Say what you will about food poison lawyer Bill Marler, he’s done an impressive job of establishing his main blog (his law firm runs some dozens) as a scientific resource that is cited by public health and regulatory officials in the same breath with academic journals when it comes to discussions about raw milk. At the American Veterinary Medical Association symposium on raw milk in July, a number of speakers cited his blog’s literature reviews—pros and cons—on raw milk in their presentations.
Now, you could argue that’s a commentary on the sad state of affairs in the arena of research affecting raw milk, where much of the academic literature essentially amounts to propaganda and diatribes that mouth the long-term fear campaigns mounted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. But clearly, the lawyer has done some work to surround himself with credible scientific types who have helped differentiate his writings so that they discuss the issue more rationally than other mainstream sources.
I make these observations because the Marler blog’s latest venture in the raw milk arena is a four-part series comparing the food safety records of pasteurized and unpasteurized milk—the first an overview, and the second an examination of the challenge of pathogens in raw and pasteurized milk. The series is technically a response to the Weston A. Price Foundation, and its response to earlier literature reviews on the Marler blog.(A response to a response—got that?)
While I have no doubt this series will conclude that pasteurized milk is much safer than raw milk, the current posting on the pathogen challenge is intriguing for some new, and seemingly open-minded, things it says.
- There’s an acknowledgment of the contention by raw milk proponents that there are two kinds of raw milk in this country—the stuff produced by conventional dairies that is often contaminated, and the stuff produced by raw dairies, this is much less frequently contaminated because the farmers take a number of special steps ranging from animal diet to special sanitation measures to protect against pathogens. In the process, the Marler blog piece takes direct issue with a recent paper in the journal, Foodborne Pathogens and Disease. As Steve Bemis noted in a comment on my previous post, that paper used data about milk from conventional dairy bulk tanks to argue that raw milk is inherently dangerous. “The Weston A. Price Foundation has raised a valid concern about using these surveys when assessing the occurrence of foodborne pathogens in commercial raw milk (e.g., raw milk sold legally on- or off-farm in the US),” it states.
- It acknowledges that pasteurized milk can be seriously contaminated. It points to a 1984 and a 2000 case to illustrate how contamination usually occurs.
- It makes important distinctions in the arguments over competitive exclusion. For example, it points out that refrigeration is an important determinant in whether pathogens multiply in all milk, whether conventional or from grass-fed cows. But rather than simply de-bunking the notion of grass-fed milk overwhelming pathogens, it points out that the research on this subject is incomplete in terms of drawing big conclusions. “Briefly, the scientific evidence at this time does not support a broad conclusion that grass feeding significantly and consistently reduces the risk of E. coli O157:H7 or other dangerous foodborne pathogens from entering the food chain. More importantly, none of the surveys or experiments that WAPF cites examined raw milk operations, and instead focused primarily on dietary effects for cattle in feedlot conditions.”
Now, admittedly, this paper will irritate raw milk proponents on a number of counts. For example, it suggests that safely produced raw milk doesn’t have probiotic properties because it doesn’t in its purest state contain significant amounts of either good or bad bacteria.
Indeed, it makes this intriguing observation: “Sanitation during milking and processing at a raw milk dairy to prevent pathogens from entering the milk will very likely also lower the levels of probiotic bacteria…studies are needed to measure the species and concentration of ‘good’ bacteria in commercial raw dairy products to determine if they are sufficient to confer a probiotic effect.”
Whatever the merits of that argument, the review makes no allowance for the presence of naturally occurring enzymes, nor for the adverse effects on milk chemistry from pasteurization. Nor does it allow for the many anecdotal examples of health benefits from raw milk that consumers have reported.
One final item worth noting: this review by the Marler blog comes on the heels of the paper I referred to in the journal, Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, which also shows signs of flexibility on the subject of raw milk (and contains a number of interesting charts about raw milk availability and coliform standards around the country). Rather than simply arguing for a blanket avoidance of raw milk, it grudgingly allows that consumers are and will continue to demand raw milk, and concludes, “Dairy producers supplying raw milk must be well informed on the risks and liabilities associated with the milk they sell. Enhanced educational efforts targeting consumers is essential…”
It concludes on a negative note: “While all these efforts may be able to reduce the risks associated with rawmilk consumption, the only sure way to prevent raw milk–associated foodborne illness is for consumers to refrain from drinking raw milk.”
It’s easy to ridicule these small openings in the discussion, but I see them as holding significance. For someone like Bill Marler, who has close ties to the regulators and public health community, to deviate from the party line as much as he does begins to send a message of some level of acceptance of the idea that raw milk can be produced safely. Progress oten comes in small steps.
There is some pretty amazing commentary following my previous post. Is that an apology from Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures Dairy Co. to Mary McGonigle-Martin? She makes a strong argument for changes to the story about her case from the Weston A. Price Foundation. We catch another glimpse of the softer, and inspiring, side of Hugh Betcha. We learn Lykke not only isn’t from the CIA, but is trying to live a sustainable model. And lots more about the double standards employed by the public health community to raw milk.