Some Answers to Key Questions About Raw Milk from “The Untold Story of Milk”

Shell_Game.gifAbout once a week, I read an article with a headline similar to the one in the Saturday edition of a suburban Chicago newspaper: “State Warns of Bad Milk”. It’s a report from the Illinois Department of Public Health that a batch of raw milk from a particular farm tested positive for salmonella. Mind you, no one got sick.

How is it that these reports prompt special newspaper articles, while nothing is ever mentioned about the fact that nearly 80% of ground beef contains fecal matter, with between 7 and 12% having salmonella and listeria bacteria?

According to “The Untold Story of Milk”, “Raw milk…produced by a literal handful of small farmers, is an easy and historically vulnerable target. Thus we have the rather odd situation of scores of local, state, and federal public health workers investigating ‘outbreaks’ of generally mild gastrointestinal illness in often only a handful of individuals who may have become ill because they drank raw milk…(and) the public…continues to consume feces in most of their hamburgers…”

Though “The Untold Story of Milk” by Ron Schmid, a naturopathic physician, was published four years ago, it seems almost more relevant today than it was then. I’ve been reading through it over the last several weeks (at the suggestion of several readers), and have found it very helpful in explaining a number of things we’ve been discussing on this blog. Having said that, I’d especially recommend it to Melissa Herzog and Mary McGonigle-Martin.

While the author makes a strong case for both the health benefits of raw milk along with our individual right to choose to consume raw milk, he does so in a non-strident way, using well documented historical and research data to make his case.

Unlike some raw milk advocates, Schmid admits that people occasionally do get sick from raw milk, though he points out that the problem of food-borne illness is much more vast for other products like meat and eggs. The problem is this: “The current double standard—that calls for unreasonably strict standards for raw milk and more lenient standards for other foods—is neither rational nor just.” Problems in our beef, eggs, and even in pasteurized milk make people sick as well.

What I found most fascinating was his careful examination of the history of milk in the U.S., and how different the milk situation looks today than it did 100 years ago. Then, pasteurization was just taking hold in New York City and other major cities around the country. As pasteurization efforts, led by Nathan Strauss, one of the founders of Macy’s, became popular, raw milk still held an esteemed place in the eyes of most prominent medical and public health experts for its health benefits and curative powers. Many seemed to favor pasteurization because it reduced the risk of disease in children at a time when sanitation and refrigeration were still big problems.

In fact, for many years during the early twentieth century, there were two categories of milk: pasteurized and “certified”—the certified label being applied to raw milk that was produced under sanitary conditions and subject to regular inspection.

As the pasteurization movement gained momentum in the 1920s and 1930s, public health officials, prodded by the rapidly growing dairy industry, pushed for elimination of the certitified category. It wasn’t until the end of World War II, though, that major media like Ladies Home Journal published scare articles about the “dangers” of raw milk, and began the effort that led to raw milk being pushed off the table, so to speak, and made illegal or highly restricted in most states.

Also intriguing in this historical examination was the assumption in the early 1900s that infant mortality rates were significantly reduced by the ever more widespread pasteurization of milk. Other disease-reducing development that were taking place simultaneously, such as construction of sewerage systems; introduction of automobiles, which eliminated widespread horse excrement; refrigeration; and increasing awareness of the importance of sanitation, were ignored.

Schmid also examines the issue that has predominated on this blog at various times: “the new virulent form of E.coli…which have received considerable attention because of the particularly severe or fatal complications sometimes produced by the organisms.” He notes that an article in Applied Dairy Microbiology reported on 60 cases of E.coli 0157:H7 illness related to raw milk and more than 500 hamburger-related cases, causing the deaths of four children in 1993. He points to a paper reporting that “E.colio 0157:H7 is in 10 percent of raw milk bulk tank samples collected from 69 different Wisconsin farms. Apparently this pathogen can find its way into raw milk by fecal contamination, and clearly it can lead to serious illness. A reasonable assumption is that it is not found in healthy animals fed on green grass or hay.” So while Schmid doesn’t have an answer for how it showed up in the California milk that has been blamed for sickening the five children, he suggests that the problem is much worse in other foods and, once again, raw milk takes an inordinate amount of blame.

Schmid’s larger point, though, is that the absence of raw milk and other such vital foods from Americans’ diets has weakened their immune systems and made them more vulnerable to both chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes, and to food poisoning. Back to the Salmonella-in-raw-milk report I opened with. Schmit says that “Salmonella is literally everywere (so) there is no point in sanitizing the food supply because contamination with Salmonella and other organisms can just as easily occur after pasteurization, irradiation, or whatever other process is used to sanitize. (Also) the individuals who become ill as a result of exposure do so because their immune systems are functioning abnormally.”  He concludes that "studies confirm the fact that raw milk drinkers develop prowerful immunity and resistance to pathogenic organisms."

There is much more to this informative book than I can capture here. It’s excellent reading for anyone interested in the role of raw milk as symbolic of much that is wrong with our food and health system today.

20 comments to Some Answers to Key Questions About Raw Milk from “The Untold Story of Milk”

  • MC
    Eggs and meat can be cooked. Cooking it properly kills bacteria. I doubt anyone buys raw milk, takes it home and cooks. it.!

    Actually I met a gentleman over the weekend and he is from Mexico. He told me that when he was a kid, his family would get their milk straight from the farm. His mother would take the milk home and boil it to kill the bacteria. Im sure this was probably a farm that doesnt handle the milk the way dairies do now but all the same, he told me that they would NEVER drink the milk without cooking it first. Everyone at the table cringed at the thought of drinking milk right from the cow but I explained that this does happen. Most people that I come in contact with, whether health conscience or not, all have the same reaction when I tell the story of Lauren and what she got sick from.

    I dont know too many people that eat raw eggs or undercooked meat anymore.!

    David, I will read that article that you mentioned in your post.


  • Alexandros P
    All foods can be cooked.
    That doesn’t mean consumers should be forced to deal with contaminated foods.

    Tartare, carpaccio, sushi, egg nog, and mayonaise/aioli are all examples of foods that are eaten raw with uncooked ingredients.

    In this day and age, we cannot trust the ingredients that are used to make these foods, unless we seek high end stores or restaurants, or go far out of our way to find farmers who take care of the foods they grow.
    This is simply not right!
    Foods that come from factory farms are filthy with bacteria and the only reason people know to treat them like medical waste is because we’ve been told over and over again to do so, but that’s not right!
    We should be given clean food that does not need irradiation.

    It’s not like this everywhere in the world, however.

    I have an uncle in Greece that makes sun dried sausages, without nitrates or nitrites, and he eats them after curing- no cooking.
    My dad tried the same recipe here in the US with supermarket meat and the sausage spoiled in just a few hours. We were left with a rancid disgusting mess.

    Maybe the problem is that there are too many people to feed for all the meat to be clean.
    In that case, what should be said for spinach or peanut butter, not to mention other foods that have caused problems in the past, like cooked meat?

  • miguel
    Another bacteria that is fast becoming all pervasive(like salmonella) is Methicillin resistant Staph Aureus (MRSA).It spreads on the wind from the manure in factory farms. It inhabits the nose and throat and waits for an oportunity to attack the lungs. A virus will cause enough inflammation to let the bacteria move into the lungs.

    Not only does this travel through the air,It also contaminates the meat from these farms and infects the consumer or chef that prepares the food.

    This is a much greater risk to everyone than raw milk.Why isn’t the health department alerting people to this danger???

    You should be aware that many of the farmers and animals you depend on for your alternative to factory farmed foods are living next to these factory farms and are suffering a regular assault of these "superbugs".I consider this a form of biological warfare.To be downwind from one of these factory farms is becoming more difficult every day as the bacteria in the air continues to develope resistance to every medication they treat the animals with.
    I read somewhere that the mega farms would agree to stop giving the animals medication that only makes them grow faster.They would still use medications to treat illness. This might sound like a step in the right direction until you understand that any animal in that situation is ill all of it’s short life.

  • Mary McGonigle-Martin
    I echo what Melissa said about boiling the milk. When we were in the hospital, one of our doctors was from South America and the other from the Philippines. The two doctors were reminiscing about their childhood memories of milk. They said their mothers always boiled the raw milk before drinking it. It was common practice because everyone knew you could get sick from the milk. They basically stated that no one would ever consider drinking milk without boiling it first. One doctor said that his mother would sometimes boil it twice just to make sure it was O.K. to drink.

    At least Melissa didnt have to deal with the humiliation of having doctors look at you saying, You gave your child raw milk. Thats why hes sick. You should never drink raw milk! Of course this was always discussed in front of Chris. In the hospital, Chris actually told me it was my fault he was sick. He was very angry! What do you say to your child, who has been hospitalized for nearly two month, when he asks you, Why did you make me drink the milk with the bad bugs? Why did God make bad bugs?

    All I could do was cry! I didnt have an answer.

  • miguel
    I have lived in Colombia.When I was there I drank raw milk straight from the cow without any problem. The people in town knew that they had to boil the milk because it was a common occurance for the truck delivering the milk to town to stop at the river and add some water to the milk cans to increase his income a little.
    Milk straight from the cow was actually the only safe milk to drink.River water in Colombia would make anyone violently ill fairly immediately after drinking it.

    People used to joke about finding minnows in the milk.

  • Steve Bemis
    A distinction that becomes more important as we discuss the subject of raw milk, is the distinction commonly understood but seldom made explicit. Namely, we need to distinguish between raw milk that has been produced with the intention of NOT being pasteurized (cows fed grass, not grain, to minimize or eliminate the chance of fecal contamination with e coli 0157:e7), rigorous herd screening and culling for Johnes (which is not removed by pasteurization in any case), no "growth" antibiotics or hormones, probably not Holsteins, etc. etc. and, on the other hand, milk which is produced RELYING on the need for pasteurization. It would not be smart for anyone to drink raw milk produced in large operations which rely on pasteurization to get the SPC below 20,000 bacteria forming colonies, which is the standard for pasteurization. On the other hand, raw milk (shall we call it something else, maybe? "fresh unprocessed milk" or the like) which comes from grass-fed animals which have counts below 20,000 right from the cow, handled and refrigerated properly, is simply a different product. Perhaps we should simply call it something different (in Schmid’s history, this would be "certified" milk) to distinguish it from the raw milk which is produced under conditions which clearly require it to be pasteurized.
  • MC

    I remember the doctors just shaking their heads when they heard Lauren drank raw milk.
    I dont know what they said to the ones that gave it to her. They never shared that stuff with me. They only went on the news and announced that I gave Lauren raw meat. Like I said before, they must have had hidden cameras in my house that saw the RAW meat I gave her. HAHAHAH.

  • Mary McGonigle-Martin
    Miguel and both make excellent points.
  • Lynn_M Lynn_M
    I can’t find the particular blog now, but someone, I believe Mary McGonigle Martin, was previously inquiring about the use of diluted chlorox as a disinfectant on vegetables and fruits.

    A less toxic and reportedly even more effective disinfectant is to spray vinegar and hydrogen peroxide on the food or surface to be disinfected. Spray one and then the other, the order doesn’t matter, but don’t mix the two together. See for more information. This combo takes out e.coli and other bacteria.

  • Lynn_M Lynn_M
    I’m one of those people that Melissa would think crazy, because I eat raw eggs and cook my burgers and steaks rare. However, I buy my eggs from a farm family that grows their own grains and sells eggs from their chickens as a side venture for their school age daughter. The burgers are from buffalo raised grain-free and the meat is shipped frozen to me. I’ve done this for 6 years, nary a hint of bacterial illness in myself or my husband.

    Something else I have done for 6 years is regularly drink kefir I culture myself from raw milk obtained from a local farmer with 2 milk cows. Research has shown that the complex bacteria/yeast colony in kefir can wipe out pathogenic bacteria in the milk sample as well as provide probiotic activity in the body. I don’t drink pasteurized milk and I kefir all raw milk and raw cream before I consume it, either as a drink, to make sourdough waffles/pancakes or cakes, and in homemade ice cream. I think of the kefir culturing as my safety net.

  • Cord
    MC says:"I dont know too many people that eat raw eggs or undercooked meat anymore.!"

    But I know hardly anyone who doesn’t, especially children! I mean, who doesn’t lick the bowl after the cake’s in the oven, or pinch a bite (or three) of the cookie dough (and does anyone *really* worry about the raw eggs when they do so?)? What we do in theory and in practice are often wildly different, which is why it’s so important for the food to be raised in healthy conditions to begin with.

    This article illustrates it beautifully:

  • Mac
    This has been another great posting and follow up comments by everyone. As I’ve mentioned before, the depth of knowledge and experience that is shared here is really amazing, and so well articulated, too. I get so much help from what is shared here by everyone. I especially liked Steves’ reminder to distingush between raw milk produced with great care for direct consumption and the raw milk produced with reliance on pasturization to make up for the lack of care in the production of it. Two very different products, when you understand the facts. I wish the people at the govt agencies which are trying to deny us our choice to drink raw milk would really get this point, but it seems they have no interest in even trying to understand this, which would mean admitting that they do not know what they claim to know.
  • Anna
    I’ve been reading The Untold Story of Milk on and off for the past two years; I’m nearly finished. I think it’s a great book (even for non-raw consumers) and the only reason it is taking so long is that I am reading several other books, too. I agree with David, that the tone of the book is excellent, informative about all sorts of things connected to dairy, without being strident. The historical perspective, not just of milk, but of the changes in the medical and public health systems is a very important part of the story. The book is extremely well documented, too, so it is possible to look further into the sources.

    Yes, my family does consume raw eggs now and then (a few times a month, raw yolks more often than raw whites) in homemade mayo, ice cream, smoothies, etc., although that has only come about since finding a local small family farm source. I hope to have a few laying chickens myself soon, too. I have several raw meat recipes I would like to try (from the Nourishing Traditions cookbook) but I am waiting until I am more sure of my non-commercial meat sources.

    I do gently cook some of our raw milk, but only for certain purposes (outside of obvious things, like cream-based soups and sauces, baked custards, etc.), such as in cheese or yogurt making, where the competition from the natural bacteria will compete too much with the culture I am adding. And of course, the milk is cooked when steamed for a latt, cappuccino, or hot cocoa. But I don’t heat the milk to make it "safe". I find the taste of plain cooked milk very unappetizing, which is probably why we don’t like the taste of pasteurized milk, either. Would I drink raw milk from any source? No.

    A few years ago I realized I was tired of being afraid of food from all the media conditioning (perhaps we should call it "bio-haz-mat" instead of food) so I started to look for less conventional sources, shorter farm-to-table journeys, and less processing. Reducing our dependence on convenience foods hasn’t been entirely smooth, but I can see we are benefiting in a variety of ways, both obvious and subtle. My husband and I have both lost our "spare tires". My blood sugar problems are much improved, far closer to normal, and more stable, without medication. My 8 yo son has more realistic notion of what real food is and where it comes from ("can I have some baked custard? It’s mostly eggs and milk.", he said earlier this week). The few illnesses we get (not often, usually mild, and not long-lasting) are viral, although my husband did probably get a mild bacterial bug last week after a business dinner at a very nice restaurant (I think my husband is the most susceptible to these things because he eats out more often due to business dinners and travel).

    Even when I began to feed our two cats a homemade raw chicken diet 18 months ago, we had no problems despite using "risky" food ingredients (& it stopped all signs of Chronic Renal Failure in our our older cat). The vet objected strenously, and insisted that even if I could make a balanced cat food, the raw cat food would make our family sick, too. We haven’t gotten sick from the cats or their food (with ordinary hygiene precautions) and the cats are thriving. So I have learned to take medical opinions with a grain of salt, especially uninformed advice.

    It’s hard to objectively say how much our own health has improved because of the changes I’ve made, but I can’t find even one way that it has been harmed us, even as I have introduced "risky" foods like raw eggs, raw dairy, homemade cheese, etc. (I’m more concerned about the junk fed to my kid at other homes and at the school parties, frankly). I am encouraged to try homemade sausage, too. Perhaps, it is the incremental nature of these additions, at the same time eliminating the industrial sources of risky foods, that prevents problems.

  • MC
    I dont think anyone crazy for eating whatever they wish. To each his own is my feeling on it.

    I will say to Cord though that I am very careful about letting my children lick the cake mix bowl or eat raw cookie dough. I DONT LET THEM DO IT.

    Mary, I didnt finish my post to you last night. I hit create before I got to say to you that I know you must have felt terrible about the milk but I also know that you were doing what you thought was best for Chris. The doctors, while they should talk about the risks of the milk, should not have made you feel badly about it. I would say it is safe to say that because its not as popular as pastuerized milk, they were probably just surprised.

    I was upset because I was being told by the people that gave it to her that I was ignorant for not knowing how raw milk cures ADD and my daughter doesnt even have ADD. GO FIGURE. Plus the fact that they waited 8 days and made a big deal about the raw hamburger meat.!

    Ill get to calling you real soon. Ive been so busy these last few weeks. Hope Chris is doing well.

  • Mary McGonigle-Martin
    Thanks Lynn for the article on vinegar and hyrogen peroxide. Maybe I will try this on lettuce and spinach so that I can give Chris salad again.
  • Anna

    I absolutely agree with you that the claims that raw milk cures everything from ADD to eczema are probably mostly wishful thinking or at least simplistic and not always well-informed. I still have mild ezcema :-). And "cure" is an interesting word, which means different things to different people. Some conditions have no cure (yet), but can be managed well enough to seem "cured". For instance, If I don’t eat a certain way, I am hyperglycemic (borderline pre-diabetic/diabetic), but if I eat the right foods, my blood sugar stays in the "normal" range. Am I cured? No, just well-managed. The hyperglycemia is back right away with the wrong diet or a Glucose Tolerance Test.

    But I do think many doctors would blame a parent who feeds raw milk to a child. MDs are more often very uncomfortable (and often uninformed) and even judgmental about anything outside of their often narrow range of education/experience.

    We still go to the pediatrician I chose when I was pregnant. I would choose differently if doing it again. Last summer my son got a pretty severe UTI after a camping trip with his aunt and cousins, probably due to dehydration (he didn’t like the lemonade flavoring added to the filtered/treated Adirondack Mountain stream water and waited days before telling anyone of his discomfort). Because UTIs are uncommon in boys, the pediatrician ordered an ultrasound and VCUG test to see if there were anatomical or functional "issues". The VCUG showed some reflux of urine into one kidney; no anatomical problems were found. The "standard protocol" for that is to administer a daily low dose of antibiotics for one year, then retest, repeating yearly as long as necessary. Most kids eventually "grow out of it". The prophylactic antiobitics are to make sure the urine is sterile so that if it reluxes it doesn’t scar the kidney.

    Well, we had concerns with that, as a year of antibiotics has a profound negative effect on gut health, as well as other parts of the body. Creating resistant bacteria is another issue. And I even wonder how useful the "standard" VCUG test is. They filled his bladder so full of contrast fluid (via catheter), that he could barely pee when he was supposed to during the test, the pressure was so great. How do we know the pressure during the test doesn’t force the urine up into the kidney, causing the reflux, but it doesn’t happen during normal urination? Think of a water ballon with two holes, the liquid comes out of both holes, not just one. The test just seemed very unscientific. He had so much fluid in him it took the rest of the day to pee it all out. And the forms I signed admitted that little is known about the results of this test on "normal" kids (i.e., those without presenting issues like UTIs), because no "control" tests are done on asymptomatic kids because the test is so uncomfortable.

    Of course we wanted to avoid damage to his kidneys, so we asked the doctor to order monthly urinalysis instead, to monitor the sterility of his urine. It isn’t as convenient as a daily dose of antibiotics, but it lets us know that if the urine does reflux, it is still sterile. The doctor’s response was that the other way was the accepted standard protocol (and he looked at me like I was one of those "crazy mothers". In fact, it was my husband (the biochemist) who had the biggest issue with long-term prophylactic antibiotics. But I’m the one who had to make the case to the doctor; eventually he agreed to the frequent urinalysis tests, but I could tell I was being humored and perhaps considered a bit "nutty".

    And no, I don’t volunteer to this doctor that we consume raw milk, that I make all kinds of old fashioned "bacteria filled" foods (like sauerkraut and homemade cheese, yogurt, etc.). There has been no need for him to know, nor do I think it would be good for him to know that at this point. It was clear to me when he told me that there are "essential" carbohydrates for kids that his nutrition knowledge was pretty skimpy. So I don’t go to him for nutrition advice. For other typical kids things he is generally ok. But if the other "somewhat more holistic-minded" pediatrician in the office was accepting new patients I would probably switch in a heartbeat.

  • MC

    Do you think that when my daughter got sick the people that gave her the milk kept should have kept their silence about it until Chris Martin got to the hospital with the same thing and he had the same MILK? I was not upset that she was given the milk as much as I was upset that they witheld the information from me and doctors.

    I dont think the doctors were BLAMING Mary I just think that it was more of a surprise to them. Like it was to me. I dont want to sound stupid, but when I heard the words RAW MILK…..I was stunned. I didnt think you could buy such a thing in a grocery store. I mean come on, you have to give the benefit of the doubt to the majority of people that drink PASTEURIZED MILK. Again, I am not knocking drinking the milk. I am trying to give you all the perspective of the PASTEURIZED MILK DRINKER. As well, we all have the right to choose to drink our milk in that way.

    Remember too that this information was witheld from me and the doctors for quite a while and the topping on the cake was that the people that gave it to her, were telling EVERYONE they could, even the media, that she was given RAW meat.

    If all of you can still get your milk, what is the big deal?? You are always going to have people for and against stuff. That is life. If you still have access to it…dont worry about it. Drink up. The government is always going to step in when people get sick.

  • Michael J. "Mickey" Richard
    "On the other side was Louis Pasteur and his germ theory. He not only came up with a method to kill microorganisms in milk, but also in wine."

    I believe that Pasteur intended his process to be used for wine, and was shocked when they pasteurized milk, saying something along the order of "What have they done to my perfect food?"…

    I can’t recall if I read that on the WPF site, or maybe in Nina Planck’s fine book "Real Food – What To Eat and Why" –

  • Anna

    No, I absolutely don’t think that anyone should withhold information when sickness occurs. I would absolutely be hopping mad about that. You are quite justified. I just don’t share everything when it isn’t pertinent, because I know that a lot of our foods just seems too weird to many people, especially conventional MDs. It is a topic I have learned to tiptoe into.

    I do find it quite alarming that with all the pathogenic E. coli food illnesses in various undercooked and fresh foods in this country over the past two decades, that the medical community can’t get the message out to their own members to hold off on antibiotics until the pathogen is identified. That is the larger tragedy to me. It makes me wonder what else I need to learn about before we have an urgent medical crisis of our own (not just about food, but also about cardiovascular disease or whatever may strike).

    In the last year or two, my faith has weakened that M.D., D.O.s, etc., will nearly always have the right information at the right time. Right now, I try to stay informed about our health issues that I already know about, but I dread the day when I am faced with no knowledge and no time to learn more and I have to rely on a doctor to inform me. I don’t mean to paint all doctors with the same brush, but sometimes it’s the luck of the draw and the odds don’t seem so good anymore.

    Back to that pesky risk thing again … 🙂

  • MC

    In Lauren’s case the doctors did tell us that they could not give her any antibiotics. Lauren was not mistreated the way Chris Martin was. And yes, while in the hospital, Chris was a lot sicker than Lauren. It seems that Chris is not having the complications Lauren is having now.

    The doctors took very good care of her. I have no complaints there. The antibiotic story was told by the people that gave her the milk. They were trying so hard to steer the attention away from the milk. I can see your point in being careful what you say….but to totally leave the facts out….was not right. So the real BLAME GAME that they call it…was started by…….THEM.

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