily treated with twenty-first century drugs.
Turns out I agree—you’d be hard pressed to find tuberculosis hanging out on your friendly neighborhood farm. But you will find plenty of other bacteria there, including salmonella, campylobacter, and the deadly 0157 strain of E.coli. These bacteria are just as happy to grow in milk as tuberculosis, and it’s the pasteurization process that stops them in their tracks.
So how real is this threat today? Well, from 1998 through 2009, there were 93 recorded outbreaks of disease resulting from the consumption of raw milk in the United States. 1,837 people were affected, leading to 195 hospitalizations and two deaths. These may not seem like high numbers (unless, of course, one of those deaths happens to be you), but consider this: how many people were consuming raw milk between 1998 and 2009? Not many. Will the numbers of disease and death increase if we all jump on THIS bandwagon? Absolutely!
By the way, raw milk can also transmit viruses. This includes norovirus, which is responsible for over 700 U.S. deaths each year.
Remember those post-moderns? They have one more gripe. They say the pasteurization process decreases nutrients and increases the incidence of lactose intolerance. But these claims are simply not true. Well-designed studies have repeatedly shown that raw milk and pasteurized milk contain equivalent levels of proteins, carbohydrates, calcium, vitamins and lactose-reducing enzymes. The only thing missing after pasteurization is the harmful microorganisms.
So go organic if you must, but please… for the sake of your family’s health… don’t go raw!
Dr Mike Patrick is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Ohio State University College of Medicine and Medical Director of Interactive Media for Nationwide Children's Hospital. Since 2006, he has hosted the award-winning PediaCast, a pediatric podcast for parents. Dr Mike also produces a national podcast for healthcare providers—PediaCast CME, which explores general pediatric and faculty development topics and offers free AMA PRA Category 1 Credit™ to listeners.
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